That Soviet Nuclear Arsenal

December 12, 1991

If control of the Soviet nuclear arsenal is to be sorted out in a way that avoids catastrophe, the Soviet military will have to maintain its traditional discipline and acceptance of civilian authority. So far, the signs are encouraging, despite the apocalyptic warnings of Robert M. Gates, the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Even after a right-wing political coup attempt in August, a free fall in the economy, **TC deterioration in the morale and living conditions of the armed forces and the disintegration of the old regime, the Soviet army remains an island of relative stability.

As the tug of war continues between President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and leaders of independence-minded republics, the focus is rightly on the torn loyalties of military leaders. Our guess is they will go where the money and their pay checks are -- which means to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and the republic bosses who throw in their lot with his proposed new commonwealth.

This is not said cynically. Control of the money supply is as essential to the functioning of any government or association of governments as control of the military, the security of borders and the conduct of foreign policy.

Mr. Yeltsin has already seized the revenues and treasury of the old Soviet Union. To date, he has been as consistent as Mr. Gorbachev in pledging that the 27,000 Soviet nuclear weapons will be handled responsibly so as to avoid their being used against other countries or in strife between or within the various Soviet republics.

Of course, the outside world is concerned -- and should be. Of course, the international community should insist that any successor regime or regimes make satisfactory nuclear arrangements a prerequisite for recognition or cooperation. But the policy issue facing the Bush administration is how best to nudge developments in desirable directions.

For a long time, perhaps too long a time, Washington clung to the old and familiar -- to Mr. Gorbachev and the central command authority associated with the Marxist-Leninist system. But as the republics insist on a much looser (and more democratic) arrangement, it is not fitting for the United States to balk or raise nightmare scenarios. The dangers are well realized without their being evoked in ways that only increases the prospects for chaos and upheaval. A low profile is in order.

There is little the United States can do to help the situation; there is much it can do to hurt it. Washington's best course is to ride with events in the least provocative way and to provide what humanitarian assistance can be mustered to help long-suffering peoples through the food-short and energy-scarce winter now upon them.

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