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Nuclear Low Ball


In poker terms, Russian President Boris Yeltsin's game is low ball. He wants nuclear arsenals drawn down as far as he can push them. This is a natural urge for an impoverished nation that has conceded the Americans their technological superiority, even in dismantling the very weapons the Soviet Union built during the Cold War years.

In strategic terms, Mr. Yeltsin wants to capitalize on Russia's huge land mass. This is also a natural urge for someone with sway over 11 time zones as he deals with a maritime power with easy access to three warm-water coastlines.

At their Camp David meeting, the two leaders made their opening bids on what promises to be the most ambitious nuclear disarmament exercise ever. It was considered a major breakthrough when Washington and Moscow agreed in the START treaty to lower their long-range nuclear arsenals to about 9,000 warheads each. But since the disintegration of the Soviet Union was formalized, Mr. Bush and Mr. Yeltsin have upped their low bidding, so to speak, with the U.S leader setting a target of about 4,500 warheads and Mr. Yeltsin going down another big notch to 2,500 warheads.

First question: What is the significance of these two figures? The Russians want to retain a basic land-based strike force but presumably would give up some or all of their huge 10-warhead SS-18 intercontinental missiles if a 2,500-warhead ceiling would force huge cuts in the U.S nuclear submarine fleet. The United States, in contrast, is willing to scrap all multiple-warhead land-based weapons provided it can keep its sea-based deterrent -- a goal that mandates the higher figure.

Second question: How firm are these figures? Probably not very firm. Secretary of State James A. Baker III is going to Moscow in a fortnight to begin more formal negotiations. Somewhere between the Russian 2,500-warhead target and the American 4,500-warhead goal there should be a compromise number that may meet each nation's perceived security needs, and in a much shorter time frame than was required for START.

Political change (Mr. Yeltsin calls it "revolution") is forcing the pace in this reverse arms race. What was unthinkable scant months ago has become official negotiating positions that, in turn, could change and change again. Note, for example, Mr. Yeltsin's acceptance of Ronald Reagan's old (and much mocked) dream of American-Russian cooperation in building space-based defensive systems against nuclear attack. Note, too, the Bush administration's edginess on this issue.

As they met at Camp David, exchanging excessive pleasantries, Mr. Yeltsin was desperate for large-scale American economic assistance to secure his survival; Mr. Bush was reluctant to give it as he runs for re-election in an atmosphere of recession-charged isolationism. So some irritable comments surfaced later that need not be overemphasized. Both presidents are engaged in a momentous process that dwarfs their personal ambitions.

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