PARIS — THE SOVIET Union is disintegrating faster than is generally realized. A downward spiral has set in, not only accelerating economic decline and revealing environmental deterioration that is truly frightening, but literally unraveling the country.
Presidents Bush and Gorbachev can meet and support each other as superpower chiefs, and that is important in the Persian Gulf crisis. Nor does it merely represent Moscow's decision that valued new relations with the West cannot be risked for the sake of its former client Iraq.
Soviet policy makers recognize that a serious recession in the West, due to an oil crisis and possibly a war, would -- hopes of Western help to turn their economy around.
Further, Moscow has concluded it cannot allow blatant aggression to succeed near its borders, so the defeat of Saddam Hussein is seen as in its own interest too, although it has trouble saying so straightforwardly.
But the question of how firmly Gorbachev can commit the Soviets on longer-term issues such as arms control is real. It is no longer a matter of speculating whether he can stay on top of the Soviet power pyramid. It is whether there is going to be much of a pyramid for him to stay on top of.
This became clear at a meeting of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Virginia last weekend. Experts, both Western and Soviet, had differing views on just how bad things are likely to get and the possibility of total breakdown, but they agreed on the direction and the danger of chaotic violence.
They also agreed, even the veteran anti-communists, that this would be bad for everybody, including the U.S., though not on what can or should be done to avert it. The implications are not just the collapse of a system. That has passed the point of no return. It is the collapse of a country that remains a military superpower with the world's largest nuclear arsenal.
As power shifts from the center to the republics, regions, even cities, where will control of nuclear weapons be held, and how completely? What will be the temptations to break loose from the control in case of desperate civil conflict?
Like the U.S., the Soviet center has a tight regime governing the use of nuclear arms with Permissive Action Links to prevent unauthorized firing of all but sea-based missiles. But how well this would hold up if the center fails is becoming less hypothetical.
It is a compelling reason to speed up arms control, impose cuts and make rules. They might be broken, but every added constraint is helpful.
Even so, it isn't clear that agreements with Gorbachev will be carried out by new republic governments without their own opportunity to review and perhaps even modify them.
The U.S. must deal with the president, the foreign minister, the defense minister of the Soviet Union, as the Soviets must deal with Washington. But if it doesn't hurry, Washington may find itself confronted with a whole cast of players not necessarily submissive to the top.
The Russian Republic, whose president is Boris Yeltsin, doesn't yet have its own foreign and defense ministers, but it probably soon will. It does have a parliament, and Soviet analysts now say its deputies are likely to want to debate and vote on instituting arms reduction pacts that require spending money, admitting foreign monitors and applying verification requirements on Russian territory.
Kazakhstan, where the biggest missiles are concentrated, may do the same. "It's as though the governor of North Dakota," where most U.S. heavy missiles are based, "insisted on the right to participate in American strategy decisions," a British analyst noted in awe.
As it is, Kazakhstan has demanded an end to underground testing at the key Semipalatinsk site, possibly transferring tests to Novaya Zemlya, a huge Russian island in the Arctic Ocean.
This would distress Finland and the Scandinavian countries and ought to distress the whole world, because the Finns say the structure of the land there and inadequate Soviet containment methods result in radioactivity escaping to the atmosphere every time there's a Novaya Zemlya test.
American negotiators say agreement in the Start missile talks now looks unlikely this year, and if it isn't reached this year it probably never will be. Some U.S. advisers think that's as well, that talks should be shifted immediately to a more far- reaching Start II accord on deep cuts.
But there's a serious risk of getting nothing done before time runs out. Bush should push much harder to get arms reductions started. The end of the Cold War doesn't mean nuclear danger has faded away.