Yeltsin Presses Gorbachev for Nuclear Button
Pressing his claim to the 3.3-pound briefcase that controls the Soviet nuclear arsenal, Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin met Monday with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to ensure the smooth transfer of strategic command.
Gorbachev’s resignation, made inescapable by Saturday’s historic agreement in Alma-Ata founding a loose commonwealth of 11 republics to succeed the Soviet Union, will come “in days, maybe hours,” predicted Gennady E. Burbulis, Yeltsin’s top adviser.
Monday evening, a television camera was switched on inside the Kremlin showing an armchair posed in front of white-patterned wallpaper, plus a slide reading, “An Announcement by M. S. Gorbachev.”
But the feed to state-run television went off at around 8 p.m. Gorbachev aides said it was nothing more than crews from Soviet TV and the ABC network shooting a film about Gorbachev and using an internal video channel.
“I will announce my decision within the next two days,” the Interfax news agency reported Gorbachev’s telling British Prime Minister John Major in a telephone call. Gorbachev made the call during a break in his more than six hours of talks with Yeltsin.
Andrei S. Grachev, his press secretary, said Gorbachev will need a day or two and by then “will have determined his position” on the Alma-Ata accords, which have left him without a country to govern. He said Gorbachev then will issue a declaration.
Burbulis said Yeltsin met Gorbachev empowered by a new formal agreement with the three other “nuclear” republics--Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine--to take sole command of the Soviet armed forces’ 27,000 nuclear warheads.
“The fundamental point of this (commonwealth) document is the decision by the states to hand over to the Russian Federation the right to exercise personal control and personal operation of the infamous ‘button,’ ” Burbulis told a press conference.
Taking ultimate command of the means to launch the arms would be the crowning move in Yeltsin’s step-by-step assumption of power at Gorbachev’s expense.
Yet there were doubts about what exactly Yeltsin had won the right to do.
Since the August putsch that fatally undercut Gorbachev’s power, rumors have been rife about who controls what Soviets call the chemodanchik, or little suitcase. It purportedly contains launch codes for the SS-18, SS-19 missiles and other Soviet strategic arms. In remarks over the weekend, Gorbachev was coy but indicated the satchel was still in his possession.
“In my briefcase there are many things that you should not know about,” he told a radio correspondent. “There are always things that it is better not to know about. It is probable, however, that the atomic briefcase, which weighs a kilogram and a half, is still with me.”
Alexander A. Likhotal, another Gorbachev spokesman who spoke late Monday, said, “The chemodanchik is still in the hands of Gorbachev and will remain there until his resignation.” But because of measures agreed to by the Russian and Soviet presidents, he added, “the transition of the ‘nuclear button’ will be a very smooth one, for there will be no uncertainty.”
Burbulis, Russia’s secretary of state and deputy chief of government, said the text of the agreement deeding Yeltsin final control over the weapons “gives a full and exhaustive answer to the questions that worry the world public.”
But officials from the other republics that have joined the Commonwealth of Independent States said the issue is far more complex.
Seitkazy B. Matayev, the Moscow spokesman for Kazakhstan, whose Parliament ratified the commonwealth agreement Monday, denied outright that the Central Asian republic has agreed to cede command of ICBMs on its territory to Yeltsin.
As Matayev pointed out, the salient passage of the four-party Agreement on Joint Measures on Nuclear Arms does not mention Kazakhstan but says: “Until nuclear weapons have been completely eliminated on the territory of the republics of Belarus and Ukraine, decisions on the need to use them are taken, by agreement with the heads of the member states of the agreement, by the (Russian) president, on the basis of procedures drawn up jointly by the member states.”