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NEWS ANALYSIS : Bush Acted to Help Gorbachev Control A-Arms

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Bush’s sweeping proposals to reduce short-range nuclear weapons and pull U.S. nuclear forces back from the brink of confrontation were aimed principally at helping Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev do the same things in the Soviet Union--where the issue of who controls nuclear weapons is still a chillingly open question.

The near-disintegration of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of last month’s abortive coup d’etat convinced Bush and his advisers that they needed to act quickly to prevent the Kremlin’s estimated 27,000 nuclear warheads from falling into the wrong hands, officials said.

Moreover, the unstable political situation in Moscow left no time for the old-fashioned approach of proposing U.S.-Soviet negotiations that might take years to bear fruit. That is why Bush decided on the almost unprecedented tactic of offering unilateral U.S. arms reductions and then appealing to Gorbachev to match the moves in his own self-interest, they said.

“These moves . . . challenge the Soviets--both the central governments and the republics--to do what we’re doing by responding with initiatives of their own,” Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said Saturday. " . . . Both President Gorbachev and (Russian Federation President Boris N.) Yeltsin have talked about their desire to reduce their nuclear arsenal. We want to give them an opportunity to do this, to match their words with their deeds.”

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Administration officials said Saturday that they were pleased by Gorbachev’s initial reaction, which was to call the Bush proposals “positive” and to promise that the Soviet Union would make reciprocal moves.

In a broad sense, Bush’s proposals were an attempt to bring nuclear arms control up to date in a world where the central threat is no longer from a malign, centrally controlled Soviet Union but rather the prospect that nuclear weapons might escape the control of a Kremlin that America now regards as a friendly power.

“George Bush is talking about nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War era,” said former U.S. arms control negotiator Richard Burt. “It’s a different era, a different kind of arms control.”

But in a more immediate and practical sense, the President’s package focused on the nuclear systems that could most easily fall into the wrong hands: small, “backpack” nuclear explosives intended for battlefield use, ship-borne missiles that can be launched by individual commanders and mobile missiles that can be moved on ordinary highways.

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Brookings Institution analyst Joshua Epstein noted that U.S. strategists once worried first about the threat from Moscow’s huge, heavy, long-range missiles. “Now, the real threat is in the command-and-control problems,” he said.

Many of the elements in Bush’s proposal have been talked about by U.S. arms-control experts for years. For example, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had already called for negotiations to eliminate short-range nuclear weapons from Europe to begin this fall. And Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, has been arguing for a ban on ship-based nuclear cruise missiles since the mid-1980s.

But the abortive coup attempt against Gorbachev forced Bush and his advisers to look at those old issues in a sharp new light.

During the first 24 hours of the coup--when it looked as if the hard-liners who mounted the putsch might succeed--Administration officials found themselves nervously considering the prospect of a Soviet Union ruled by hard-line “Cold Warriors” again.

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They also realized that the United States wasn’t sure who controlled the Soviet Union’s fearsome nuclear arsenal: Gorbachev, the leaders of the coup or the Soviet general staff?

After the coup failed, Yeltsin and the leaders of other Soviet republics began demanding a greater say in the management of the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal--a prospect that immediately alarmed Bush and his aides, for it could have turned the Soviet Union from one unstable nuclear superpower into four: Russia, Byelorussia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, the republics where nuclear weapons are deployed.

“The possibility of an unauthorized launch or unauthorized individuals getting control of the nuclear weapons is relatively small today,” Cheney said. “What we can’t be precise about is what kind of arrangements will exist in the future, two or three years from now.”

Bush ordered his aides to begin work on a new nuclear disarmament proposal in the week after the failed coup, while he was still vacationing at his summer home in Kennebunkport, Me., officials said. But events in the succeeding month only strengthened the President’s resolve to move fast on the issue.

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When Secretary of State James A. Baker III visited Russia and Kazakhstan two weeks ago, one of his main missions was to urge the Soviet republics to leave the nuclear arsenal under central control. The answers that he heard were a mixture of good news and bad: The republics agreed on the basic principle of central control, but they all wanted some say in it--and nobody was quite sure how it should work.

In remote Alma Ata, Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, told Baker that his mostly Muslim republic intends to hold on to its nuclear weapons--and, with them, Kazakhstan’s “significant role in this question.”

But Kazakhstan’s status as a nuclear power wasn’t the only problem on the minds of Administration officials. Even more pressing was the fact that the Soviet Union’s arsenal of short-range nuclear weapons, from naval missiles to artillery shells and even atomic land mines, is far larger than that of the United States--and under far less-certain control than the long-range nuclear missiles that have been the traditional focus of arms-control efforts.

American strategists had already concluded, as Cheney said last week, that such short-range nuclear weapons “no longer have any military value.” The Soviet invasion they were intended to deter is no longer a realistic prospect; and, in any case, sophisticated conventional explosives can now do almost everything short-range nuclear weapons were once designed for.

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But as the Kremlin’s control over its own troops came into question, the thousands of nuclear artillery shells scattered across the European half of the Soviet Union were more than an anachronism; they were, in the words of one U.S. official, “a potential disaster waiting to happen.”

The Soviet response to most of Bush’s proposals should be easy. Many of them are measures Gorbachev has been urging for years. The new Soviet defense minister, Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov, even proposed a ban on tactical nuclear weapons when Baker visited him earlier this month.

Still, Gorbachev answered cautiously when his own spokesman, in an official “interview” on Soviet television, asked--without apparent irony: “Do you think they (the United States) could have something up their sleeve?”

“The specific aspects of the proposals are too massive for us to be able to give an assessment at the moment,” Gorbachev said. Even after the coup, the Soviet president still must sell any arms-control proposal to his own military officers.

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Moreover, Gorbachev noted, it was unclear how the Bush package fit into his own goal of producing what he calls “a nuclear-free world.”

Indeed, one thing Bush’s proposal did not do was to question the central U.S. strategy of nuclear deterrence. Unlike former President Ronald Reagan, Bush is proposing no abolition of nuclear missiles. Instead, his aim appears to be to adjust that enduring nuclear strategy to the realities of the post-Cold War world.

That omission ensures that some elements of the old-fashioned arms-control debate will endure.


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