Ouster Shakes Hopes for Arms Control Treaties
Ratification of START looked to be straightforward, but actions by high Soviet officials put it in doubt
WASHINGTON — TO observers of superpower arms control, the ouster of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev brings a sensation of d vu.In late 1979, it was the scene of Soviet tanks rolling into Afghanistan that dealt the death blow to President Carter's strategic arms limitation treaty, or SALT II. The United States Senate could not countenance endorsing a treaty with such a lawless government. Now, only three weeks after the US and Soviet governments have signed a new strategic arms accord, it too has been thrown into limbo by the egregious actions of senior Soviet officials. No one is ready to write the obituary yet for START. But all of a sudden, what looked set to be a fairly straightforward ratification process this fall is now cast in doubt. President Bush has indicated that he won't call into question superpower arms agreements. The group of Soviet officials claiming authority tried to assuage concerns about START and other accords in its address Aug. 19 to the Soviet people: "We are a peace-loving country and shall undeviatingly honor all our commitments. We have no claims to make against anybody." But members of the Senate, which was also slated to ratify this fall the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty providing for the pullout of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe, left their options open. "I expect that the US will continue to act in its own best interest, including the implementation of arms control agreements," Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine said in a statement. "I will continue to monitor these events and consult with others to determine if they warrant changes in Senate deliberations."
START benefits US For those who supported START in the first place, the question of US interests is the key difference between START and most-favored-nation trade status for the Soviets, which the Bush administration had just approved. MFN was seen as a reward to the Gorbachev regime for good behavior, while START, its proponents argue, benefits the US on its own merits. The treaty provides for a 35 percent cut in Soviet strategic weapons and a 25 percent reduction in the US arsenal. Before the Aug. 19 coup, START faced objections from "about two dozen" of the Senate's 100 members, says a Democratic congressional arms-control expert. The overthrow of Gorbachev does not of itself mean the Senate will now reject the treaty. Much depends on how events unfold in the next days and weeks, says the aide. "If [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin is killed or arrested and if mass violence breaks out, then the Senate will have a pretty hard time ... entrusting these guys with the treaty," says the aide. "The Senate has to ask itself, 'Is this the kind of regime that's better off with more nuclear weapons or fewer? he continues. "This treaty doesn't disarm us - it's really about turning around the arms race.... But if we proceed with it, we do eliminate a lot of our capacity for surviving a sudden attack."
Will new regime ratify? A greater question, perhaps, will be whether the Soviet parliament ratifies START. Soviet hard-liners, now in charge, have long complained that START and CFE give more to their opponents than the Soviet Union gains. "They could just not ratify either," says Jenonne Walker of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a former State Department arms negotiator. "But even if they ratified them, the question is whether they'd pursue any further agreements." Frank Gaffney, director of the Center for Security Policy, argues that the coup was "useful," because it "put the West on notice as to the true character of the regime." That is, since the men who took over already held power as Gorbachev's aides, the removal of Gorbachev provides a less adulterated view of what was running the Soviet Union's security apparatus already. He calls the START treaty "very vague" and unverifiable. Ms. Walker of Carnegie counters that the verification regimes agreed to in START would be useful not only for monitoring compliance but also as a window into internal developments in the country. And, she says, she believes the new hard-line regime, assuming it keeps control, will have its hands full over the next several years contending with the collapsed Soviet economy and interethnic strife, and that therefore it will not pose a real threat to the West. In its initial public remarks Aug. 19, the nation's new purported leaders seemed intent on reassuring the world that they did not intend to reassert Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. President Bush, for his part, also sought to reassure the leaders of Eastern Europe's newly democratic countries. He spoke on the telephone with the leaders of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary, and in his conversations stressed the "irreversibility of the democratic process in Eastern Europe," said spokesman Roman Popadiuk.