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Soviets' Nuclear Question

Some fear 'proliferation by disintegration,' but arms control and popular antinuclear sentiments make that highly unlikely

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AS the Soviet Union gradually disintegrates, anxiety has increased in the West that Moscow will not be able to maintain its command and control over the country's arsenal of 30,000 nuclear weapons. Nightmare scenarios abound of nuclear terrorism and sabotage, or of widespread proliferation with 15 renegade republics each possessing nuclear weapons. Many in the United States argue that it is in the West's interest to support President Gorbachev in his struggle with the republics - that only Mr. Gorbachev's strong leadership atop a muscular central government can contain the civil disorder and nuclear instability that a breakup of the USSR would bring.

This argument is misguided. It fails to recognize that Gorbachev has dissipated much of his domestic credibility by his unwillingness to implement substantive economic reform measures, and that recent agreements between the republic governments and Moscow are pointing to a significant devolution of power. More important, this policy incorrectly assumes that increased autonomy or independence for the country's republics will be destabilizing and will lead to an unacceptable risk of nuclear confrontation.

However, because Moscow has adopted certain measures in the past few years, the threat of "proliferation by disintegration," never very great to begin with, has diminished further. Under the 1988 INF treaty, the USSR will eliminate over 800 intermediate-range nuclear missiles. When the treaty on strategic nuclear systems is final, half the stockpile of the most powerful Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile, the SS-18, will be destroyed. The Soviets' nuclear weapons are now based in fewer than half o

f the country's 15 republics. In absolute terms, the majority remain in the Russian republic.


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