THE United States and Russia may have wrapped up a historic START II arms treaty Dec. 29, but the hard part of the deal could well lie ahead: implementing cuts in the chaotic post-cold-war security environment.
In the past the Soviet Union was a tough negotiating partner, but at least the Kremlin had full control over its national-security apparatus. Today Russia's transition to democracy has been raucous, to say the least, and Russian officials continue to warn about a resurgence of right-wing nationalism.
Meanwhile, Ukraine is still clinging to its nuclear weapons, thus stalling the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START I) arms pact that was signed and sealed in 1991. There's little chance that cuts mandated by the new START II treaty could proceed until this roadblock is overcome.
"All of these agreements are promissory notes that need to be collected," says Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association. "A lot can happen in seven to 10 years" - the timetable for carrying out START reductions.
Two US senators respected for their foreign policy expertise have formed a coalition of sorts in recent weeks to call attention to the unsettled conditions in the former USSR. Sens. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana argue that events in Bosnia and Somalia shouldn't divert the US from watching an area where developments could affect American security for decades. They urge placing a higher priority on economic aid to help stabilize the government of Boris Yeltsin and prevent a righ t-wing turn that could endanger arms treaties. To do so, they propose naming a special US coordinator for the region.
While the threat of a massive nuclear attack on the US is at an all-time low, "the threat of an unauthorized launch or nuclear accident may have increased," argued Senators Nunn and Lugar in an article printed in the Washington Post last week.
Still, a handshake on a new arms deal is a historic achievement. The START I agreement, already signed, calls for the superpowers to reduce their nuclear arsenals to about 6,500 warheads from today's 10,000-plus levels. START II, the just-signed new treaty, will reduce those numbers further, to between 3,000 and 3,500 warheads by 2003.
In addition, START II would abolish land-based, multiple-warhead missiles, which experts have long considered that most dangerous and destabilizing of nuclear weapons.
At press time, the final obstacles to a START II pact appear to have been overcome. On Dec. 29 US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and his Russian counterpart, Andrei Kozyrev, announced that they had hammered out an agreement. "We have made very good progress," Mr. Eagleburger said. "We now have a text we can put to the two presidents."
President Bush could meet President Yeltsin to sign the pact as early as next week, capping an administration that made genuine progress in arms control.
The last-minute push comes after START II progress, made last summer, stalled over several technical details.
For one, Russian officials asked to be allowed to keep a few of the silos that now house SS-18 missiles. All of the SS-18s themselves are to be scrapped under the pact, but Moscow argued it can't afford to destroy all the silos, and wants to use some to house other missiles.
For another, Russia asked permission to keep a number of mobile SS-19 missiles and convert them from six-warhead to one-warhead weapons. It also wanted to make changes in the rules for determining which US bombers are nuclear-capable.
All these changes represent a rollback of US gains in the draft treaty, to some extent, and thus have been resisted by US negotiators for some months. But with only weeks until the end of the Bush administration and the inevitable break in negotiation momentum, the US started to give.
"None of these changes are going to make any difference to US security," Mr. Mendelsohn says.
Stepped-up negotiations on START II put more pressure on Ukraine to go along with START I. Unlike Russia and the other former Soviet republics that inherited nuclear weapons, Ukraine has yet to make progress towards ratifying START.
If START is fully implemented, only Russia will retain an atomic arsenal.
Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk has tried to extract further diplomatic gains and aid from the West as his price for going along with the agreement.