AS the breakup of what used to be the Soviet Union accelerates, the United States is showing increasing concern over the fate of its ex-adversary's 27,000 nuclear weapons.The quick dispatch of a special US emissary to the Ukraine in the wake of its independence vote is a reflection of this nervousness. Ukrainian leaders haven't said anything causing special worry at the Pentagon but, considering the stakes, the US doesn't want to take any chances. "We certainly don't want to see a proliferation of centers of control over nuclear weapons," Department of Defense spokesman Pete Williams said Tuesday. The American envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Niles, is expected, among other things, to raise the question of how the US might help eliminate nuclear weapons based on Ukrainian soil. Ukrainian territory contains silos for 120 SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 56 10-warhead SS-24 ICBMs, and 8 strategic bomber bases, according to nongovernmental sources. Ukrainian leaders have said they want their country eventually to become a nuclear-free zone. But they have resisted demands from Russian President Boris Yeltsin that nuclear weapons on their soil be returned to Russia. The two republics have agreed to defer this crucial question for the moment. Newly elected Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk has said he hopes to hammer out some sort of collective control over Soviet nuclear forces with Mr. Yeltsin and the leaders of the other former Soviet republics where warheads are based: Byelorussia and Kazakhstan.
Soviet control intact Soviet military command of nuclear forces seems intact at this point, despite a brief flurry of Western worry during the summer's abortive coup attempt. Yet the reason for US interest in the question is obvious: The Soviet nuclear arsenal is so vast that if even a tiny portion were to spin out of control or fall into the wrong hands it could cause destruction on a scale unknown to history. The destiny of Soviet nuclear weapons is "a paramount concern of our times," judges a new study from Harvard University's Center for Science and International Affairs. The study's authors are the center's director, Ashton Carter, and resident scholar Charles Zraket among others. It indicates three categories of danger for the West in this situation: creation of many new nuclear states from the old body of the Soviet Union; unauthorized use of weapons by some disgruntled individual or sector of Soviet society; diversion of whole weapons or components into terrorist or rogue state hands. Of the republics, only Russia has on its soil the full spectrum of technology and installations necessary for secure handling and control of nuclear weapons. Only Russia has the early-warning radars and secure control system the US associates with stable nuclear deterrence. Both the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, for instance, could seize control of nuclear missiles on their territory. But, while their primary adversary might be Moscow, they lack the satellite data and skills to retarget the missile warheads on anything but the United States.
Nuclear Ukraine envisioned The Ukraine could eventually develop those abilities, judges the study. There might be advantages to a nuclear Ukraine: It would be one more bulwark for Western Europe. But more likely such a move would throw the security structure of Central Europe into chaos. "In particular, Germany and Poland, are likely to be dramatically affected, not to say alarmed, by such a development," says the report. As to unauthorized use, there are "real problems" with the custody of the Soviet arsenal. The whereabouts of Gorbachev's nuclear-launching codes is beside the point. The Soviet military high command probably has the ability to launch many nuclear weapons on its own, and the Harvard study judges the risk of such an event "relatively high." The crack Soviet Special Weapons Custodian troops who guard nuclear depots and manage nuclear transport would have the easiest time making off with a warhead. The US still knows little about this group's structure or political leanings. Finally, Soviet instability has the potential to open a "serious hole in the world community's efforts to stop nuclear proliferation," according to the study. Right now the former Soviet Union is experiencing the largest dismantlement of a high-tech military machine since Germany lost World War II. German rocket scientists moved to the US and the Soviet Union, sowing the seeds for advanced nuclear and missile programs. The same diaspora effect could take hold now, with Soviet scientists ending up in Pakistan, or Iran, or even Iraq. Pressing ahead with the unilateral nuclear moves proposed by both President Bush and President Gorbachev in September is important, says the Harvard report, particularly the removal of tactical nuclear weapons to central storage areas. The report's authors also recommend an accelerated timetable for implementation of the already-signed START treaty on long-range weapons and further US unilateral moves, such as a further relaxation in nuclear force readiness levels.