A SMALL moment in history was recorded Sunday afternoon, out on these windswept flatlands of the vast Russian steppe. In a burst of orange explosive fire, the last Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missile in existence was destroyed. With a team of United States inspectors and officials on hand, the three-year process of eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons, begun with the signing of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, came to an end. The first of 1,846 Soviet SS-20 missiles was destroyed in July 1988 at this missile testing site east of the southern Russian city of Volgograd. And the last of 846 US missiles was eliminated on May 6 in Longhorn, Texas.
The Soviet military marked the event with quaint ceremony, with swirling dancers and folksingers caroling peace songs, and with talk of friendship. It was a welcome respite from the tensions that have blocked completion of long-awaited pacts to reduce conventional forces in Europe and strategic nuclear weapons.
But despite these difficulties, Soviet and US military officials here took some pride in the successful completion of what turned out to be the only nuclear arms control deal signed in the last decade. It was the product of long negotiations that began in the late 1970s and concluded in December 1987.
``This road was not easy,'' Lt. Gen. Vladimir Medvedev, chief of the Soviet National Nuclear Risk Reduction Center, said in a short speech. ``We all remember what a political maelstrom existed around these missiles in Europe in the 1980s. But the struggle for peace and common sense won.''
The treaty eliminated all the Soviet and US medium-range ground-based missiles: for the Soviets, the mobile SS-20; for the US, the Pershing-II and ground-launched cruise missiles. The reduction of missiles - about 5 percent of the two superpowers' total arsenals - is probably less significant than the fact that it was the first time the two countries opened up their military facilities to on-site inspection to ensure compliance with the treaty.
THE treaty ``was carried out in an atmosphere of mutual respect, honesty, and strict compliance with the treaty's provisions,'' Col. Gen. Alexander Volkov, the deputy chief of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Corps, told the small crowd of reporters and officials gathered at the site.
``The Soviet and US inspectors stepped into uncharted waters with complex and rigorous demands,'' Maj. Gen. Robert Parker, head of the US On-Site Inspection Agency, observed. In the course of the last three years, US inspectors carried out 600 on-site inspections in the Soviet Union, while 230 Soviet inspections took place in the US. One Soviet Army major, who went on three such missions to the US, fondly recalls an afternoon barbecue by a beautiful Texas lake.
``We have proven the concept of on-site inspections,'' says Navy Capt. John Williams, the chief of inspectors for the US agency. ``If it had not worked, future treaties would have been very different.''
This concept is now a key element in the conventional forces treaty, for example, and many of the US inspectors are already being trained for this role. The Soviet major, who did not wish to be identified, says that they, too, are preparing for that work, although this cannot be said officially, because the treaty remains unratified by both sides.
As he did on July 22, 1988, Captain Williams and his colleagues walked up to the two missile launcher tubes, checked the diameter of the missile inside, and placed the seal of the inspection agency on the canister. This time, however, Williams, who is the chief of inspectors, signed the seal with a flourish, as did his Soviet counterparts, and posed for pictures. ``The last RSD-10 missile'' was printed in bold white letters along the tube.
Several hours later, as we boarded a bus for the long ride across the empty steppes, a grinning Soviet captain held out a shoe box filled with souvenirs of the new age - twisted pieces of metal from the exploded rocket.