KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine -- Bush administration officials are reviewing the status of arms agreements with the Soviet Union as the headlong rush of reform there both advances prospects of deeper arms cuts and raises anxiety about future control of nuclear weapons.
With reformers friendly to the West solidifying power in Russia, some experts in and out of government say that previous concepts of a Soviet strategic threat and of the need for deterrence may be outdated.
President Bush, asked about military spending cuts at a news conference yesterday, said: "I do think that out of this change in the Soviet Union, if we handle it properly and if things keep going forward instead of slipping back, there's an opportunity for a vastly restructured national security posture."
"But it's way too early -- way too early -- to get into that," Mr. Bush added.
For now, however, events in the Soviet Union have thrown arms control into confusion.
President Bush and British Prime Minister John Major said yesterday that they want to make sure, as Mr. Bush put it, that the safety of the Soviet nuclear arsenal "is totally guaranteed."
"And to date, we feel very comfortable about that," he said. "But that is a matter that needs to be sorted out, and I'm confident that everybody in the republics and everybody in the center understands that the last thing that the world needs is some kind of a nuclear scare, [to] say nothing of a nuclear confrontation."
Beyond control of the arsenal, the Bush administration is also reviewing a whole range of weapons agreements with the Soviet Union to assess the implications of the sweep of events, U.S. officials say.
"We have to look at all arms-control relationships and assesthem in light of Soviet changes," a U.S. official said.
An obvious question surrounds ratification of the recently signed strategic arms treaty by the Supreme Soviet, which could shortly be disbanded.
In the U.S. Senate, which also must ratify the treaty, "you will find a lot of questions about who's in charge [of the Soviet Union] and is it really smart for us to dismantle [U.S. strategic arms] when we can't be sure who's in charge?" said Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the Brookings Institution.
Breakup of the union and the emergence of new states could also carry implications for the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, because of early-warning radar now in the Baltics; for the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty; for inspections carried out under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement; for the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and for biological and chemical weapons accords, said Matthew Bunn, editor of the Arms Control Association periodical Arms Control Today.
Beyond implications for existing treaties, some experts in and out of government see the potential for a revolution in U.S.-Soviet relations unlike anything since 1945.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to former President Jimmy Carter, said in a telephone interview that what is now the Soviet Union will become at best a loose confederation, posing neither a political nor economic threat to the West.
Lacking a huge army, the Soviet nuclear arsenal could become no more than "a tool for committing suicide" for the Soviets and thus "a force we can live with," he said.
Mr. Bunn, of the Arms Control Association, said that reformist Russian leaders, under President Boris N. Yeltsin, appeared to be "bent on slashing the military." With republics controlling more of the government's purse strings, the result could be "a drastic downsizing" of the Soviet military. He urges a renewed arms control push by the United States to seize this opportunity.
But the United States will continue to see a major threat, he said, "as long as there remains an entity that controls a substantial long-range nuclear arsenal."
Mr. Sonnenfeldt said, "A force in being, even if it has no immediate hostile intent, has to be balanced in some fashion."
Even in the current reformist revolution and disintegration of the Soviet empire, he said, there will be some in the Soviet Union "with the sentiment that at least Russia should remain a power to be reckoned with."