WASHINGTON -- The United States and Russia are expected to keep their fearsome arsenals of nuclear weapons aimed squarely at each other, at least for the near future, despite the collapse of the Soviet superpower last week.
Bush administration officials have not pressed the new leaders of what was the Soviet Union to eliminate their nuclear threat to the United States, and the United States is making no moves to take its finger off the nuclear trigger.
And, though Secretary of State James A. Baker III says there is "a lot of room for reduction and elimination," officials say it is still too early to make sweeping changes in the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
A senior Pentagon official notes that though Russia and the other former Soviet republics might turn into stable democracies, the more likely short-term outlook is for sharp economic dislocations and political uncertainty.
That, he says, will require the United States to maintain a robust defense, with some nuclear forces on alert and the option to rearm should it become necessary.
"We clearly are much happier, I think, having somebody govern in Russia who has been democratically elected," Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said Saturday on Cable News Network. "Hopefully, they'll be successful with respect to their efforts at reform, but we still -- I do, as secretary of defense -- have to look at a very large nuclear arsenal targeted against the United States."
In the aftermath of the Soviet Union's demise, Bush administration officials count themselves successful in simply having kept leaders of the former Soviet republics focused on the question of the safety of their still-powerful nuclear forces.
"There are a lot of other priorities for the political leaders -- the political framework, who's got power, collapsing economies and the possibility of people starving," the Pentagon official said.
Mr. Baker has noted that the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan have agreed to keep the Soviet strategic arsenal under collective central control and to accept U.S. expertise in moving nuclear weapons from outlying republics to Russia and in carrying out already announced plans for the destruction of weapons.
This month, Reginald Bartholomew, undersecretary of state for international security affairs, will lead a U.S. team to the four republics possessing long-range weapons.
The U.S. officials will talk to republic leaders in detail about the storage and dismantling of nuclear weapons, compliance with arms control agreements and the arms cuts announced early this fall by President Bush and then-Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
They also will raise "other arms control subjects," but those might deal largely with conventional forces, a U.S. official said.
How much cooperation the U.S. team will get is uncertain, even in the areas for which Mr. Baker thought he had oral commitments. For example, the president of Kazakhstan assured Mr. Baker that his republic, like Belarus and Ukraine, would become a non-nuclear signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but his spokesman said Kazakhstan intended to keep nuclear weapons as long as Russia had them.
And Mr. Cheney said of the Russians and the former Soviet military, "There's a limit to how far they're willing to go in terms of actually sharing detailed information with us, information that is of a classified nature, for example, and has been up till now."
In Brussels, Belgium, two weeks ago, Mr. Baker seemed to accept without quarrel Russia's intention to remain a nuclear power. A Pentagon official said it would be "naive in the extreme" to expect otherwise.
"This is what I think they view their role and position is as the successor to the position of the Soviet Union, just as they see their position as the successor to the Soviet Union in terms of the permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council," Mr. Baker said at a news conference.
"Accordingly, they would remain a nuclear power," he said.
Mr. Baker did not answer when asked whether the Russians would stop pointing their weapons at the United States, saying only, "I would like to see zero weapons targeted at the United States, but I'm not prepared today here, having said that, to subscribe to the philosophy of denuclearization."
Arms control advocates outside the government say that where the weapons are pointed would be difficult to verify, since the information is contained in computers outside the scope of verification procedures.
And even if Russia committed itself to stop pointing its missiles at U.S. targets, that wouldn't prevent a subsequent, less friendly leader from changing the policy quickly.
The Pentagon official and outside specialists said the perception of Russia and the United States as a threat to each other is something that would ease over time, with growing stability in the former Soviet Union and a series of mutual confidence-building measures.
But Stan Norris, an arms control specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the United States and Russia LTC could initiate steps now to reduce the threat, such as taking additional forces off alert status.
Both he and Dunbar Lockwood, of the Arms Control Association, said Washington should move quickly on much deeper verifiable cuts in the U.S. and Russian arsenals.
"There's no indication that Bush wants to negotiate a legally binding limit below START," the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed last year, Mr. Lockwood said.
U.S. officials did not rule out additional cuts but said they could be announced unilaterally instead of pursuing the traditional, time-consuming arms control route.
Political pressure for additional arms cuts will mount. An aide to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., predicts that when START comes to the Senate for ratification, "the message will come, 'This treaty is numerically obsolete.' "