American President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed to a historic arms control treaty that will make drastic cuts in the two countries’ nuclear arsenals. The agreement should be applauded, but it is long overdue: Domestic politics in both countries have conspired against similar cuts over the past two decades. There are other grounds for concern: The two men agreed to cut their arsenals without actually eliminating any of the weapons. These “virtual” cuts should be made real. When that happens, the world will truly have something to celebrate.

Currently, the U.S. has about 6,000 strategic nuclear weapons and Russia has some 5,500, more than enough to devastate the planet and all its inhabitants. While campaigning for president, Mr. Bush called for drastic cuts in those strategic arsenals, both to reflect a post-Cold War outlook and to make his call for missile defense more palatable. Mr. Putin also called for steep reductions, but he has been motivated more by necessity than a strategic design: Russia’s arsenal is decaying and the military does not have the resources to maintain and secure its weapons.

The two men were not the first to campaign for deep cuts. Previous leaders of the two governments had negotiated reductions of one-half to two-thirds of their arsenals, but conservatives in both countries scuttled the agreements. These two presidents, unlike their predecessors, have the credentials to secure their right flanks, making a deal possible.

This agreement, which will be signed May 24 when Mr. Bush visits Moscow, will limit each country to 1,700 to 2,200 long-range nuclear warheads apiece by 2012. There will be an actual treaty, a decision that was pressed by Moscow over Mr. Bush’s resistance. Mr. Putin worried that any deal had to survive the Bush presidency; that required a real document. Mr. Bush was worried that any treaty would have a difficult time in the U.S. Senate. (For that very reason, and eager to safeguard their own prerogatives, U.S. senators had demanded a treaty to which they would give their advice and consent.)

Mr. Bush won out on other points, however, and those compromises are more troubling. While the treaty calls for steep cuts, it does not oblige the two governments to actually destroy any of the warheads. Rather, they go into storage and can be removed whenever either government anticipates a need. The reductions do not have to occur before 2012, the year the treaty expires if it is not renewed. It is a dangerous combination: There is a pretense of arms reductions, which could lull publics into a false sense of security, while the governments maintain the capability to redeploy the weapons at a moment’s notice.

The stockpiling of nuclear materials, much less weapons, is especially dangerous in Russia, where security at nuclear and military facilities is lax. There is rising concern about the safety of those stores; the willingness of both governments to court that risk makes no sense when terrorist organizations have made clear their intentions to obtain such weapons.

There is another positive element to this agreement, however: It could be the foundation of a broader strategic partnership between the U.S. and Russia. The draft treaty is only three pages long, a sliver when compared with the telephone-book size agreements of the Cold War era. The willingness to work together to fill in those blanks will be a confidence-building measure in its own right, a much-needed fillip to relations between the two countries. Reportedly, the two governments are still negotiating a political declaration for the May summit that will create a strategic framework for the two countries. That could lead to the actual elimination of weapons.

There has also been progress in forging a new relationship between Moscow and NATO. The Western alliance and Russia this week announced the creation of a new council that will formulate policy on terrorism and other shared concerns, such as arms proliferation, missile defense, peacekeeping, management of regional crises, search and rescue efforts and arms control. The new body will be inaugurated May 28, when Mr. Putin joins other NATO leaders at a meeting in Italy.

If all goes according to plan, reports NATO Secretary General George Robertson, that will be the day that “the thinking that characterized the Cold War can be said to have had an ending.” Sadly, it has taken more than a decade for thinking to catch up with reality. And if the new arms treaty is any indication, the Cold War has not been relegated to the dustbin of history, but merely put in cold storage.

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