Soviet Threat Has Diminished but Not Ended US Unease over Moscow's Nuclear Arms Turns on Political Strife, Potential for Rogue Launch. US-SOVIET SUMMIT

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THE Soviet Union has thousands of continent-crossing missiles armed with nuclear warheads ready to launch at the United States - more strategic firepower than ever.

But the Soviet threat that President Bush is discussing in most detail here does not concern war but rather how to prevent accidental or unauthorized missile launchings.

The military threat the Soviet Union presents as a competitor to the United States and the West has certainly diminished in the past two years. How much still leaves a lot of room for debate.

"I think that for at least the rest of this century, the Soviet threat is zilch," says Jenonne Walker, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow and former arms-control negotiator with the US State Department.

The only capacity the Soviets have left to threaten the US militarily is to push the nuclear button, she says, "but there is no conceivable leader who would have an interest in doing so."

But Frank Gaffney, director of Center for Security Policy and a former Defense Department official, says, "We still face a formidable Soviet threat." After six years under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet military-industrial system, especially for the strategic systems that directly threaten the US, are running more efficiently than ever, he says.

The key to whether the Soviet is a threat in the coming decade and beyond - which is the time horizon of most weapons-building and arms-control decisions - is the outcome of the current power struggle in the Soviet Union.

The safest scenario is one where democratic pluralism and economic ties to the West flourish in the Soviet Union, with the central Soviet government maintaining control of international affairs and defense policy for the whole country. White House officials have spoken in favor of such a scenario, where the central government holds enough power to preserve stability.

The most dangerous scenario is a takeover of the central government by hard-line communists and the military, perhaps through a coup dtat.

The most unpredictable is the Soviet Union breaking apart Yugoslavia-style or erupting in civil war - the danger there being the risk that strategic nuclear missiles would fall into the hands of factional groups.

Many American leaders, including Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, are especially concerned about protecting against rogue launches or accidental missile strikes.

The Soviets have improved their fail-safe systems against unauthorized launches in the past few years, so that a missile cannot be launched locally without special codes sent from Moscow. …


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