The Potemkin Village of Arms Treaties

George Bush travels to Russia this week where he and President Vladimir Putin will co-sign a ballyhooed agreement to cut their countries’ respective nuclear arsenals by two-thirds. Putin, eager to ingratiate and integrate with the West, will cite the treaty as progress with a partner. Bush, eager to give as little as possible, will issue a similar citation. For good measure, he’s even declared that “This treaty will liquidate the legacy of the Cold War.”

Hardly.

In reality, the world is no safer for this agreement. It’s the Potemkim Village of nuclear treaties. It’s a numbers game only a legerdemain artist could admire.

By U.S. count, each side currently has between 5,000 and 6,000 warheads. Both arsenals would be cut to 1,700 to 2,200 by the end of 2012. This should be good news.

It’s not, because most warheads taken out of service will not be destroyed. Repeat, not destroyed. Many U.S. warheads will be put in storage — like so many recalled Firestones sitting behind the showroom. Others will be kept to cannibalize or to test for reliability.

We are all too aware that U.S. security is too far from failsafe. This is unsettling.

But it’s downright scary when you consider stored nukes in Russia. Erstwhile Soviet Union republics have already proven problematic when it comes to accounting for their Cold War nukes. A meaningful treaty, one worthy of the “liquidate-the-legacy” rhetoric, would have relegated the old nukes to the literal ash heap of history.

Instead, the world’s most pressing nuclear issue — stored warheads targeted by terrorists — goes unaddressed. This isn’t disarming. This is disturbing.

But it will be a great photo op for Bush and Putin. The Potemkin prop is already in place.

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