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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Don't Play Politics With Atomic Arms

The worst-case scenario of the demise of the Soviet Union is the stuff that political thrillers are made of. It is a nuclear scenario in which military disarray, economic breakdown and political conflict combine to make atomic weaponry into a pressure tool.

Recent developments between Ukraine and Russia raise the question of whether such a scenario is edging from the realm of the unthinkable to the realm of possibility. Although nobody could suggest today that either power would actually fire missiles at each other, the way they are using nuclear issues is cause enough for discomfort.

Ukraine, in particular, has been wielding ratification of the START treaty as a weapon in its economic battle with Russia. President Leonid Kravchuk's recent admission of lapses in technical maintenance of Kiev's multiple-warhead nuclear missiles should be seen in this context.

Kravchuk was asked about the security lapses after Izvestia reported that defects had been found in 16 SS-24 missiles based in Ukraine and that poor maintenance had caused high radiation levels in the area.

The Ukrainians say they are not responsible for servicing the missiles, which fall under operational control of Commonwealth armed forces. But the Russians say it is up to Ukraine to sign contracts with Russian maintenance plants and to fund the work, Izvestia said.

Top officers in both armies are said to be aware of the problem but cannot do anything because of its political dimension.

Kravchuk has played down the security lapses, saying that the situation was "not critical". But given the current level of tension between Ukraine and its giant neighbor, the fact that the problem exists at all is evidence of gross political irresponsibility.

Ukraine and Russia should immediately put aside whatever military, economic and political differences they may have in order to find a way to keep up technical maintenance of these weapons pending their future destruction under START.

Ukraine, moreover, should stop playing politics with START and ratify the treaty, as it promised to do last year.

In exchange, Russia should ease up on the economic front. President Yeltsin's recent decree claiming all Soviet assets abroad for Russia was as irresponsible as it was unexpected, given the tough negotiations with Kiev over the foreign debt. and Russia's latest threat, to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, is a dangerous move at a time of poor relations between the two powers.

Although the worst-case scenario is still far from upon us, the nuclear stakes in the politics being played by Moscow and Kiev are high enough to keep everyone on edge.