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Soviet Political Unrest Reflected in START Fine Print

August 6, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Deep in the 700 pages of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty are two lines whose matter-of-fact, almost-bureaucratic language belies the nightmare scenario it presages.

″New heavy ICBM silo construction is allowed only in exceptional cases ... to replace eliminated silos in extraordinary circumstances,″ says the provision in the chapter on heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Negotiators didn’t spell out what these ″extraordinary circumstances″ are, but arms control experts say it’s clear: the clause refers to the two SS- 18 silo fields in the republic of Kazakhstan, which has threatened to secede and-or to declare itself a nuclear-free zone.

Although minor in practical significance, the provision reflects growing concern in Moscow and Washington that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of secessionists, ethnic militants, military hard-liners or anarchists undermining Kremlin control over the 15 Soviet republics.

The START treaty, signed last week in Moscow by Presidents Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, would slash on average 30 percent of long-range nuclear arsenals.

It would force the Soviets to eliminate half their stockpile of SS-18s, the heavy long-range missiles long considered the most deadly and threatening in the Soviet arsenal, and to refrain from building new ones - except in ″extraordinary circumstances.″

That would allow the Kremlin to destroy the SS-18 silos and build new ones in a safer location - most likely in the Russian republic where the vast majority of the Soviet Union’s 30,000-odd nuclear weapons are deployed or stored.

Apart from the SS-18 silos in Kazakhstan, the Kremlin also has one field of SS-24 missiles in the republic of the Ukraine, which has threatened to secede, and mobile SS-25 missiles in Byelorussia, said Dunbar Lockwood of the Arms Control Association, an independent think tank.

Under terms of START, SS-24s and SS-25s could be moved to Russia.

The political uncertainties in the Soviet Union are strengthening proponents of a missile defense system in the United States to guard against the threat of an accidental nuclear launch from the Soviet Union or from a growing group of nuclear powers in the Third World.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has called for deployment of 100 ground-based anti-missile interceptors at Grand Forks, N.D., as the first step of such a defense.

Bush discussed the missile defense proposal with Gorbachev in their Moscow talks, and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft said beforehand that the issue wouldn’t raise Soviet hackles as it had in the days of Cold War rivalries.

″I think the idea of dealing with an accidental launch is one that they’ve had a great deal of interest in,″ Scowcroft said.

Arms control experts say the Soviet long-range nuclear system is very unlikely to be accidentally breached because of its strict centralized control and its elaborate mechanisms of codes to guard against unauthorized release.

″The Soviets employ a series of measures to protect their nuclear weapons from possible seizure by disaffected groups and to minimize the risk of accidental and unauthorized launch by military personnel,″ said Edward L. Warner III, a specialist on Soviet defense policy at the Rand Corp.

Among the measures are special defense ministry troops who guard the nuclear launch facilities and a system whereby the launch codes can only be released by the highest authorities in Moscow, Warner said last week in congressional testimony.

Warner said the Soviet defense ministry recently had screened its personnel to ensure that ″unstable or troubled officers and enlisted men are barred from serving″ in positions with access to nuclear weapons.

Nonetheless, the perpetual challenges to Gorbachev’s control are a cause for concern. ″Divisiveness at the top could undermine the cohesion of the nuclear command system″ despite the failsafe mechanisms it features, said Bruce Blair of the Brookings Institution.

But Blair and other experts agree that far more worrisome than loss of control over long-range nuclear systems is unauthorized access to tactical, or short-range, weapons deployed in various republics.

Already, the Kremlin has moved some of these weapons out of the more volatile republics, including the Baltics. That decision was made following an attack early last year on a military base near Baku in the republic of Azerbaijan by nationalist militants. The facility reportedly housed tactical nuclear weapons.

Of some comfort to U.S. defense officials is the fact that the Kremlin is as worried, probably more so, than the United States about safeguarding its nuclear arsenal.

″The central government seems to be busily shoring up the security of nuclear weapons and planning for contingencies that could otherwise loosen its grip on nuclear operations,″ said Blair.

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