The Soviet Arsenal and the Mistaken Calculus of Caution
Journal Article, The Washington Post
March 29, 1992
Authors: Ashton B. Carter, Former Co-Director, Preventive Defense Project, Harvard & Stanford Universities, Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School
"YUGOSLAVIA WITH nukes." That was Secretary of State James A. Baker III's succinct and chilling recent vision of what might become of the former Soviet Union.
In fact, 1992 will be the decisive year in which Baker's specter comes to life or is put to rest -- and the signs so far are not reassuring. If current trends continue, the United States may win a great battle -- and lose the war. Specifically, all tactical nuclear weapons may be removed to secure sites in Russia by July 1. But some 3,000 strategic nuclear warheads now deployed in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus will remain in place, mired in multi-year arms control timetables that are being overtaken by the ongoing revolution in the former Soviet Union.
As the union collapsed last fall, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus began with the clear position that they wished to be free of nuclear weapons. But delays in turning these statements into irreversible deeds offer an opening for those who want to reject, hedge or condition the original commitments. Too many of these voices come from the West.
Some have told Ukrainian leaders (incorrectly) that they could cash in weapons-grade nuclear materials for billions of dollars. Others tell Ukrainians that nuclear weapons are a good thing for a country such as theirs and that it would be foolish to give them up. Both views have had an impact in Kiev. Both are false and irresponsible. Privately and publicly, the international community must speak the blunt truth: Any attempt by Ukraine, Kazakhstan or Belarus to assert independent national control over nuclear weapons could set off conflict and cut away much of the Western support that is the best shield for these fledgling states.
If Ukraine and Kazakhstan take national control of the nuclear weapons on their territory, they will become overnight the world's third- and fourth-largest nuclear powers, tearing a gaping hole in the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. If scores of these warheads should fall out of control into the international arms bazaar, the consequences would be even more chilling.
It is a further grotesque irony of the current policy drift that the strategic warheads -- the most fearsome weapons of mass destruction ever invented -- are held increasingly at risk by the very process of arms "control" that is meant to eliminate them as a threat to world peace. Focused on the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons, Russia and the United States have watched the steady slide by the republics away from denuclearization ("deNUKing"), while themselves remaining seemingly content to leave the withdrawal of strategic weapons on a bureaucratic schedule that runs years into the future. If the slide continues, denuclearization is likely never to be completed.
Why is this happening? It is first necessary to understand the view -- however shortsighted it may be -- of Russia's generals on the issue of strategic withdrawal: They do not want to hasten removal of some of the most modern elements in their strategic forces, like SS-24 missiles in Ukraine, SS-25s in Belarus or SS-18s in Kazakhstan. So they hew to current arms control timetables that would drag the process out to the end of the century.
The United States's failure to press all parties hard for swift removal of the strategic nuclear weapons is outwardly more puzzling, especially in view of President Bush's brilliant initiative to Gorbachev after the coup last year, when he and his advisers were among the first to recognize the danger of "loose" Soviet nukes. But the U.S. failure to stress strategic denuclearization lies in the fact that the nuclear agenda in Washington and Moscow is dominated by the same issues that have controlled the formal arms control negotiating process for many years.
In Baker's latest meetings with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, the number one security issue was -- as the arms control bureaucrats wished -- to work out new arms reduction agreements and follow through on the president's important initiative to reduce the multiple warheads atop strategic missiles to single warheads ("deMIRVing").
The bureaucrats who accompany Baker set the arms control agenda, refine the legal codicils, wait for the debrief of what he accomplished, and respond to the out-of-government arms control community which shares the same 1980s-era preoccupations. The result only stacks new commitments atop older ones whose fulfillment is increasingly in doubt. Arms "control" proceeds at a frenzied pace, but denuclearization lags.
What should the U.S. government do to prevent this destabilizing evolution? We believe the Bush administration can take five important steps to speed the caging of these weapons, thereby reassuring the world of America's commitment to a stable, nonnuclear future for the former Soviet Union. Concentrate on deNUKing before deMIRVing. The Bush-Baker objective should be to move all tactical and strategic nuclear weapons to Russia from the other three nuclear republics before the end of 1992, whatever their arms control status. The goal is to insulate nuclear warheads from political turmoil, limiting the risk that they can come into possession of anyone outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) general staff custodial organization. This process can be aided by speeding the timetable for START and "START-plus" reductions and jumping weapons outside of Russia to the head of the elimination schedule so they are taken off alert with warheads disabled and removed by the year's end.
Deal with the concerns and politics of denuclearization in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Baker made the effort to win the initial political commitments to denuclearization last fall. But subsequent U.S. efforts to translate commitments into action have largely passed these countries by, focusing on the authorities in Moscow.
If Washington wants to negotiate arms control only with Moscow, fine. But that agenda is different from the denuclearization agenda. The United States can engage the new governments directly in denuclearization, using broader distribution of some of the $ 400 million assistance provided by Congress under the Nunn-Lugar Amendment. It can offer to help the leaders of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan safely disassemble missiles with their dangerous fuel. And it can offer to enlist their scientists in new branches of the U.S.-European funded International Science and Technology Center located in their countries as well as Russia.
Use the Nunn-Lugar Amendment to accelerate denuclearization. Creative U.S. use of the $ 400 million assistance fund can keep all governments, the CIS general staff and the powerful bomb-building Ministry of Atomic Power and Industry (MAPI) focused on removing weapons to Russia, dismantling them and safely disposing of fissile materials. With the exception of the science and technology center, Nunn-Lugar money has been trickled out in grudging negotiations rather than used boldly to steer parties where U.S. officials think they need to go.
Washington should quickly reach agreements on bulletproof blankets to put over warheads as they are being shipped, secure storage containers and emergency response to nuclear accidents. Then the administration should present new proposals: If warheads cannot be dismantled quickly because of inadequate plutonium storage, offer help. If Ukraine is concerned about dismantling SS-19 and SS-24 missiles after the warheads have gone to Russia, offer help. If warhead storage problems slow removals from Kazakhstan, offer help. Such offers of Nunn-Lugar cooperation can remove the real barriers to denuclearization -- or smoke out concerns that may lie behind any foot-dragging, so they can be addressed.
MAPI head Viktor Mikhailov recently complained to American journalists about Congress's hope that the United States would "supervise" weapon dismantling. According to a recent article in U.S. News & World Report, he said he had told Yeltsin, "We cannot accept" such conditions, which "I was told . . . are more important for Bush's election . . . and they have nothing to do with us." Such nonsense only underscores that the future of nuclear weapons in the CIS is too important to be left to the bomb builders, who have created the notorious Chetek enterprise to auction off "peaceful" nuclear explosions and other services of Russia's weapons complex. Nunn-Lugar assistance gives the United States a voice in decisions and helps strengthen the Yeltsin government's control over the military-industrial baronies.
Not surprisingly, the prospect of receiving Nunn-Lugar funding has gotten the attention of all relevant parties, including American contractors. But unless there is a U.S. plan and clear U.S. performance criteria, the fund could end up fueling a traveling pork party, especially for the shady, entrepreneurial elements in MAPI.
Benchmarks for measuring progress can be easily established -- the number of weapons removed to central storage in Russia, and the number of warheads dismantled in Russia. These benchmarks would make progress clear to political leaders in all capitals so that U.S. taxpayers could plainly see the wisdom of this investment in their security.
Forge an operational "partnership" between U.S. and CIS military leaders. At their Camp David meeting, Bush and Yeltsin announced that the United States and democratic Russia no longer consider each other enemies, but "partners."
Broader military contacts will help make that partnership real. Engaging the Moscow Ministry of Defense in denuclearization is critical, since it controls and manages the nuclear arsenal. Military exchanges at the level of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell and other senior leaders might crack lingering ministry resistance to denuclearization and provide early warning of problems that are sure to arise along the way.
Guided (but not stifled) by civilian superiors, the contacts should be sustained and substantive -- not just exchanges of bands and stunt teams. Joint working groups should be created not only with Russia, but with the emerging military hierarchies in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Prepare a backup "Plan B" in case tensions in the former U.S.S.R. derail the deNUKing process. U.S. denuclearization hopes rest on "Plan A": a relatively united, peaceful Russia manages the problem with U.S. aid and the cooperation of the other CIS states. But if turmoil disrupts Plan A, there must be a Plan B -- in which the international community plays a more active part in moving, safeguarding and eliminating weapons and nuclear materials. Keeping Plan A on track, and positioning the U.S. and its allies to carry out a Plan B that protects our interests if needed, requires an active effort now to establish an on-the-ground presence via Western denuclearization assistance in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus as well as in Russia.
The United States and the former Soviet Union have reached a historic moment: The fate of the failed empire's strategic weapons can be decided soon. For the United States in an election year, this issue has remained bipartisan. For the U.S. president, preparing for a summit that can define the future of Russian-American strategic cooperation, denuclearization can show the way.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center at 617-495-1400.
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