WHAT is primary in arms control? Is it preservation of strategic balance - or reduction of arsenals?Many experts favor the preservation of strategic balance with the smallest possible arsenals of nuclear arms. Yet if as a result of arms reductions (no matter how substantial) there is an imbalance, more harm than good may be done. This is exactly what has happened with the recently concluded Soviet-American Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). As the first treaty in history that calls for the reduction of strategic weapons, it tilts the equilibrium in favor of the US. If today the US and the USSR possess respectively 12,061 and 10,841 warheads on strategic delivery vehicles, they will have 10,395 and 8,040 warheads each after START is ratified. The gap, therefore, will almost double from 1,220 to 2,355 in Washington's favor. In addition to these purely numerical gains, the American negotiators secured for the US important qualitative ones. They managed to shift future strategic competition into areas where the US has traditionally had a significant advantage. Having locked intercontinental ballistic missile warheads - the strongest element of the Soviet triad - at the level of 4,900 for each side, the START treaty makes it possible for the US to maintain and even expand its strategic superiority in air and on sea. Although air-launched cruise missiles and nuclear bombs are covered by the treaty, the counting procedure gives the US much leeway. Jack Mendelsohn, the deputy director of the Arms Control Association, points out that under START, the 96 aircraft in the B-1B fleet (loaded with 1,536 bombs and short-range attack missiles) will count as only 96 weapons. If 75 B-2 bombers are deployed, they will be counted as carriers of 75 warheads. In fact, they may have up to 1,200. True, the same counting rules apply to the Soviet Union. But technologically, not to mention economically, the Soviets have a long way to go before they catch up with the US in strategic aviation. They have only 21 operational Blackjack bombers distantly comparable to the B-1s. Even those are reportedly plagued by technical failures. The USSR has no equivalent to the B-2 "Stealth" bomber capable of evading air defenses and delivering uncounted warheads to their targets. According to the London Internatio nal Institute for Strategic Studies, the USSR's air-launched cruise missile with the longest range, the AS-15 Kent, can fly on its own only 1,600 kilometers - whereas its American equivalent, the AGM-86B, can travel 2,400 km. The task of delivering bombs to the firing point is much easier for US bombers than for Soviet ones. The picture is roughly the same with the sea-launched cruise missiles that are not included in the treaty but are covered by a politically binding agreement. The Soviets now have approximately 100 long-range SLCMs, and their economy will not allow them to build up in this area as quickly as does the US, which plans to have 637 such missiles by the mid-1990s. In a way, the START treaty reminds me of the Treaty of Versailles that Germany had to sign in 1919 after losing World War I. Under its terms, Berlin had to give away parts of its territory, its colonies - and to disarm. Russia did not lose a war. But it did lose the arms race. START, in fact, represents in military terms the same kind of demise of the Soviet Union as a superpower that its recent economic crisis does. So do we have to be enthusiastic about START? I doubt it for a number of reasons: * Despite its provision for a substantial reduction of arsenals, the treaty is a product of a cold-war mentality. In its present form, it marks a US victory at a certain stage of the arms race, but it does not eliminate and even spurs the old rivalry. By simply using the present weakness of the USSR to obtain strategic advantages, the US has, in fact, contributed to the survival of the spirit of arms race for years. * A treaty cannot have a secure future if it rests on humiliation of one of its signatories, and codifies inequality. From the historic perspective, there could be ups and downs in Russia's economic and military might, but any attempts (such as START) to use them to deprive Russia of its status of a great power would backfire. Eventually, the treaty will strengthen suspicions among Russians of the true intentions of the US. * The START treaty could also have undesirable repercussions in Soviet domestic politics. It gives Soviet hard-liners, who have always maintained the US is seeking strategic superiority at the expense of the USSR, a very good argument in behalf of their case. START could weaken those Soviet reformers who choose to support it. Somewhere down the road, START could help produce in Russia a nationalist backlash - much as the Treaty of Versailles produced in Germany during the 1920s. That is why, in my opinion, the Soviet parliament would be doing itself a favor if it rejects START as a counterproductive bargain. There is no doubt that the Soviet military is oversized. Deep cuts are needed to ease its burden on the country's economy. But the Soviets could proceed with them unilaterally - carefully choosing the armaments they could discard. They need not legally lock themselves in strategic inferiority.