U.S. Asks Soviets to Ensure Safety of Nuclear Arms
President Bush appealed to Moscow on Thursday to minimize the danger that the turmoil in the Soviet Union might leave its nuclear weapons in unstable hands, saying that he wants the Soviets to ensure that the safety of their atomic arsenal is “totally guaranteed.”
“The last thing the world needs is a nuclear scare,” Bush said.
Bush’s statement, a new demand by the West of the troubled Soviet government, was immediately endorsed by British Prime Minister John Major, who had spent the morning conferring with Bush at the President’s vacation home here.
“The sooner we can get positive answers and positive assurances, the happier we’ll be,” Major said during a joint news conference with the President. Both leaders stressed that they see no cause for immediate concern.
At the same time, the two outlined a series of steps that they want the West to take to speed the delivery of food aid to the Soviet Union and to provide technical assistance to help the country get its economic house in order.
The new aid plan calls for the West effectively to bypass Moscow for the first time and instead dispatch experts directly to breakaway republics to assess the scope of human needs there. Major said that the unprecedented step will be “most in the interest of the Soviet Union.”
Bush dismissed as “premature” a suggestion by Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, that the United States transfer money from its defense budget and use it to increase aid to the Soviets.
The President called Aspin’s proposal interesting but said that it is “way too early--way too early--to get into that.” The comments were characteristic of the caution that has tempered his response to the revolutionary changes.
Despite Major’s and Bush’s assertions that they see no cause for immediate concern about the nuclear weapons issue, their comments reflected lingering uncertainty--and a measure of apprehension--about who may gain control of thousands of nuclear missiles, bombs and artillery.
“That is a matter that needs to be sorted out,” the President conceded. Later, an Administration official added privately, “In the long-term, we just don’t know.”
The pointed comments by the two leaders about the control of Soviet nuclear weapons marked a notable departure from a past Administration approach, which has held that the concerns are too politically sensitive and militarily delicate to be discussed in public.
The leaders’ comments followed a warning from French President Francois Mitterrand on Wednesday that the quest for independence by the Soviet republics could bring about a “nuclear reordering.”
The announcement of new procedures for providing humanitarian aid disclosed that Western governments soon will begin dispatching so-called “life-line teams” to assess the need for food in both the Russian Federation and the other republics as winter approaches.
Both Bush and Major defended Western aid efforts as appropriate for current conditions.
“We’re not just bystanders,” Bush declared. And Major suggested that, although the precise amount of Western food aid still is uncertain, it may well amount to “a very substantial scale.”
Bush also commented about news from Moscow that operations of the Communist Party had been suspended.
“I don’t see anything but good news in that for . . . the West, and certainly in terms of America,” he said. “The demise, the fall of a totalitarian non-democratic party effort--I think that’s a good thing. . . . Rejoice, cheer.”
While even Soviet border guards are reported to respect declarations of independence by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Bush again delayed an expected White House announcement extending formal U.S. recognition to the new Baltic states.
A White House official said that the United States now plans to wait until next week in the hope that the Soviet Union will act first to take the historic step.
“We thought it would be best for the stability of the country if they did it themselves,” spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said in accounting for the postponement. “We’ll look for them to decide by Monday, or we’ll decide.”
The public remarks by the President and the prime minister came as senior officials from the seven biggest industrial democracies met privately in London on Thursday to try to develop procedures and programs for implementing the measures for Soviet aid.
As is their custom, the officials--deputy foreign and finance ministers from the seven largest industrial democracies--issued no statements after the meeting. Deputy finance ministers from all seven countries plan a similar session in Paris today.
Before the meeting, however, Horst Koehler, a German Finance Ministry official, told BBC radio that it is time for other industrial countries to shoulder a larger share of the burden of aiding the Soviet transformation from communism to some form of capitalism.
To date, Germany has pledged more than half of all the funds promised by the industrial world to the Soviet Union--about $32 billion of a total of $55 billion, according to figures published by the European Community.
Germany has also put up nearly $10 billion to help the Soviet Union withdraw its troops from former East Germany.
“Committed aid by (Western countries) has been unbalanced up to now,” Koehler said. “We are frank with our partners that their reluctance--their tactical, political approach to this issue--should be overcome.”
The United States, according to the EC figures, has pledged about $2.5 billion in aid to the Soviet Union--placing it fourth after Germany, Italy ($5 billion) and South Korea ($3 billion).
The U.S. contribution consists entirely of export loans and loan guarantees.
Major, whose country has pledged only about $68 million to the Soviets, all in the form of technical assistance, said Thursday that additional aid from the industrial world would come in the form of technical assistance and food aid.
Times staff writer Joel Havemann, in London, also contributed to this article.