WASHINGTON -- With the leadership of the Soviet military in doubt, American planning is increasingly focused on preventing the spread of Soviet nuclear weapons or expertise to the Middle East, North Korea or other developing nations that want atomic weapons, according to administration officials.
"We've watched the situation very carefully and very closely, and up till now we've been convinced that the Soviets have been able to retain control over their systems," Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said yesterday on the NBC News program "Meet the Press."
But both Cheney and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger said the breakdown of the Soviet Union raises genuine concern that such countries as North Korea or Iraq might be able to acquire Soviet nuclear weapons or that scientists with expertise in assembling such weapons might sell their services to other countries. It is not clear how many such experts there are.
"Given the breakup of the Soviet Union, given the disintegration of their society, given the sad state of their economy, the only realistic thing for me to do as secretary of Defense is to anticipate that one of the byproducts of the breakup of the Soviet Union will be a proliferation of nuclear capability," Cheney said.
"If the Soviets do an excellent job at retaining control over their stockpile of nuclear weapons -- let's assume they've got 25,000 to 30,000; that's a ballpark figure -- and they are 99 percent successful, that would mean you could still have as many as 250 that they were not able to control."
"Now, I can't make a prediction like that, that that's going to happen, but clearly, you have to be concerned about the possibility," Cheney said.
Administration officials have been saying for some time that the question of who controls the formidable nuclear arsenal once commanded by the Kremlin is a central force behind American policy toward the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Yesterday's comments by Cheney and Eagleburger, who appeared on the ABC News program "This Week," provided new details about the administration's specific concerns and goals.
Eagleburger said that apart from trying to ensure that nuclear weapons remain under a central, unified command and are not seized by individual republics, the United States wants to take advantage of the uncertainty in the Soviet military to get rid of as many of its nuclear weapons as possible.
Congress has authorized the Bush administration to take $400 million out of the Pentagon budget to help the Soviet Union destroy short-range nuclear weapons.
"We have to move as fast as we can to help them destroy as much of their nuclear stockpile as we can, and we need to do what we can to make sure what is left is not sold on the open market and make sure their technical expertise doesn't migrate," Eagleburger said.
In his comments, Cheney painted a picture of a Soviet military machine that is undergoing "the same strains and stresses that the rest of the society is."
"We do get reports of poor morale, lack of housing, lack of food, in some cases," he said. "We see commanders down at the republic level beginning to do deals, so to speak, to build relationships with republic authorities as opposed to the central authority."