What is most important in arms control? Of course, reduction of arsenals is a goal. But if as a result of arms reductions (no matter how substantial) there is an imbalance, more harm than good may be done.
This is exactly what has happened with the recently concluded Soviet-American Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). As the first treaty in history that calls for the reduction of strategic weapons, it tilts the equilibrium in favor of the United States.
If today the United States and the Soviet Union possess 12,061 and 10,841 warheads respectively on strategic delivery vehicles, they will have 10,395 and 8,040 warheads each after START is ratified. The gap, therefore, will almost double from 1,220 to 2,355 in Washington's favor.
In addition to these purely numerical gains, the American negotiators secured for the United States important qualitative ones. They managed to shift future strategic competition into areas where the United States has traditionally had a significant advantage. Having locked intercontinental ballistic missile warheads -- the strongest element of the Soviet triad -- at the level of 4,900 for each side, the START treaty makes it possible for the United States to maintain and even expand its strategic superiority in air and on sea.
Although air-launched cruise missiles and nuclear bombs are covered by the treaty, the counting procedure gives the United States much leeway. Jack Mendelsohn, the deputy director of the Arms Control Association, points out that under START, the 96 aircraft in the B-1B fleet (loaded with 1,536 bombs and short-range attack missiles) will count as only 96 weapons.
True, the same counting rules apply to the Soviet Union. But technologically, not to mention economically, the Soviets have a long way to go before they catch up with the United States in strategic aviation. They have only 21 operational Blackjack bombers distantly comparable to the B-1s. The Soviet Union has equivalent to the B-2 "Stealth" bomber capable of evading air defenses and delivering uncounted warheads to their targets.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the Soviet air-launched cruise missile with the longest range, the AS-15 Kent, can fly on its own only 1,600 kilometers (about a mile) -- whereas its American equivalent, the AGM-86B, can travel 2,400 kilometers.
The picture is roughly the same with the sea-launched cruise missiles that are not included in the treaty but are covered by a politically binding agreement. The Soviets now have approximately 100 long-range SLCMs, and their economy will not allow them to build up in this area as quickly as the United States, which plans to have 637 such missiles by the mid-1990s.
In a way, the START treaty reminds me of the Treaty of Versailles that Germany had to sign in 1919 after losing World War I. Under its terms, Berlin had to give away parts of its territory and its colonies -- and to disarm.
The Soviet Union did not lose a war. But it did lose the arms race. START, in fact, represents in military terms the same kind of demise of the Soviet Union as a superpower that its recent economic crisis does.
Despite its provision for a substantial reduction of arsenals, the treaty is a product of a cold-war mentality. In its present form, it marks a U.S. victory at a certain stage of the arms race, but it does not eliminate and even spurs the old rivalry. By simply using the present weakness of the Soviet Union to obtain strategic advantages, the United States has, in fact, contributed to the survival of the spirit of arms race for years.
A treaty cannot have a secure future if it codifies inequality and rests on humiliation of one of its signatories. From the historic perspective, there could be ups and downs in the Soviet Union's economic and military might, but any attempts (such as START) to use them to deprive the U.S.S.R. of its status of a great power would backfire. Eventually, the treaty will strengthen suspicions among Soviets of the true intentions of the United States.
The START treaty could also have undesirable repercussions in Soviet domestic politics. It gives Soviet hard-liners, who have always maintained the United States is seeking strategic superiority at the expense of the U.S.S.R., a very good argument in behalf of their case. Somewhere down the road, START could help produce in Russia a nationalist backlash -- much as the Treaty of Versailles produced in Germany during the 1920s.
That is why, in my opinion, the Soviet parliament would be doing itself a favor if it rejects START as a counterproductive bargain.
There is no doubt that the Soviet military is oversized. Deep cuts are needed to ease its burden on the country's economy. But the Soviets could proceed with them unilaterally -- carefully choosing the armaments they could discard. They need not legally lock themselves in strategic inferiority.
Maxim Kniazkov is a former foreign correspondent with the Soviet news agency Tass. He now edits a business newsletter in Chevy Chase. He wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.