Ouster Shakes Hopes for Arms Control Treaties Ratification of START Looked to Be Straightforward, but Actions by High Soviet Officials Put It in Doubt

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TO observers of superpower arms control, the ouster of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev brings a sensation of d vu.

In late 1979, it was the scene of Soviet tanks rolling into Afghanistan that dealt the death blow to President Carter's strategic arms limitation treaty, or SALT II. The United States Senate could not countenance endorsing a treaty with such a lawless government.

Now, only three weeks after the US and Soviet governments have signed a new strategic arms accord, it too has been thrown into limbo by the egregious actions of senior Soviet officials.

No one is ready to write the obituary yet for START. But all of a sudden, what looked set to be a fairly straightforward ratification process this fall is now cast in doubt.

President Bush has indicated that he won't call into question superpower arms agreements. The group of Soviet officials claiming authority tried to assuage concerns about START and other accords in its address Aug. 19 to the Soviet people: "We are a peace-loving country and shall undeviatingly honor all our commitments. We have no claims to make against anybody."

But members of the Senate, which was also slated to ratify this fall the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty providing for the pullout of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe, left their options open.

"I expect that the US will continue to act in its own best interest, including the implementation of arms control agreements," Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine said in a statement. "I will continue to monitor these events and consult with others to determine if they warrant changes in Senate deliberations." START benefits US

For those who supported START in the first place, the question of US interests is the key difference between START and most-favored-nation trade status for the Soviets, which the Bush administration had just approved.

MFN was seen as a reward to the Gorbachev regime for good behavior, while START, its proponents argue, benefits the US on its own merits. The treaty provides for a 35 percent cut in Soviet strategic weapons and a 25 percent reduction in the US arsenal.

Before the Aug. 19 coup, START faced objections from "about two dozen" of the Senate's 100 members, says a Democratic congressional arms-control expert. The overthrow of Gorbachev does not of itself mean the Senate will now reject the treaty. Much depends on how events unfold in the next days and weeks, says the aide. …