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Why Should We Underwrite Russian Rearmament?

Gabriel Schoenfeld

It was Clare Boothe Luce who came up with the aphorism “No good deed goes unpunished.” This maxim accurately sums up U.S. efforts to help Russia dismantle its aging nuclear arsenal.

When the Soviet Union dissolved two decades ago, its component pieces were saddled with the formidable task of picking up the fragments of a huge nuclear-weapons stockpile. Fears arose across the world that nuclear warheads and/or radioactive material might get lost or stolen.

The American response was the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, co-sponsored by Sam Nunn, then a Democrat from Georgia, and Richard Lugar (R., Ind.) and enacted by Congress in 1991. A key aim was to help Russia and the other former Soviet states destroy existing stocks of weapons of mass destruction. For nearly two decades we’ve spent several hundred million dollars a year to help Russia with a variety of tasks, including dismantling its nuclear weapons.

At the time, this was a creative approach to a pressing international problem. In the throes of profound upheaval, Moscow lacked the resources to secure its own forces and fulfill this basic obligation to the world community. Helping was a prudent expenditure.

But that was then. What about now?

Nunn-Lugar continues to be hailed by Sen. Lugar, among others, as “an engine of nonproliferation cooperation” that on the basis of mutual interest can bring about “extraordinary outcomes.” Across the political spectrum, the program has come to enjoy an almost sacrosanct status. Critical voices are seldom heardyet the rationale for continuing the Russian leg of this program has vanished.

In the first place, Russia is no longer in upheaval. The regime is certainly not the democracy of our fervent hopes. Yet however we judge Russia’s internal arrangements, there is little question that, unlike what we witnessed in the 1990s, this is a relatively stable political and social order.

Another factor is Russia’s economic resurgence. Over the past decade, the country has enjoyed remarkable growth, with GDP (measured in U.S. dollars) nearly doubling. To be sure, it has been slammed by the global recession and especially by slack prices of its chief exports, oil and gas. But the carbon-fuel market has now bounced back, and the Russian economy promises to bounce back with it.

Finally, and most critically, is the direction of Russian military spending. It had dwindled in the 1990s but is now soaring. The Russian defense budget nearly quadrupled from 2001 through 2007. Over the past few years, it has increased annually by between 20% and 30%. Russia, President Dimitry Medvedev announced in March, is embarking on a “comprehensive rearmament.”

These were not idle words. Russia has been constructing the new Topol-M, a modern intercontinental ballistic missile. It continues to move forward with the new sea-launched Bulava ballistic missile to be carried aboard the equally new and state-of-the-art Borey nuclear-powered submarine. It has resumed production of its Tupolev-160 supersonic strategic bomber. Although the total size of Russia’s arsenal is not expected to growold systems are being retired as new ones arrivethe net effect will be a more effective strategic nuclear force.

Money is fungible. If the U.S. were not defraying the costs of safeguarding or dismantling Russia’s deteriorating weapons of mass destruction, Moscow would be compelled to do so out of its own pocket. Russia has an interest even more compelling than ours in the safety and surety of its nuclear systems. Thanks to political stability and a measure of prosperityenough, certainly, to commence “comprehensive rearmament” Moscow is now in a position to take care of such problems on its own.

Of course, the Russians much prefer our assistance. And why wouldn’t they smile at a program that in effect pays for a build-up of their military even as we build down ours?

On his Web site, Sen. Lugar has a “scorecard” of all the Russian weapons systems dismantled thanks to the program that bears his name. Conspicuously missing is a record of all the new weapons systems added to the Russian arsenal as we pick up the tab for taking their old ones apart.

Some of those new systems are pointed directly at us. Mrs. Luce has been proved right again: No good deed goes unpunished.

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