SENIOR officials of the former Soviet Army and Russian nuclear scientists sharply denied charges by Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk last week that they had lost control over their nuclear arsenal.
"The system for the storage of nuclear warheads is very safe, and all the weapons are under centralized control ensuring its complete safety," Lt. General Sergei Zelentsov, head of the main department of the joint armed forces of the Commonwealth of Independent States told reporters March 17.
The senior military official refuted various reports from Western and Russian media that some nuclear warheads had been sold, for example from the Republic of Kazakhstan to Iran.
"There is not a single case of loss of a nuclear weapon," General Zelentsov retorted, nor any attempts to steal weapons. He insisted tight security controls over the weapons and nuclear materials remain in place. All tactical nuclear weapons, such as short-range rockets and artillery, are now concentrated in only three republics, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, he added. Kazahkstan claims all tactical nuclear weapons have been removed from its soil, and denies charges of selling them to Iran.
Under an existing agreement, the tactical weapons in Ukraine are scheduled to be removed to Russia by July 1 for eventual dismantling and destruction. But last week Ukrainian leader Kravchuk suddenly announced the temporary suspension of their removal, expressing concern that the weapons were being stockpiled rather than destroyed and that their control could not be ensured.
"In view of political instability and confusion, we cannot guarantee the weapons taken out will be destroyed or reliably safeguarded," Kravchuk says.
The announcement caused concern not only in Moscow but also in Western capitals which have been steadily pressing for Ukraine to follow through on pledges to become a nonnuclear state. Within days, the Ukrainian government started backtracking on Kravchuk's statement, emphasizing instead a proposal for joint control over the removal and dismantling to be discussed at the commonwealth leaders' scheduled summit in Kiev on March 20.
"The key word here is temporary," Anton Buteyko, the Ukrainian president's advisor on foreign affairs, told the Monitor. "We have not changed our policy, and we hope to reach an agreement on Friday so we can resume the removal and meet the July 1 deadline."
A draft proposal on joint control, to be aired at the commonwealth summit, has been prepared by Ukraine's Ministry of Defense.
According to a text obtained by the Monitor, joint control will be established over the order and timetable of removal, decided by the commonwealth commander-in-chief, Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, in coordination with the republics. The document also foresees joint control over the dismantling of tactical arms in Russia based on separate bilateral agreements between Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.
"Ukraine also wants international involvement in monitoring the process," adds Mr. Buteyko, but the idea has encountered resistance from Russia.
A joint mechanism for verification of weapons removal and dismantling already exists, Zelentsov said. But in apparent response to the Ukrainian proposal, he revealed that they were discussing "improvement" of the system with Ukraine.
The reception was far cooler to a proposal by Kravchuk that a new facility for dismantling nuclear warheads and reprocessing the uranium and plutonium from the 178 intercontinental ballistic missiles based in Ukraine be set up there.
A statement issued by Russian nuclear scientists from the Alzamas-16 facility, the major center for nuclear weapons design and dismantling, strongly opposed this idea, arguing that Ukraine lacked the ability to carry out this task. The weapons should be dismantled under the control of their designers at the places where they were assembled, the scientists said. Without such controls, they warned, there would be "cataclysmic results."
The armed forces officials said there was sufficient capacity for dismantling nuclear weapons at those facilities. But they acknowledged a severe "bottleneck" in storing the radioactive material from the warheads. Indirectly confirming Ukrainian charges of weapons being stockpiled, Zelentsov told reporters it would take three-to-five years, depending on international assistance, to build the storage facilities.
The ongoing dispute over nuclear weapons is only part of broader tensions over military issues between the two largest former Soviet republics. They also have been divided over the Black Sea Fleet and other former Soviet Army units based in Ukraine. Ukraine insists on forming its own army while Russia, until this week, has called for forming joint commonwealth armed forces with control over both nuclear and conventional weapons.
On Monday, Russian President Boris Yeltsin issued a much anticipated decree announcing the formation of a separate Ministry of Defense which will prepare proposals for the formation of a Russian army. But Yeltsin softened the impact by stating that the Russian army would operate under the command of the joint armed forces and that Russia would negotiate with republics which have not yet formed their own armies and where the commonwealth units are based.
But few doubt that the move signals the end to hopes, held by the former Soviet Army General Staff, of maintaining a single army.
"We knew this issue couldn't be avoided," Ukrainian Prime Minister Vitold Fokin told reporters on Monday. "Russia has finally stopped dancing around the issue and openly stated that a state is not a state without its own armed forces."