WASHINGTON - The Bush administration's decision to store thousands of nuclear weapons left over from the Cold War, rather than destroy them, has drawn fierce criticism from arms control advocates, who say the move could undermine the improved relations between the United States and Russia.
When he campaigned for the White House, President Bush pledged to dramatically reduce the US nuclear arsenal, arguing that the end of the Cold War no longer required the US military to prepare for a massive nuclear exchange with Russia.
Last month, the Department of Defense completed a review of the US nuclear arsenal that calls for reducing the number of warheads from 6,000 to about 1,700 over the next decade.
But the Nuclear Posture Review also calls for keeping more than 4,000 unneeded warheads in storage for possible future use, rather than dismantling them, and that stance has become the focus of fierce debate in the United States and Russia.
The administration's decision has angered Russia, which agreed at a summit last fall between Bush and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to cut nuclear stockpiles by two-thirds of their Cold War levels. Russian officials expected the warheads would be destroyed, not put into storage.
The US undersecretary of defense for policy, Douglas Feith, defended the Bush plan earlier this month before senior Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee who criticized the storage plan as ''moving the furniture around'' to avoid outright nuclear reductions.
''We call what we're doing a reduction, because we think it is highly significant that we're going to be reducing the number of warheads available for use,'' Feith said. The US nuclear force includes land-based missiles and nuclear-armed submarines and bombers.
Feith said that the United States no longer has the facilities to build nuclear weapons and that it would be foolhardy to destroy existing ones.
Nevertheless, he described the removal of the warheads from service as a significant step forward. ''We are closing the history books on the Cold War balance of terror,'' Feith said.
Military officials said the warheads would be stored in a way that would make it easy to put them back on a missile if necessary.
The Defense Department's review states that US nuclear strategy is no longer focused on the threat of nuclear attack from Russia but on the threat from China's small nuclear arsenal or the threat from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, or others seeking to develop nuclear weapons capability or chemical and biological weapons.
But congressional critics contend that the plan shows that American military and political leaders still see Russia as a threat.
''It's warehoused terror, rather than immediate terror,'' Senator Carl M. Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said of the US plans during a hearing last week.
Senator Daniel K. Akaka, Democrat of Hawaii, called the storage plan ''a distinction without much of a difference.''
By maintaining access to the warheads, the United States is sending a message to Moscow that it still views the Russian nuclear arsenal as a direct threat, said Morton Halperin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
''The numbers make no sense, unless you are talking about either surviving a Russian attack or destroying Russia, because for no other purpose would you conceivably use anything like the numbers that apparently the military keep telling the civilians they need,'' he said.
The Russians are insisting that the two countries sign a new arms reduction treaty that sets limits on the number of nuclear warheads. Moscow also wants the warheads to be destroyed, rather than be removed and stockpiled.
''I am talking about a legally binding document,'' General Colonel Yuri Nikolayevich Baluyevskiy, first deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, said last month during a visit to Washington. He said that such a treaty would provide ''predictability and transparency of our nuclear policy on both sides.''
Ivo Daalder, a foreign policy specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said: ''It is very clear where the Russians are. It has to be a treaty that calls for irreversible cuts and is verifiable.''
There is a heated debate within the Bush administration about how to address Russia's concerns. Analysts predict that the Pentagon, which does not want to be bound by a specific number of warheads, will win out over the State Department, which is pushing for a binding treaty.
The US position will be decided before Bush visits Moscow in May.
Many analysts agree that Russia is not in a strong enough position to change US policy. The analysts cite as evidence the recent US decision to pull out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Washington's developing plans to take military action against Iraq despite fierce Russian objections.
''Russia is playing with a weak hand,'' said Robert Pfaltzgraff, president of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis at Tufts University. ''Putin needs good relations with Bush for economic reasons and for access to capital.''
But over time, Washington's practice of taking advantage of Russia's weakness to further US goals could backfire, Daalder warned.
''You can't have a relationship built fundamentally on one side doing all the giving and the other doing all the taking,'' he said.
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