RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin's finger will soon be on the nuclear button. But beyond that fact, little else is clear about the fate of the vast Soviet military machine as the Soviet Union turns into the loose Commonwealth of Independent States.The meeting Saturday of the leaders of the 11 former Soviet republics now constituting the commonwealth ultimately failed to settle some of the most pressing issues surrounding the future of this former superpower. "The most acute problems were the ones pertaining to the military issue, to the nuclear issue," Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk said in a television interview broadcast Sunday night. The agenda for the commonwealth meeting included approval of a collective security treaty defining the common military structures of the members and the division of Soviet military apparatus among them. Commonwealth leaders also had to settle the handling of nuclear weapons, their control, safety, and disarmament.
Unanswered questions But the gathering failed to agree on a security treaty, leaving that issue to be taken up again at another meeting of leaders in Minsk on Dec. 30. An agreement "On Joint Measures on Nuclear Arms" was signed by the four states with long-range nuclear weapons based on their territory - Russia, Kazakhstan, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine. But even that document leaves some significant questions unanswered. The document states that nuclear weapons "are part of the unified strategic armed forces" and that until they are withdrawn from the Ukraine and Byelorussia, "decisions on the need to use them are taken, by agreement with the heads of the member states of the agreement, by the Russian president, on the basis of procedures drawn up jointly by the member states." But neither those "procedures" nor a joint policy on nuclear issues, have been decided yet. The mechanisms of control remain vaguely defined. "Until the nuclear weapons are destroyed, we pass over the control over the nuclear button to one president, Yeltsin," Mr. Kravchuk explained. "We don't run any risk because we are withdrawing nuclear weapons from our territory and the button will be blocked by me, [Byelorussian leader Stanislav] Shushkevich and [Kazakhstan President Nursultan] Nazarbayev." The Ukrainians are almost rushing to rid themselves of their weapons, responding to the message from the United States that this is a condition for their entry into the West. This led them to reverse an earlier stance opposing transfer of tactical nuclear warheads to Russia where facilities exist for their dismantling. Both Byelorussia and the Ukraine are committed to destroying all their long-range as well as tactical (short-range) nuclear weapons, the latter by July 1, 1992. "I talked to [US Secretary of State James] Baker about this," Kravchuk said. As for the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) based in 176 silos in the Ukraine, 130 are to be destroyed under the US-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and Kravchuk pledges to destroy the rest shortly.
Kazakhs stand apart But the government of Kazakhstan has said it will retain nuclear weapons as long as Russia does. "I was astonished by Nazarbayev's statement," says Maj. Gen. Geliy Batenin, military advisor to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Taking into account our previous negotiations, it was unexpected." General Batenin points to two factors he believes lie behind Nazarbayev's stance. "First, his Islamic political maneuvers, his attempt to gain support from the Islamic world," referring to the aspirations of the Muslim-minority Kazakhs to take a leadership role in the entire Muslim-populated Central Asian region of the former Union. "Second, it was a political game because he finally managed to distinguish himself from the other nuclear leaders, the Ukraine and Byelorussia. But Batenin echoes other Russian officials in confidently predicting the Kazakhs will move shortly to a non-nuclear status. All the tactical weapons will be gone by 1992 and at least 50 percent of the silo-based ICBMs on Kazakh territory will be destroyed under START. "Besides," he adds, "those missiles are already 30 years old and outdated." The desire to please the West makes the nuclear issue more tractable. But on the broader question of how to control and divide the 3.7 million-man Soviet armed forces, the differences emerge strongly, particularly between the Ukraine and Russia. Three different drafts of a security treaty were prepared before the commonwealth conference - one drawn up by the Soviet Ministry of Defense under Air Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov; one by the Russian government under Gen. Konstantin Kobets; and a third by the Ukraine government. According to Batenin, as well as other sources, the Shaposhnikov draft is the main one and the most ambitious in terms of maintaining a centralized Army. It calls for a supreme commander with a five-year term, a general staff, a nd two commanders, one in charge of nuclear forces and the other conventional forces. The Shaposhnikov version seeks to keep most conventional troops under joint command to defend the entire territory of the commonwealth, limiting republics to small armies, with the Ukraine allowed a small navy. The Russian alternative calls for one commander who controls the nuclear forces, including tactical weapons, air defense against bombers, anti-missile batteries, and anti-satellite weapons. This commander would also control mobile conventional forces from the Army, Air Force, and Navy dedicated to defend the borders of the former union. The draft, according to Batenin, calls for a political control system modeled on NATO with a nuclear planning group and a council of defense ministers.
Draft treaties considered "The Ukraine draft clearly rejects any control over conventional armed forces," says Batenin. It agrees only to single command over strategic nuclear weapons. All the republics are presently working on these drafts and experts may meet later in the week to try to come to a common view before the meeting next Monday. But agreement may be difficult to come by. "Even if we do not manage to sign the treaty itself [on the 30th], we will sign an agreement on the principles of joint defense," says Batenin. As a compromise, they could agree to resubordinate units from republican armies to a joint command in the event of emergency or in response to aggression, he suggests. But even that could founder, he admits, because of the Ukraine's adamant stance "against any possibility of central control of its army."