START To Stop Nuclear Spread

October 05, 1992

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), in its long journey from the negotiation table to Senate approval of ratification, has been transformed. Originally a pact solely designed to curtail the mutual-annihilation arsenals of the Cold War superpowers, it has become the catalyst for a high-stakes diplomatic effort to denuclearize Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

These spin-off republics of the former Soviet Union now control weaponry with a power that dwarfs Britain, France and China combined. The U.S. and Russia are allies in the drive to oust them from the nuclear club and move their rockets, warheads and long-range bombers to Russian soil.

This crucial objective has dominated arms control diplomacy since the breakup of the Soviet Union and it clearly was a Senate preoccupation before Thursday's 93-6 vote to approve the pact. When the United States ratifies the treaty and brings it into operation, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus must fulfill the pledges they made last May in Lisbon to move nuclear weapons off their territories in a seven-year period. Russia is even more adamant, insisting that its neighboring states sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty before it will formally ratify.

Oddly enough, the half-dozen conservative Republicans who voted against START supported the Russian argument. They pointed out, correctly, that the protocols and letters signed by Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus lacked the binding qualities of the treaty itself. As if to underscore their concerns, some hard-line Ukrainian parliamentarians visited Washington last month to warn they would oppose transferring their nukes to Russia.

The Bush administration position, supported even in mid-campaign by the Democratic leadership, is that early ratification is the best solution. To make signing of the NPT a pre-condition, Washington argues, could cause dangerous delay. It is better to force the present governments in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus to fulfill their obligations under the letters and protocols signed in Lisbon before their nationalist critics gain ascendancy.

We accept this line of thinking. The U.S. has plenty of leverage. It can offer the spin-off republics full respect and economic assistance, which they desperately want, or it can leave them out in the cold if they cling to their nuclear weaponry. This is not an issue limited to what is left of the old American-Soviet rivalry. If undoubted nuclear states can be induced, for the first time in history, to renounce this status, it would send a message to would-be nuclear powers throughout the world that further proliferation will not be tolerated.

If there is to be a new world order, and if the United States is to play a preeminent military role as the only real superpower, the reduction of present arsenals and the prevention of nuclear spread must be of top priority. START provides a start, but only if Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus can be brought into line -- and held there.

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