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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nuclear Destabilization

Approximately 15, 000 tactical nuclear warheads were brought back to Russia from the former Soviet republics in 1991-92. In the factories of the closed cities of Arzamas-16, Penza-19, Zlatoust-36 and Sverdlovsk-45 the dismantling of these warheads continues to this day.

It would have been possible to withdraw strategic nuclear warheads simultaneously with the tactical weapons. Then there would be no real problem with the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the former U. S. S. R.

But the Soviet military and political leadership hoped that the Alma-Ata agreement of Dec. 26, 1991, on the creation of a single command structure for the united strategic forces of the CIS, would allow Moscow to keep control over strategic nuclear weapons at least until 1995, and an expensive relocation of strategic forces would not be necessary.

Approximately one-third of the former Soviet strategic arsenal is located in Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. But all of the outmoded SS-11, SS-13 and SS-17 rockets are located on Russian bases. Russia's generals did not want to dismantle unilaterally a significant portion of their newest and most powerful rockets without a corresponding American effort at disarmament.

In 1993, after the signing of the START II treaty, the situation changed. The Russian general staff has agreed to dismantle strategic weapons located outside of Russia, but the governments of Ukraine and Kazakhstan are becoming ever more interested in retaining their nuclear power status.

On July 2 the parliament of Ukraine voted, 226-15, to affirm property rights over strategic warheads located on Ukrainian territory. Ukraine's foreign minister, Anatoly Zlenko, considers the resolution non-binding, but the political will of the majority of the present parliament was expressed unambiguously: Ukraine must retain its "temporary" nuclear status. On July 7, President Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine publicly supported the parliament's decision.

There could soon be parliamentary elections in Ukraine, but the new deputies might turn out to be even more nationalist than the old. and no matter who comes to power, Ukraine, having no oil fields, no gold or diamonds, will still have a pressing need for hard currency. It is difficult to imagine a government in Ukraine that could hold out for long against the temptation to use nuclear blackmail to receive cheap oil from Russia and subsidies from the West.

Kazakhstan, which needs hard currency just as much as Ukraine, has been following the actions of Ukraine's politicians with great interest. If Ukraine's nuclear blackmail is successful, Kazakhstan will demand its share.

While the deputies and ministers are busy with the political battle, Russia's generals are trying to solve the nuclear crisis on their own. On July 5 the commander in chief of the Strategic Rocket Forces, Colonel General Igor Sergeyev told me that "Lieutenant General Vladimir Mikhtyuk, commander of the 43rd strategic rocket army in Ukraine, is a reasonable man and in today's difficult conditions is doing everything possible to stabilize the situation".

Russia's generals have an easier time finding a common language with their Ukrainian counterparts than with the nationalist parliament. Ukraine's military, including the defense minister, General Konstantin Morozov, understand the financial and technical resources needed to establish genuine control over nuclear weapons. and few would want to take such responsibility upon themselves for possible consequences. But it is not the generals who will be making the decision, but political figures, who are much less competent in this sphere.

"In a month I will give the order to remove and dismantle 30 of the oldest SS-19 strategic rockets in Ukraine", said General Sergeyev, and, shrugging his shoulders, added, "Then they will have to make a decision, and we will see what the real position of Ukraine's leadership will be".

In Belarus the situation regarding strategic nuclear weapons is favorable so far. The Belarussian government as yet has no designs on the rockets and warheads located on its territory. However, the withdrawal of the rockets will be accelerated, to keep Belaru's politicians from falling prey to temptation.

The most difficult situation, according to General Sergeyev, is developing now in Kazakhstan, where two divisions of SS-18 heavy ballistic rockets and 40 strategic bombers are located. Local leaders in Kazakhstan are trying more and more often to interfere in the day-to-day operations of the SRF, a task for which they are not qualified.

The uncoordinated actions of politicians and generals are increasingly destabilizing the situation surrounding the nuclear weapons of the former U. S. S. R. In the middle of July in Kiev, U. S. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin suggested warehousing and dismantling Ukraine's nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory, under international control. This provoked a sharply negative reaction from Russia's defense minister. Russia's generals think that the United States would like to take advantage of the opportunity to study the construction of Russia's nuclear warheads.

The government of Ukraine is receiving confusing signals from the European powers as well: They would like the problem of nuclear weapons to be solved, but at the same time they are trying to refrain from appearing too pro-Moscow.

If the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations does not soon work out a coordinated policy regarding Soviet nuclear weapons, then in the next few years the worst-case scenario for the proliferation of nuclear weapons from the territory of the former U. S. S. R. could well come true.

Pavel Felgenhauer is the editor for defense and national security topics for the newspaper Segodnya.