Russain Realities and the Illusion of Arms Control Studying Russia from the Bottom Up Shows a New and Potent Nuclear Threat

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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 serious threat. Optimistic views 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 enterprise. *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 real. 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. …