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Puzzle at Krasnoyarsk

September 13, 1987

Nobody in this country knows why the Soviet Union built a radar station 30 stories tall in the middle of the Siberian nowhere. What they do know is that it violates the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty that put limits on missile defense systems in the United States and the Soviet Union. The treaty allows radar units like the one near the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, but only "along the periphery of" the country that builds them; Krasnoyarsk is hundreds of miles from the nearest Soviet border. Americans also know that two smaller radar stations located somewhere else could have done the same job and been perfectly legal.

So there it sits--unfinished, nothing much to look at, but still a symbol for many Americans of a Soviet propensity for cheating on treaties, a symbol that the Reagan Administration mentions often as one reason for abandoning the Salt II treaty. The Soviets deny that the radar was designed to detect missiles hurtling toward Soviet territory from the polar region and to launch defensive missiles at them--what the Pentagon calls a battle-management station. Publicly, the Soviets insist that the facility was designed to track satellites in space. The few Soviets who speak of it privately say that it is an embarrassment.

Krasnoyarsk is back in the news because the Soviets took three members of Congress and several of their staff members on a tour of the radar installation last week. The tourists' impression that the construction work was shoddy did not add much to what Americans already knew. They have known for some time, for example, that it is the wrong kind of radar for tracking satellites, that it is underpowered and that it could be blinded easily if that became necessary.

What is interesting is that the tour took place at all. Soviets admit mistakes about as freely as major-league umpires; perhaps the tour was a way to acknowledge a mistake without actually saying anything. Tours of secret Soviet military installations are virtually unheard of, even since the advent of glasnost , particularly when--as happened--there is a chance that the visitors will declare Soviet handiwork a piece of junk.

The tour fits snugly with Soviet hopes of keeping the ABM treaty intact as a means of slowing U.S. research on space-based missile defenses. If it was an opening move for discussions of the violation, Washington cannot ignore the episode, but it cannot just let bygones be bygones, either.

The Soviets have fended off charges about Krasnoyarsk with countercharges that a proposed new American radar station at Fylingdales Moor in England would be as obvious a violation of the ABM treaty as is Krasnoyarsk. Perhaps the next move should be to invite some Soviets to visit Fylingdales Moor. Whatever comes next, the important thing is that both nations talk at length about preventing future violations, not only of the ABM treaty but of any arms-control agreement.

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