WASHINGTON -- CIA chief Robert M. Gates yesterday predicted the worst civil disorder in the disintegrating Soviet Union since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
He expressed concern over control of 30,000 nuclear weapons in such "a dangerously unstable" situation and warned that the Soviet arms industry could turn to export sales to stay in business.
"The hunger for hard currency could take precedence over proliferation concerns," Mr. Gates told the House Armed Services Committee, noting that thousands of military scientists were already leaving the Soviet Union for jobs elsewhere.
In a separate assessment, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Robert S. Strauss gave his own warning that the Soviet Army remained "the wild card" in the accelerating disintegration of the old Soviet order. He noted that the military leadership had not spoken out on the new commonwealth arrangement among Russia, Ukraine and Byelarus.
"God only knows where it's going to end up," he said, noting "less than 100 percent enthusiasm" for the weekend agreement sprung by the three republics' leaders who proclaimed the Soviet Union dead.
The Bush administration yesterday kept its distance from the latest upheaval. Pointedly, there was no contact between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze in the wake of the commonwealth declaration. A senior State Department official said there was no reason for the United States "to interject itself" into a situation that "the people should work out for themselves."
Mr. Gates, the nation's chief intelligence officer, noted "the center [of Soviet power] evaporating before our very eyes," and said the designers of controls over the Soviet nuclear arsenal "never anticipated this." He described the former superpower as "an arsenal that used to be a country."
Soviet strategic arms are currently based in Ukraine, Russia, Byelarus and Kazakhstan. Shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons are spread throughout all 12 Soviet republics. The leaders of Ukraine, Russia and Byelarus, in forming their commonwealth of independent states this week, declared "common control over nuclear armaments, which will be regulated by special agreement," and pledged themselves "to ensure international peace and security."
U.S. officials welcomed their commitment to strict nuclear controls, but concern in Washington focuses on the extent to which secure control over the nuclear arsenal can be maintained amid systemic "implosion," to use Mr. Gates' word.
"We face a period of uncertainty as Russia and the other republics sort out possession of the weapons and establish new structures and procedures for controlling and operating them. . . Even robust physical security and use-control measures become ineffective if the guards or their commanders are suborned, corrupted, or simply disappear," said Mr. Gates, predicting the continued decay and breakup of Soviet armed forces.
A week ago, Mr. Gates announced a massive U.S. intelligence operation to try to gauge the anti-Communist and nationalist eruptions in the Soviet Union. He was accused by critics during his confirmation process earlier this year of having exaggerated the Soviet threat when he served as deputy director of the CIA. Yesterday he cautioned the Armed Services Committee against moving too quickly on post-Cold War disarmament.
Despite the reduced threat of conventional war from the Soviet Union, he said, "the world remains a rough neighborhood, and it's getting rougher."
Chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry is spreading, he warned, adding that the CIA expected chemical-tipped, mobile, short-range missiles to become widespread from North Africa through South Asia. China, the only hostile power outside Soviet borders able to hit the United States, and North Korea might sell longer-range missiles to other countries.
He said: "Foreign military capabilities will expand considerably in the coming years, possibly in directions not now anticipated.
"More than 20 nations have or are acquiring weapons of mass destruction, forging arsenals of such destructive capacity as to defy all reason -- arsenals, all too often, in the hands of megalomaniacs, strongmen of proven inhumanity, or weak, unstable, or illegitimate governments."
Inside the Soviet Union, the former republics all face economic, social and political dangers en route to democracy, including economic "free fall," food and fuel shortages, disintegration of the armed forces and ethnic conflict.
These would combine this winter "to produce the most #i significant civil disorder in the former U.S.S.R. since the Bolsheviks consolidated power," he said.
Mr. Gates said the CIA was deeply concerned that economic and social challenges could overwhelm the forces of democratic reform.
"The possibility cannot be ruled out that such circumstances could produce a return to authoritarian government -- whether led by reformers desperate to feed the people and stave off an explosion or by nationalists driven by a xenophobic, atavistic vision of Russia," he said.
Mr. Strauss, meanwhile, who consulted with embassy staff in Moscow twice before dawn yesterday before addressing a breakfast meeting of the American Committee on U.S.-Soviet Relations in a Washington hotel, urged U.S. private industry to invest in the dissolving Soviet Union, regardless of its current political turbulence.
The former Democratic Party chairman and deal-making Washington lawyer, who was pressed into Moscow service by President Bush earlier this year, said German and Japanese entrepreneurs were already "all over the place" arranging deals.