It's not Russia's economy that's scary, it's the missiles

September 07, 1998|By Stansfield Turner

MORE VALUE WAS lost on the New York Stock Exchange a week ago than the Russian economy produces in 10 years.

Russia's economic troubles certainly played a role in triggering the Wall Street correction. But, to put it in perspective, it's important to remember that Russia's entire economy is roughly the size of Illinois'. From a purely American standpoint, the real concern in Russia's domestic crisis is not how it affects the economy, but how it affects the security of her immense arsenal of nuclear weapons.

If the Russian Federation broke up, as some fear, to whose control would its members gravitate? Or if the central government hangs on but cannot pay troops to guard them, will Osama bin Laden be able to purchase a suitcase-sized bomb or two?

Wise nuclear agreement

These have become less unthinkable nightmare scenarios and more serious questions in recent weeks. So Presidents Clinton and Boris Yeltsin should be commended for making two useful moves on the nuclear front at last week's Moscow summit. Their agreement on sharing data from the U.S. global missile launch warning systems will help reduce the risk of accidental launch due to gaps and malfunctions in Russia's own deteriorating warning system. This is significant. Their agreement to reduce weapons-grade plutonium stockpiles is also a good long-term measure for preventing future proliferation.

The only problem is neither of these actions addresses the present danger of what could happen to nuclear security in the short run if, in the current domestic crisis, Russia loses a significant measure of control over its arsenal. But there are several risk-free steps that Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Clinton can and should take immediately to redress that danger:

Each could place a significant number of nuclear warheads into storage several hundred miles away from their missiles. Each would invite the other to place observers on the storage sites with authority to count only what went in and what went out. Through a series of such steps, the number of immediately launch-ready nuclear weapons could be drastically reduced, the danger of an unauthorized or undeliberate launch would ease and the de facto cuts in deployed missiles could help jump-start the hopelessly stalled START II Treaty process. This method is known as "strategic escrow" and it puts nuclear security gains in the bank, so to speak, at no risk of losing deterrence value. The nuclear forces are "mothballed" rather than destroyed; if the missiles are needed later for any reason, the process can be reversed.

In addition to separating warheads, each could systematically reduce the readiness of nuclear forces remaining on alert by removing other components such as batteries or guidance units. Each could agree to keep submarines in port and mobile missiles in garages, to be redeployed later if needed, but out of commission for the immediate future.

Each side could finally address the urgent issue of tactical nuclear weapons, of which both have thousands, and which are physically smaller than strategic weapons and more vulnerable to theft or sale. Each could crate and seal them into sea-land containers and load them onto a commercial container ship.

Rendezvous at sea

The ships could rendezvous at sea under joint naval escort, and sail to an agreed neutral depository. It might be a South Pacific island nation, or the large, snow-free "Dry Fields" area in the Antarctic or the British-owned, U.S.-leased Diego Garcia Island in the Indian Ocean. The American and Russian presidents removed these destabilizing weapons from their forward-deployed positions in 1991; their successors should be happy to downgrade their deployment status further now. Doing so would also open up more storage space inside each country for strategic weapons going into escrow.

All three steps are perfectly practical and safe. If needed for any reason, escrowed forces can always be redeployed. But it is highly unlikely they ever would be because the number of warheads each nation really needs for deterrence or military purposes is much lower than the 15,000 the United States currently has and the 22,000 the Russians have.

The current crisis is all the more reason both presidents should exert their mandated powers. It would be a warranted reply to an urgent need.

Retired Adm. Stansfield Turner, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote this for Newsday.

Pub Date: 9/07/98

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