Tighter Control for Soviet Nukes

March 20, 1992

President Boris N. Yeltsin's decision to create a separate Russian Ministry of Defense is the latest acknowledgment of the transitional nature of the Commonwealth of Independent States. In trying to replace the centralized organs of the Soviet Union, the CIS has proven to be quarrelsome and inefficient. Such weaknesses might not be crucial, except that the main functions of the new grouping were to oversee the former Soviet armed forces and control their vast nuclear arsenal. So far, the CIS has not performed either task convincingly.

The problems started almost immediately. Just five days after the CIS was formed on Dec. 8, Ukraine's President Leonid Kravchuk declared himself the commander in chief of a newly created national army in that important republic. Ever since, many of the 12 CIS members have been setting up their own armies while arguing about the nature of common forces. Gradually, those favoring a loose association of "joint" forces over "unified" troops seem to have won.

The fragmentation of the 3.7-million-strong army is eroding one of the most potent instruments of power the Soviet Union built.

During seven decades of communist rule, the Kremlin had no more loyal servant than the Red Army. It was strictly under the control of the Communist Party, incapable of independent political action. Over the years, KGB chiefs and Communist bosses would get involved in power intrigues, but not the armed forces. It took and fulfilled orders.

Now that the Soviet Union has collapsed, the former Red Army, like other Soviet institutions, is faced with uncertainties. Its old masters are gone. The staying power of its new masters is unknown.

For the first time since the 1917 Revolution, significant elements of the officer corps are playing politics, either by protesting government actions or trying to gain influence as a separate power base. In this context, the moves first by Ukraine and now by Russia to re-establish direct control over local military organizations are understandable.

To the outside world, these would be relatively inconsequential matters, except for the vast nuclear arsenals in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. With an estimated 27,000 nuclear weapons -- from artillery shells to intercontinental missiles -- scattered over the former Soviet Union, concern remains in the West that some of them might end up in wrong hands.

When CIS leaders meet today, assuring a leak-proof control system for nuclear weapons should be high on their agenda. This matter is so vital to global security that Western countries are justified in making any major aid conditional on resolving the nuclear issue of life and death.

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