The Nation has warned repeatedly that the Bush Administration was threatening to undermine perhaps the best chance in a generation for a cooperative relationship with Russia that would make the world safer. The US-Russian nuclear weapons reduction agreement, announced May 13 and scheduled to be signed when George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Moscow on May 24, confirms our worst fears–and indeed may even create new dangers.

An unprecedented kind of cooperation between the two former cold war rivals is essential because of the disintegration of Russia’s Soviet-era nuclear infrastructures, a development that has made the dangers of nuclear proliferation and accidents even greater than they were during the cold war. The only solution is very deep, rapid and irreversible cuts in the number of nuclear weapons in both countries, along with taking those that remain off hairtrigger alert. This treaty, which was virtually dictated to an impoverished and militarily weak Russia by the Bush Administration, falls far short of that goal–it doesn’t even mention de-alerting–and thus represents a potentially tragic lost opportunity.

The treaty calls for each side to reduce its strategic warheads from about 6,000 to between 2,200 and 1,700. On the surface, those cuts may seem to be “historic,” as the White House is claiming. Leaving aside the fact that the lower numbers are still obscenely high, the reductions are not to be realized until 2012, and during that ten-year period neither side is obliged to make cuts on a specified schedule. Since the agreement also permits either side to withdraw from the treaty with three months’ notice, the United States or Russia could legally carry out few or no reductions for almost a decade and then abrogate the treaty before it expires. (The withdrawal clause was also insisted upon by the habitually unilateralist Bush Administration; because the treaty was all but imposed on Putin, it’s unlikely to have much strong or lasting support in Moscow in any case.) Worse, reductions made may turn out to be virtual because neither side, on White House insistence, is required to destroy its decommissioned warheads–it may store as many as it wishes, as Washington has made clear it intends to do. Moscow will almost certainly do the same, and, given the widely recognized lack of security at its storage facilities, will thus multiply the already considerable risk of Russia’s nuclear devices falling into the wrong hands–that is, fueling the danger of proliferation that has been especially alarming since September 11.

Nor will a treaty that does not provide for irreversible nuclear weapons cuts diminish Moscow’s sense of insecurity, already exacerbated by the Bush Administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty, its determination to build a missile defense system and its steady military encirclement of Russia. (By 2003 there will be a US or NATO presence in at least nine of the fifteen former Soviet republics.) This is hardly offset by Russia’s new quasi-deliberative role in NATO on select issues and will make Moscow even more reluctant to destroy its nuclear weapons unless Washington does.

Yet another danger may lurk beneath the misleading facade of the Bush Administration’s “historic” treaty. The agreement does not even mention the thousands of small, tactical nuclear weapons on both sides. The omission is ominous in two respects. Such weapons are more vulnerable to theft and other kinds of proliferation. And, as we learned when the Administration’s new nuclear doctrine was leaked in March, the Pentagon is devising scenarios for the early use of such weapons and thus for building new ones. That would require a resumption of nuclear testing, and Moscow would probably follow suit. The result would be a new and more dangerous nuclear arms race: The first one built nuclear weapons not for use but as deterrents; the new race would build nuclear weapons with the intention of using them.

In announcing the agreement, Bush claimed that it “will liquidate the legacy of the cold war” and “begin the new era of US-Russian relationships.” In fact, this treaty is more likely to perpetuate and even increase some of the worst aspects of the cold war. And the “era” it marks may well be more dangerous than the one we have only barely survived. The struggle for a truly new era of US-Russian relations and nuclear security must therefore be redoubled before there are no last opportunities.