As the Soviet Union continues its inexorable process of disintegration, there is no more vexing or perplexing question: What happens to the thousands of nuclear bombs that still lurk in the countryside of the vast territory?
In a sense these weapons constitute "nuclear waste." No one really wants them, they just lie there ready to be picked up by whatever new figures emerge as leaders of the pieces of the old Soviet Union or, for that matter, free-lance mercenaries.
At a conference of editorial writers at the University of Maryland at College Park this past week, the eminent Soviet scientist Roald Z. Sagdeev discussed the problematical future of this unwanted arsenal. Mr. Sagdeev, who is now professor of physics at the University of Maryland, was until recently the chief science adviser to President Mikhail Gorbachev. But even with that perspective, Mr. Sagdeev can only speculate as to how to get rid of the bombs.
The problem is dramatized by the vote of Ukraine to break away from the old Soviet Union. Not only did Ukraine gain instant independence; it also became an instant member of the world "nuclear club" -- possessing nuclear weapons which are still technically capable of striking the United States.
If Kazakhstan and Byelorussia follow Ukraine into secession, Mr. Sagdeev says, the three former republics between them will possess up to 20 percent of the old Soviet strategic arsenal.
But even as the republics become independent, the ultimate control of the weapons remains in the hands of Mikhail Gorbachev. Even if the Soviet Union should cease to exist as a nation -- which now must be rated a real possibility -- Mr. Gorbachev will still carry what Mr. Sagdeev calls "the suitcase" -- the codes necessary to detonate the 25,000 or so nuclear weapons which remain in the old Soviet Union. Gorbachev cannot act alone, but he alone seems to be the one person without whom no one else can act.
So in a sense the old and new leaders of the Soviet Union are hostages to one another -- and all hostages to the nuclear weapons.
Mr. Sagdeev does not believe the Soviet Union will become a nuclear Yugoslavia, although the possibility cannot be ruled out. Even though Ukraine is scarcely eight days old as an independent nation, its leaders already seem to be reconsidering their stated wish to be a nuclear-free state; there is talk among Ukrainian leaders about not wanting to be a "nuclear hostage" to neighboring Russia.
Even if the leaders of the remnants of the Soviet Union genuinely desire to free themselves from their nuclear shackles, there remains the practical consideration that dismantling the bombs can be almost as complex and expensive as building them in the first place.
And, Mr. Sagdeev notes, the cadre of experts who are capable of carrying out the dismantling is in danger of disintegrating itself. Even today, he notes, there are 10,000 highly skilled people who still work in the Russian nuclear industry and are still, ironically, upgrading nuclear weapons -- coasting on the momentum of the Cold War, so to speak.
But, he went on, these talented professionals are becoming desperate. Despite their special skills they earn a paltry 350 rubles a month, against a national average of 500 rubles. Mr. Sagdeev does not believe the "crazy scenarios" that these specialists might go to work for nuclear buccaneers such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein. But he does believe they could be driven to abandon their jobs and flee to the West, leaving no one to carry out the task of dismantling the weapons.
In such a situation, he goes on, it is not impossible that new national leaders, desperate for hard currency to feed their starving populations, would begin selling their nuclear stocks to the highest bidders.
Out of all this confusion, it would then seem, comes the conclusion that no matter how weakened he may be, Mikhail Gorbachev remains an indispensable figure. There is not even a person in place to succeed him in case of death or resignation; the vice president is in prison, awaiting trial as one of the coup leaders who tried to overthrow Mr. Gorbachev.
He is a paradox: The more irrelevant he becomes, the more indispensable he becomes. He may be the only one who can defang the dead monster.