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Nukes after the Soviet Breakup


President Bush suddenly finds himself caught between the political imperative to pour more money into America's troubled big cities and the security imperative to provide financial incentives to ex-Soviet states squabbling over control of strategic nuclear weapons.

Yesterday he secured President Leonid Kravchuk's assurance that Ukraine will become a non-nuclear power after offering a handsome trade-and-aid package. Then he flew off to California to deal with a domestic crisis that has sparked Senate questioning of administration bailout plans for the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Obviously, Mr. Bush's first obligation is to take initiatives for racial peace on the home front. But he also has a presidential duty to stress the unpopular message that it is in the U.S. national interest to spend the funds and use what clout is necessary to keep that menacing Soviet nuclear genie safely plugged within its bottle.

One perverse result of the Soviet breakup was to put the key Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) at risk. Most of the huge Soviet arsenal is located in Russia, but there are enough intercontinental rockets and warheads in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to give these states plenty of bargaining leverage with Moscow and Washington.

Central Russian control of this dangerous weaponry is necessary, in Washington's opinion, if START is to be ratified, the Non-Proliferation Treaty preserved and nuclear war or blackmail prevented. But the Bush administration, for diplomatic reasons, has to make a show of treating all CIS members equally even though the nuclear game has long been played under different rules -- rules in which the "haves" coalesce to make sure the "have nots" remain in that status.

Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, as newly independent states, argue they are automatically members of the nuclear-weapons club. They have been loath to cede to Russia the right to sign START for them or to take possession of all their nuclear weapons unless they received security guarantees from the West. Moscow publicly and Washington privately have resisted accepting this position. So Secretary of State James Baker is now searching for a four-state protocol that preserves the diplomatic niceties, gives each of these CIS states some of what they want and permits the arms control process to continue.

Mr. Kravchuk, who has flip-flopped in the past and may again, now indicates he is ready to deal. Belarus is not expected to cause trouble. That leaves Kazakhstan, whose President Nursultan Nazarbayev will visit Mr. Bush in a fortnight. He is demanding security assurances against the Russian threat that Mr. Kravchuk evidently failed to obtain. And while his state is decidedly weaker and less advanced than Ukraine, its Muslim character gives it influence throughout south central Asia.

Such questions may seem far away from south central Los Angeles. Indeed, they are not.

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