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. …