U.S. Fears Arms Race Among Soviet States
Citing the danger of “internal” arms races within the splintered Soviet Union, U.S. officials are warning that key republics may begin squabbling over how to divide up thousands of tanks and other conventional weapons covered by a recent U.S.-Soviet treaty.
While the fate of the Soviet nuclear arsenal continues to be Washington’s primary concern, the Bush Administration is focusing increasing attention on the more mundane battlefield weapons allocated to the former union under the pending Conventional Forces in Europe pact.
All of the newly independent Soviet republics have said that they intend to abide by the arms treaties signed by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev on behalf of the union, but U.S. officials fear that their desire to equip their new armies may create complications.
In a speech at Princeton University on Thursday, Secretary of State James A. Baker III made a little-noticed appeal against conventional arms competition among the republics, citing the potential threat to Europe if the new states begin pointing their weapons at each other.
“Already, we are seeing signs that some republican governments, notably Azerbaijan, are arming themselves for war against other republics,” he warned.
Baker, who has warned that “internal arms races” represent “a potentially grave danger to European security,” is expected to press the republics for new commitments during a diplomatic tour of the region this week.
“We have to expect some tension between Russia and Belarus and Ukraine over how many tanks and artillery pieces they can have under the CFE treaty,” said one Administration official, requesting anonymity. “The treaty didn’t break up the totals among those states, and each may want a share that the others consider disproportionate.”
However, while conventional arms complications are creating new anxieties in Washington, U.S. officials noted several positive developments involving the consolidation of Soviet tactical, or short-range, nuclear weapons.
“Although we’re not 100% sure yet, evidence is accumulating that there are no more nukes outside the four core republics,” said a senior State Department official, referring to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Within those republics, moreover, the weapons are being concentrated into fewer and more secure depots, the official said.
Of the former Soviet Union’s total nuclear arsenal of more than 27,000 weapons, about 10,000 are strategic, or long-range, bombs and missile warheads, while about 17,000 are tactical weapons--bombs, artillery shells and antiaircraft missile warheads.
More than 2,000 tactical weapons were located outside the four core republics before the tumultuous events of the past year, according to data compiled by the private Arms Control Assn.
Moscow has officially announced that all nuclear arms have been removed from the Baltic states and the three Caucasian states of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, where violent civil unrest is occurring, said Jack Mendelsohn, ACA deputy director. About 370 remaining weapons that were in Central Asian states apparently have been moved into safer environments within the bigger republics.
The CFE agreement, which was signed last year, roughly halves the quantity of Soviet weaponry in Europe while making marginal cuts in North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces. The treaty applies to tanks, artillery, armored combat vehicles, helicopters and aircraft.
The United States has formally ratified the CFE pact. So far, however, none of the Soviet republics or the former union itself has done so. Formal ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which reduces long-range nuclear weapons on both sides by about one-third, has not been completed by either side.
Despite assurances offered by leaders of the breakaway Soviet states that they intend to honor all pending arms pacts, the United States is anxious to get their formal accession to the treaties.
On the eve of his trip to the region, Baker called for implementation of the CFE agreement “by relevant authorities” in the former union.
During his visit, he is also expected to seek renewed declarations by four core republics--Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan--that all nuclear arms will remain under unified central command, unlike the conventional weapons that each republic now intends to control independently.
The potential for disputes over CFE weapons assigned to the Soviet Union reflects the possibility that Ukraine and Belarus may demand more of them than Russia thinks they should have.
For example, the Soviet Union was allowed to keep 13,150 tanks west of the Ural Mountains, allocated among three zones. The major zone includes Ukraine and Belarus, but Ukraine also is included in a second zone.
Because the allocation formulas are complex, the three republics may wind up arguing among themselves over how many tanks should be retained by each.
Similar disputes could arise over other conventional weapons covered by the CFE pact.
“We are certainly aware of that potential problem,” an official said. ". . . We shouldn’t overstate its significance yet, but it’s hard to believe there will be no tension” over the allocation of the weapons.
In addition, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and several other republics must agree on how many of the bases and other facilities on their territories can be inspected by the West as part of the verification provisions of the CFE treaty.
And they must agree among themselves on where to destroy the excess weapons in accordance with the treaty’s provisions.
Of all the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons, U.S. officials appear most concerned about the older, tactical weapons that have minimal or perhaps no electronic locks or other coded safeguards against accidental or unauthorized use.
But there is evidence, Mendelsohn said, that the Soviets have increased security measures around depots and in the transportation of these tactical weapons.
Mendelsohn also noted that even if these weapons lack coded locks, they probably have “environmental” safeguards: Bombs must fall freely and artillery warheads must be spun by passage through the gun barrel before they can arm themselves and detonate.
These bombs and warheads are stored separately from the aircraft or artillery pieces, he said, so any renegades or terrorists intent on causing a nuclear blast would have to steal both the bomb or warhead as well as its appropriate delivery system.