Soviets' Nuclear Question Some Fear 'Proliferation by Disintegration,' but Arms Control and Popular Antinuclear Sentiments Make That Highly Unlikely

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AS the Soviet Union gradually disintegrates, anxiety has increased in the West that Moscow will not be able to maintain its command and control over the country's arsenal of 30,000 nuclear weapons. Nightmare scenarios abound of nuclear terrorism and sabotage, or of widespread proliferation with 15 renegade republics each possessing nuclear weapons.

Many in the United States argue that it is in the West's interest to support President Gorbachev in his struggle with the republics - that only Mr. Gorbachev's strong leadership atop a muscular central government can contain the civil disorder and nuclear instability that a breakup of the USSR would bring.

This argument is misguided. It fails to recognize that Gorbachev has dissipated much of his domestic credibility by his unwillingness to implement substantive economic reform measures, and that recent agreements between the republic governments and Moscow are pointing to a significant devolution of power. More important, this policy incorrectly assumes that increased autonomy or independence for the country's republics will be destabilizing and will lead to an unacceptable risk of nuclear confrontation.

However, because Moscow has adopted certain measures in the past few years, the threat of "proliferation by disintegration," never very great to begin with, has diminished further. Under the 1988 INF treaty, the USSR will eliminate over 800 intermediate-range nuclear missiles. When the treaty on strategic nuclear systems is final, half the stockpile of the most powerful Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile, the SS-18, will be destroyed. The Soviets' nuclear weapons are now based in fewer than half o f the country's 15 republics. In absolute terms, the majority remain in the Russian republic.

It is virtually impossible for the republics to gain control over any nuclear weapons based on their territory. The weapons are guarded by trained and screened KGB agents. These guard units are comprised solely of ethnic Russians, making sabotage by an "insider" out of sympathy for a terrorist or nationalist cause unlikely. Even if access to the weapons could be gained, it would be impossible to detonate the nuclear device without the firing codes that are retained off-base by the political leadership.

ON a political level, if there is one issue in the republics that does not draw support from politicians and voters, it is nuclear weapons and nuclear-energy production. The disaster at Chernobyl in April 1986, the ensuing human tragedy, and the failure of the central government to inform and protect the affected civilian population have created an almost antinuclear hysteria throughout Byelorussia, the Ukraine, and parts of Russia.

The Ukraine's declaration of sovereignty calls for the republic not to accept, produce, or purchase nuclear weapons; Byelorussia provides for the republic to become a nuclear-free zone. …