MOSCOW — With relations between Russia and Ukraine strained and the economies of the commonwealth states collapsing, officials in the West appear more interested than ever in who controls the nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union.
Four commonwealth states - Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan - possess nuclear weapons. Some Western officials have warned that as the commonwealth's economic situation worsens, the four states may try to earn precious hard currency by selling nuclear arms to the highest bidder, possibly a maverick third-world nation such as Libya. But experts in the commonwealth downplay such a scenario, saying a potential "brain drain" of nuclear scientists and technicians poses a far greater threat.
French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, here on a five-day fact-finding trip on nuclear security, is the latest Western official to visit. His trip follows similar missions by British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and US Undersecretary of State Reginald Bartholomew, who discussed ways to prevent nuclear arms proliferation. Mr. Hurd said on Monday he was "reasonably encouraged" by his discussions with commonwealth officials. "There are problems that will take time to resolve," he said, referring to the nuc lear question. "But the will to resolve them exists."
Under the so-called Minsk and Alma-Ata treaties, commonwealth states pledged to maintain unified command of strategic nuclear weapons. All four commonwealth nuclear powers also have indicated they are ready to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In addition, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan say they want to get rid of nuclear weapons on their territory.
But some Western officials are worried the documents and oral declarations of commonwealth leaders will not be fulfilled. Many say the United States, Britain, and France should play an active role in diminishing a potential nuclear threat by helping the commonwealth states destroy their warheads.
Hurd said the West is trying to identify how best it could help with the demolition of the former Soviet Union's estimated 27,000 strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, many of which are slated for destruction under disarmament treaties. The US already has allocated $400 million to help with the task.
"The West will need to help with disarmament, maybe also help in the transportation and storage of such weapons," Hurd said at a news conference.
Meanwhile, commonwealth officials apparently are exploring possible commercial uses for missiles. A recent test flight of an SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missile launched from Kazakhstan was aimed at evaluating the rocket's ability to boost commercial cargo into space, US military officials say.
Controlling the missiles and warheads may prove much easier than containing the people who designed and produced them, said Sergei Blagovolin, head of the Institute of National Security and Strategic Studies in Moscow. Nuclear scientists and technicians have been hit hard by the commonwealth's economic crisis, and the combination of meager salaries and soaring prices could tempt them to take lucrative jobs in foreign countries.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin held talks Tuesday with republican atomic industry officials on methods to control and eliminate nuclear weapons, as well as ways to improve living standards for nuclear specialists, Interfax news agency said. But so far, the Russian government has not offered specific incentives to scientists to help prevent them from selling their knowledge abroad.
Another source of concern for the West is plans by Russia and Kazakhstan to boost the export of uranium, a key element in nuclear weapons production. According to a report by Radio Moscow, the amount of uranium exported this year may rise to three times the level sold abroad in 1991. Last year, the Soviet Union's uranium exports were worth about $500 million.
Kazakhstan has angrily denied allegations it's already started exporting nuclear weapon materials and technology and has insisted all its nuclear-related exports will comply with international standards, Interfax said.