Disarming diplomacy

Gorbachev matches Bush’s nuclear arms cuts

RAE CORELLI October 14 1991

Disarming diplomacy

Gorbachev matches Bush’s nuclear arms cuts

RAE CORELLI October 14 1991

Disarming diplomacy

Gorbachev matches Bush’s nuclear arms cuts



At first, President George Bush’s dramatic announcement of major unilateral cuts in nuclear weapons seemed to have backfired politically. Instead of muting long-standing congressional criticism of America’s huge defence program, the move prompted a parade of influential Democrats to proclaim that even greater reductions in military spending could safely be made. But the President likely had another objective—encouraging the Soviet Union to spend less on guns and more on butter. And at week’s end, Bush’s second gamble paid off. President Mikhail Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union would match the U.S. move by undertaking sweeping cutbacks in seaand land-based tactical nuclear weapons. Said Gorbachev, in a statement issued by TASS news agency: “On a reciprocal basis, the Soviet Union and the U.S.A. are undertaking radical measures leading to the elimination of tactical nuclear weapons.” Gorbachev’s declaration, following a meeting with a U.S. delegation that had flown to Moscow to explain Bush’s plan, was unexpected. Only four days previously, Soviet Foreign

Minister Boris Pankin had said that the Kremlin’s response would be made at meetings between U.S. and Soviet officials this week in Washington. But the timing of Gorbachev’s action was not the only surprise. In a statement prepared for broadcast later in the day, he also announced a one-year moratorium on nuclear testing and a cut of 700,000 members of the army. At the same time, TASS said that Moscow would also sharply reduce its strategic nuclear arsenal, exceeding by 1,000 warheads the targets set out in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) reached with the United States in July.

Soon after Bush’s Sept. 27 announcement that the United States will destroy nearly 3,000 short-range landand sea-based nuclear weapons, prominent Democrats, including House Speaker Thomas Foley and Senate armed services committee chairman Sam Nunn, said that the action would likely encourage Congress to cut spending on programs that Bush wants to keep. Those include the purchase of 75 B-2 bombers, at a cost of $979 million each, and continued work on the space-

based antiballistic missile system known as Star Wars. Foley even said that Congress and the White House should re-negotiate last year’s budget agreement and shift the defence savings to domestic programs. Said a Senate defence aide, who asked to remain anonymous: “People were saying the Soviet threat was unravelling, and the President has sort of confirmed this. I think everything is going to accelerate.”

The push for broader nuclear arms cuts, by both Bush and Congress, seemed even more probable in the wake of Gorbachev’s response. Spurgeon Keeny Jr., director of the private, Washington-based Arms Control Association, said that congressional reaction showed that Bush “has started a process that will lead to something different from his initial proposals—I can’t imagine that he didn’t realize that would happen.” The presidential initiative, Keeny added, “underscores that nuclear weapons aren’t useful war-fighting instruments.”

As a result of Gorbachev’s inclusion of a moratorium on nuclear testing, the most immediate challenge for the Bush administration, which opposes a test ban, was posed not by Congress but by the Soviet Union. Moscow has long pressed for a total ban on testing as one way of ensuring that it does not fall too far behind the United States. But now, with the Soviet economy in ruins, it can neither afford new weapons programs nor test the results, and it finds itself with an aged nuclear arsenal that U.S. technology is making increasingly obsolete.

At the same time, the abortive coup by Soviet hard-liners last August and the subsequent independence drive by the restless republics have led Western defence analysts to

worry openly about the security surrounding a still-formidable nuclear arsenal. Last week, François Heisbourg, director of the widely respected, London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, said that the West should be seriously concerned about the controls over the Soviets’ approximately 15,000 tactical nuclear weapons. In releasing the institute’s annual report on military strength around the world, Heisbourg cited two main hopes: that the warheads themselves were still in safe custody, and that none would wind up in other countries through sale, theft or negligence.

Heisbourg said that the West should also worry about the fate of thousands of highly trained Soviet scientists and technicians. Finding that there is no longer any demand for their expertise at home, they might one day decide to sell their skills elsewhere. Said Heisbourg: “There may be a temptation for them to become white-collar or blue-collar mercenaries in Third World states.”

Western anxiety about controls on the tactical nuclear weapons scattered across the Soviet Union were heightened early last year when militant nationalists invaded a Soviet army base near the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. They reportedly penetrated the first line of security defences around a nuclear-weapons

storage facility, before troops moved in and routed them. Despite bland denials of any policy change, that unsuccessful attack evidently unnerved Soviet defence officials. They pulled tactical nuclear weapons out of the volatile Transcaucasian region, which includes

Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Those same officials say privately that there are no tactical nuclear weapons in Moldova or in the now independent Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, where 300,000 Soviet troops are still garrisoned.

Meanwhile, Moscow’s formal reaction to Bush’s announcement was clearly influenced by the burden of military spending. According to some Western estimates, it absorbs as much as 25 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. Gorbachev has tried ineffectively to redirect funds from defence to . the production of consumer g goods. Meanwhile, Russian I President Boris Yeltsin last I week continued to advocate S an end to all nuclear tests and “ the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons altogether. Many of the republics have demanded a voice in what happens to Soviet nuclear stockpiles, and they will have representatives at talks with U.S. officials in Moscow this week. After the August coup, the Kazakhstan government took over and permanently closed the main Soviet nuclear testing site at Semipalatinsk. Kazakhstan’s parliament initially declared the republic a nuclear-free zone, but President Nursultan Nazarbayev said last month that the republic should keep the nuclear weapons deployed on its soil. An offer by Yeltsin that Russia take control of all Soviet nuclear weapons has clearly alarmed the other republics. Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk has insisted on the need for central control over nuclear weapons, and he told the United Nations last week that he wanted all of them withdrawn from his republic’s territory.

Across the turbulent country, millions of Soviets continue to struggle to come to terms with a new era. Facing food shortages, a harsh winter and enormous political instability, they still express mixed feelings about the decline of their legendary military prowess. The reformist newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reflected last month that the country’s superpower status had been “so comforting at grim moments.” Added the newspaper: “Nuclear parity explained shortages of the most vital things, and our hearts were filled with pride—despite our food scarcities, we were making rockets. Of course, it is saddening to part with the idea that we live in the biggest and strongest country.” But for the Soviet Union, and for the United States as well, the major task in the aftermath of the Cold War is to find a new and safer basis for national pride.