Bottling Up Nuclear Genies

May 20, 1992

The United States is now within reach of an agreement that will prevent the demise of the Soviet Union from leading to a dangerous proliferation of nuclear states and the derailing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Clear evidence of this vital breakthrough came yesterday when Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev advised President Bush he would accept U.S. proposals already approved by Ukraine and Belarus to transfer all strategic weaponry to Russia.

As proof that oil and nukes can mix when the circumstances are right, Mr. Nazarbayev's Rose Garden announcement came the day after he signed a $10 billion deal with Chevron Corp. to develop his Tengiz oil field, a project rivaling Alaska's Prudhoe Bay. The Asian leader also stands to tap into a $400 million U.S. fund for dismantling nuclear weapons, plus other forms of aid.

To understand how important it was to put this particular nuclear genie back in the bottle, consider that Kazakhstan is home to 104 intercontinental rockets carrying 1,040 warheads -- an array of power roughly equal to the combined arsenals of Britain, France and China. That these weapons have remained constantly under Moscow's command and control has been scant comfort because of their menacing implications.

Had Kazakhstan insisted on being recognized as a nuclear state, even "temporarily," ground would have been cut from under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and under hopes of deterring other countries from joining the nuclear club. Because of the intrinsic rivalry among all the states of the old Soviet Union, it would also have vastly complicated the ratification of START, the most important arms reduction treaty in history.

Because Mr. Nazarbayev has constantly shifted position, there is still plenty of devil left in the details. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, chief architect of this landmark accord, hopes to witness the signing of a protocol this weekend by Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus. Then their four parliaments will have to approve the protocol and START itself, which is still awaiting U.S. Senate ratification. Once this stage is completed, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus will have seven years to destroy or transfer their strategic rockets to Russia -- a period long enough for plenty of mischief.

Despite the difficulties that may lie ahead, the world should rejoice that the collapse of the Soviet Union has not led to the creation of additional nuclear states. Collectively, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus have acted responsibly in already moving their tactical nuclear weapons to Russian soil and now in agreeing to deploy their strategic missiles there, too. This must rank as one of the Bush administration's stellar diplomatic achievements. We are confident the U.S. Senate will put aside election-year partisanship to approve START and the new protocols.

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