AMID the many decrees signed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, one deserves more attention: On Feb. 27, 1992, he ordered his military-industrial complex to prepare to resume nuclear testing. He authorized Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy and the Commonwealth of Independent States Joint Military Forces to upgrade the nuclear test facilities on Novaya Zemlya island for two to four underground tests in case the one-year moratorium that Mikhail Gorbachev announced last October "terminates."
Why - in the midst of severe economic difficulties and a decline in world political tension - does Russia's president plan for a possible resumption of nuclear testing?
Is it that Russia has money to burn? This seems unlikely, because the International Monetary Fund (IMF) says the country needs many billions just to stabilize. Nonetheless, Mr. Yeltsin orders his people to drill, build, and prepare both vertical and horizontal shafts for nuclear testing at Novaya Zemlya. This Arctic island has long been Moscow's alternative to the main Soviet test site in Kazakhstan - not used since two tests "vented" there in early 1989, spewing radioactivity into the atmosphere.
Does Russia test because of mounting challenges from China and Europe's nuclear powers? Also unlikely. China has steadily increased its military spending in recent years and plans a 13 percent jump for the coming year. But China seems not to have tested any nuclear weapons in 1991. France announced in April 1992 that it was stopping all tests for the year. Paris pledged to continue a moratorium if other countries did the same. Neither China nor France nor Britain has as many nuclear weapons as Kazakhstan . But Kazakhstan is closing down the old test site there and keeps its weapons mainly to bargain with Russia.
Two other pressures weigh more heavily on Yeltsin. The first is the military-industrial complex he inherits from the USSR. This makes up a virtual "state within a state," according to Aleksei Yablokov, Russia's State Councillor for Environment and Public Health. He told a delegation from the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) that 36 million people depend on that complex for their material survival.
Mr. Yablokov said that "progressives ... missed the moment" in January-February 1992. Until then they had hoped for a real conversion from a military to a civilian economy, but early this year Yeltsin was persuaded that Russia's military production must continue - if only to make and sell conventional arms.
Nor does the former Soviet military wish to withdraw from strategic weaponry. Viktor Mikhailov, Minister of Atomic Power and Industry, told the IPPNW delegation that Russia wants to end the arms race and nuclear testing. "But the road to abolition will be long and painful. Abolition by the year 2000" - as Mr. Gorbachev once proposed - "is a dream." Gorbachev's plan to destroy 18,000 (of an estimated 27,000 Soviet warheads) would take 15 years to complete. "The key problem," Mr. Mikhailov asserted, "is wh ere to store plutonium" from dismantled warheads.
IKHAILOV told the IPPNW that his ministry employs a million people, of whom 700,000 live in what were secret cities. He said that his ministry uses 15 percent of its budget for nuclear weapons production. The ministry also produces trace metals, "super clean" materials, fertilizer, and gold.
The other major pressure on Yeltsin is the United States nuclear test program. "If the US doesn't stop testing," said Mikhailov, "we will be forced to resume testing next year." If the Americans stopped, he said, Russia would have no reason to resume. But Mikhailov expects six US tests in 1992.
The Bush administration, like Ronald Reagan's, holds that more tests are desirable to ensure that warheads still work and to improve their characteristics. Another Russian official told IPPNW that Yeltsin and President Bush had reached a mutual understanding that the Russians would resume testing at the level of two to four tests annually for the next few years.
This is a time for more US leadership on all fronts. Washington should halt its own tests and press for a global ban on further nuclear tests by any power. Such a move might have the additional value of freezing nuclear weapons programs in India, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Some $473 million has been allocated for US tests in fiscal year 1993. Some of those funds could be used to promote nuclear nonproliferation.
Congress has also allocated $400 million to help dismantle the ex-Soviet arsenal, but US bureaucrats have been slow to release those funds. Decisive support is needed to push Russia and the other republics to disarm.
All Western aid should be conditional on steady progress toward removing the Damocles sword.