Scattered across the vast landmass from the Polish frontier to the Sea of Japan are enough nuclear weapons to destroy life on earth. For decades, that doomsday machine was controlled by the leaders of a united, Moscow-centred Soviet Union and consigned to the care of an obedient, disciplined military. But with the Soviet Union’s collapse, its fractious republics have inherited the world’s largest nuclear arsenal—and no one is clearly in charge of the armed forces. Last week, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (formerly Byelorussia) forged a new
commonwealth and agreed that the nuclear weapons on their soil would remain under unified control. And five other republics, Kazakhstan, Tadzhikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, gave their conditional approval to the commonwealth on Friday after a meeting in Turkmenistan. But many Western politicians and defence analysts said that rapid political change could imperil nuclear safeguards. The situation, said Robert Gates, director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, “is dangerously unstable.”
Conquest: Although President George Bush and his senior aides said publicly last week that they had received assurances from the Soviets that the nuclear weapons were secure, other experts appeared to be more skeptical. Soviet, British and American specialists speculated about the likelihood of a conservative uprising against the fledgling commonwealth, perhaps from within the armed forces. They also warned that terrorists could seize tactical nuclear weapons and that unemployed Soviet nuclear scientists might sell their skills to Third World leaders bent on conquest.
Western military experts estimate that the Soviet Union had more
than 27,000 strategic and tactical nuclear warheads when the republics began the race for independence after the abortive right-wing coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev on Aug. 19. More than 24,000 of the weapons are believed to be in the three commonwealth-founding republics. An additional 1,800 are located in Kazakhstan. U.S. government officials claim that there are no nuclear weapons currently outside those four republics. But Robert Norris, a senior analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York City-based public-interest
group, told Maclean’s that nearly 1,300 tactical nuclear weapons are in the remaining eight republics. U.S. officials, said Norris, are “saying everything is fine and under control to calm fears, but I don't believe they know where every last weapon is.”
Strategic warheads are used in intercontinental weapons—on bombs, or on missiles stored in deep silos or deployed on submarines. Tactical warheads are primarily for battlefield use in artillery shells or short-range missiles. The estimated 12,000 strategic weapons are of less immediate concern to the West, said Tariq Rauf, a senior associate at the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament, because they are equipped with centrally controlled electromagnetic locks and employ a complex operational technology that few people outside the military would know how to use.
More than half of the Soviet nuclear warheads are in relatively small tactical weapons, which have never been involved in any of the U.S.Soviet arms-control agreements and which, experts say, would be much easier to seize and use. Said Henry Dodds, an expert on the Soviet
military for Britain’s authoritative Jane’s Defense Weekly. “As far as we know, there is very little protection of those systems. What worries all of us is that it may no longer just be enough to get on the hotline to Moscow and say, ‘We have a nuclear problem.’ ”
That was clearly a concern widely shared last week in the West. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker said that it was important for the republics to proceed carefully “because we really do run the risk of seeing a situation created there not unlike what we have seen in Yugoslavia—with nuclear weapons thrown in.” And Gates, testifying before the House armed services committee, said that although the newly independent Soviet republics had neither the desire nor the ability to threaten U.S. security, he feared that food and fuel shortages and ethnic conflicts could “produce the most significant civil disorder since the Bolsheviks consolidated power” in 1917.
However, Bush said late last week that both Kremlin and republican leaders had told him that nuclear weapons will be handled with the “maximum amount of safety.” Said Bush: “I can certify to the American people the assurances we have been given have been very positive.” And earlier in the week, Robert Strauss, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, told an AmericanSoviet relations group that “we have not heard one disturbing, disquieting report” about the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Said Strauss: “Everyone says we need a unified control and we will co-operate in getting it.”
Part of the Western uncertainty over Soviet nuclear warheads arises from the fact that no one seems to know who is in charge of the 3.7million-member armed forces that have custody of the weapons. After Russian President Boris Yeltsin met with senior military com-
manders last week, a defence ministry spokesman said: “A split of the armed forces is out of the question.” But Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk has said repeatedly that his republic would have its own army—even though the newly created defence ministry consists mainly of the minister, Konstantin Morozov, and a few aides. Kravchuk had pledged to create a nuclear-free Ukraine. But after signing the commonwealth accord with Russia and Belarus, he proposed that the weapons remain, although under the joint control of the three republics.
Loyal: Meanwhile, Valery Sergeev, a former nuclear submarine officer who is now director of St. Petersburg television, warned that some members of the military officer corps “believe in a unified empire: they are like lost sheep and if the right shepherd tells them to shoot, they’ll shoot.” Gennady Teshkovsky, a retired army colonel who now writes a column for a Kiev newspaper, said that field commanders of the
1.5 million troops in Ukraine “will obey the legitimate authorities, but they don’t say which ones.” Viktor Kremenyuk of the USA and Canada Institute said in Moscow that the army remained the only organized and loyal political force in what was left of the country, although he added that it harbored “many groupings, some of them undemocratic.” However, he added, if the commonwealth held together, the troops would probably support it because only “the republics are able to pay the army—Gorbachev cannot even do that.” It was a stark assessment of just how far the once-mighty union, and its once-supreme leader, had fallen.
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