AMERICANS worried about the possible leakage of nuclear weapons or
weapons-grade nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union
increasingly resemble the blind men and the elephant. One group,
the optimists, argues that up until now there haven't been any such
leakages and points to the public commitments of Russian leaders.
Another group, the pessimists, argues that neither of these things
provides much comfort, given Moscow's loss of control over many
aspects of Russian life.
For obvious reasons, all of us hope that the optimists are right.
But the dangers posed by even a small nuclear weapon in the wrong
hands suggest that we should be paying more attention to the
arguments of the pessimists.
Only then will we be able to assess what appears to both sides a
The optimists consist of three distinct groups of people: the
Clinton administration, which has linked its foreign-policy fate to
the success and reliability of the Yeltsin government in Russia;
the arms-control community, which believes that only elites matter
in the arms-control business; and isolationists in the Congress and
the country, who do not want to face any problems abroad now that
we have "won" the cold war. Despite their differences, the three
groups share a common top-down perspective: Arms control can be
left to the small elites.
The optimistic argument rests on five assumptions:
*There hasn't been any leakage of a weapon or of sufficient
weapons-grade materials to make one because we do not have any
evidence of a leak.
*The proliferation problem generated by the collapse of the Soviet
Union was the presence of strategic missiles in Belarus,
Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, and this problem has been more or less
solved by Russian-American efforts.
*The Russian government - whatever its weaknesses - maintains tight
control over nuclear weapons and nuclear materials.
*Arms control can now be conducted as a government-to-government
*The commitments of Russian officials to the control of such
weapons and materials can be accepted at face value because they
share our concerns about the consequences of such leakages.
The pessimists - and I find myself in their camp - consist of an
entirely different group of people, one seldom heard from in the
past during arms-control discussions.
Most pessimists have a bottom-up perspective; they are specialists
on Russian society who view developments at the societal level as
increasingly important for the future of that country, particularly
relative to the role of Moscow elites sitting at negotiating
tables. The pessimists believe that the optimists are wrong even if
they are right - namely, that the new nuclear threat from Russia is
greater than anyone wants to admit even if it has not manifested
itself up to now.
The true threat
We pessimists find all five arguments of the optimists unpersuasive:
*The absence of information about illegal activity does not mean
that it is not taking place. Given the collapse of the Russian and
regional police, the weakness of the police forces in many
neighboring countries, and the obvious interest of a number of
countries and movements in obtaining such weapons, the possible
sale of such materials and their transfer out of Russia is all too
Indeed, the small amount of nuclear materials that have been seized
in Germany and widely reported in both Moscow and the West is
hardly evidence that materials are not leaving Russia. No
self-respecting smuggler would choose to go through Germany when so
many easier routes are available.
*The nuclear proliferation problem is in Russia, not in the
former Soviet republics. …