RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The U.S. and Russia are two mighty nuclear powers, powers that have made deals over the years to reduce their arsenals. But just like a marriage gone bad, things have soured between Washington and Moscow. Quarrelling over nuclear issues has increased markedly in recent months, with each side accusing the other of cheating. NPR's David Welna reports on how this has played out.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Item - Russia, earlier this month, moves a battery of nuclear-capable missile launchers within range of three Baltic states. Item - three U.S. long-range bombers, the kind used for nuclear weapons, fly last month to Eastern Europe for military exercises. Item - Russia, last week, unveils images of a new intercontinental ballistic missile dubbed the Satan 2, whose warhead, it claims, can destroy an area the size of Texas.
STEVEN PIFER: I would have to say that, without question, this is the low point in U.S.-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War.
WELNA: Steven Pifer is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who's now an arms control expert at the Brookings Institution. Things went downhill, he says, after Russia's invasion of Ukraine two years ago. They slid further last year with Moscow's intervention in Syria and, this year, got worse with Russian warplanes buzzing U.S. ships and planes in the Baltic and Washington accusing Moscow of meddling in the presidential election. Hans Kristensen, who tracks nuclear arms at the Federation of American Scientists, is worried as well.
HANS KRISTENSEN: We are in a dangerous situation - certainly a situation that is much more dire or tense than it was 10 years ago.
WELNA: Even during the dying days of the Cold War, things did seem better.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States and the general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
WELNA: At a 1987 White House signing of a nuclear treaty, President Ronald Reagan strode in with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. And Reagan declared he had a Russian maxim to share.
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FORMER PRES RONALD REAGAN: Mr. General Secretary, though my pronunciation may give you difficulty, the maxim is doveryay, no proveryay - trust, but verify.
WELNA: The treaty they signed aimed to eliminate both countries' intermediate-range ground-launched nuclear missiles. Twenty-nine years later, Washington is accusing Russia of violating that so-called INF treaty and has called a rare meeting of a special verification commission for next month. Again, Brookings' Steven Pifer.
PIFER: What the administration has said is that they provided enough information to the Russians that the Russians could identify the missile in question. The Russians said, no, they haven't got enough information, so you're in that kind of war of words.
WELNA: Part of that war of words, Pifer says, was Russia's announcement earlier this month that it will no longer take part in a joint program to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium.
PIFER: That, I believe, was a little bit of a poke at President Obama, who attaches a lot of importance to the nuclear nonproliferation agenda.
WELNA: Meanwhile, over the next few months, the U.S. and NATO allies are to move thousands of troops, as well as tanks and other heavy equipment to nations along Russia's western border. Arms control expert Kristensen expects that action will provoke yet another reaction from Moscow.
KRISTENSEN: This is a gradual escalation of tensions between the two sides that goes beyond discourse and just disagreements over a treaty. It's getting pretty deep now.
WELNA: What's really needed, he adds, is the kind of dialogue these nuclear rivals once had and now seem to have lost. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.
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