New Arms Treaty: 'The Document of the Century' Maybe

January 03, 1993|By JOSEPH R. L. STERNE

Boris Yeltsin calls it "the document of the century." George Bush says it will be "good for all mankind."

Even allowing for hyperbole on the part of two politicians under duress, their description of the strategic arms reduction agreement they are signing at their Black Sea summit this weekend is not far off the mark.

If and when the pact is implemented -- and this is a very big if, ironically associated with the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet empire -- START II will codify the reversal of the frantic nuclear arms race that has threatened world destruction for decades.

Superpower nuclear arsenals would be cut by more than two-thirds. Land-based intercontinental rockets armed with multiple warheads, the most fearsome weapons ever built, would be eliminated. Nuclear submarine and aircraft fleets would be more than halved. Intrusive verification procedures that once would have been considered unthinkable would become routine.

All this comes on top of fairly recent agreements to eliminate intermediate-range missiles, curtail tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons, reduce conventional forces in Europe and adjust the power balance to more stabilizing and sustainable levels.

The world has come a long way from the first Kennedy-Khrushchev accord to curb nuclear weapons testing.

Over the last three decades, the superpowers have groped clumsily for survival: By trying to impose a Non-Proliferation Treaty on other nations; by trying to regulate the growth of their ever-more-deadly nuclear arsenals; by banning missile-defense systems so as to leave themselves mutually vulnerable.

But only since the end of the Cold War have the powers that be in Washington and Moscow turned to the serious business of destroying, dismantling and downsizing what they had built up at such great cost to their societies and their essential security.

What all this amounts to is a de facto American-Russian nuclear alliance in which the fear of mutual annihilation is gradually being replaced by a mutual determination to deter other nations from the nuclear option.

Even if things go sour in Russia and a more militant regime takes power, the existence of the whole array of recent arms control treaties will be something of a safeguard against a renewal of the mindless competition of the Cold War years.

There will be international obligations on the books to restrain rearmament, plus a vital lesson learned: that heedless expenditures on overkill actually undercut security and damage the economy.

START II projects U.S. and Russian arsenals of 3,000 to 3,500 warheads each, a slash of 15,000 warheads from present stockpiles. Neither country is likely to consider going below the 2,000-warhead range considered the necessary counter-force to any third-country threat.

As Presidents Bush and Yeltsin confer this weekend at Sochi, chances are their thoughts will often wander 600 miles northwesterly to the city of Kiev. There the government of the newly independent Ukraine is having serious second thoughts about its agreement last May to turn over all of its strategic nuclear weaponry to Russia.

The choice is not easy. If Ukraine were to hold onto its arsenals, it would automatically lay claim to being the world world's third largest nuclear power, surpassing China, Britain and France. If it gives them up, it would be a non-nuclear state that has done more than any other country in the cause of non-proliferation. This is hardly the stuff that comforts Ukrainian nationalists.

Fear of Russia is one understandable factor in the Ukrainian hesitation. Another is Kiev's growing determination to use its awesome nuclear gadgets as bargaining chips to extract not only money but security guarantees from the United States.

The Bush administration, increasingly "perturbed" by Kiev's attitude, has offered $175 million to finance the dismantling of Ukraine's 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles. In response, the government of President Leonid Kravchuk has demanded $1.5 billion to cover dismantling costs and offset the value of nuclear materials transferred to Russia.

However much Moscow and Washington are angered by what some officials regard as nuclear blackmail and foot-dragging, the fact is that Ukraine is in a powerful position.

The 1991 START I treaty, which called for a one-third reduction in superpower strategic weaponry, cannot go into effect without ratification by all four nuclear states that emerged from the old Soviet Union: Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine. And so long as START I is stalled, START II, with its added one-third reduction in weaponry, will remain just a piece of paper to felicitate Mr. Bush's exit and buttress Mr. Yeltsin's shaky political position. It will not be the "document of the century" or "good for all mankind" until Ukrainian fear and economic demands are propitiated.

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