WASHINGTON — Amid signs that the Kremlin once had "Potemkin village" nuclear missiles, the Soviets have told U.S. officials that about 200 of their medium-range missiles, earlier described as operational weapons, are really just training missiles, many of them filled with concrete.
In fact, one senior U.S. official said he suspects that many of the so-called dummy missiles were built to deceive U.S. spy satellites. He cited the large number of the dummies and the fact that most of them are replicas of old missiles as evidence that the bogus weapons were deployed to mislead American intelligence estimates.
The account of the "training missiles" was offered by the Soviets to explain a discrepancy between their initial count of 1,950 missiles and the 1,752 total contained in the new U.S.-Soviet treaty, the official said Wednesday.
As a potential source of controversy, the discrepancy was the first cloud in the summit's otherwise clear skies. It emerged in the wake of growing criticism of the White House for keeping secret the treaty annex in which the missile details are contained. The incident could be ammunition for critics to attack the treaty during the Senate ratification process, and it could also cast doubt on the negotiations toward a long-range missile pact now under way.
Protocol Ban a 'Shame'
Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) called it a "shame that the American people will not be able to see the protocol" to the treaty, and Richard N. Perle, former assistant defense secretary and an arms control hard-liner, said that withholding the details indicates that work on the pact is not finished.
"I am puzzled as to why parts of this agreement are being kept secret, unless they haven't finished their work or there are anomalies in the data. And that would concern me more than it would surprise me," Perle said.
The Administration offered several explanations for keeping secret the 100-page annex, which gives the specific number and kinds of missiles to be destroyed and their locations.
One was that disclosure could be used by terrorists seeking to steal one. Another justification was that since about two-thirds of the sites are on territory of North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations, those countries object to publication of the details that will draw unwanted attention to the U.S. facilities.
A final possible reason, according to an official, is that it would create a breach in the broad and sometimes troublesome U.S. policy of refusing to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons at any location, including those on warships. New Zealand has ruptured the Australia-New Zealand-U.S. (ANZUS) alliance because it cannot get U.S. assurance that visiting U.S. naval vessels are not carrying nuclear warheads, for example.
Nonetheless, Administration officials concede that the annex's contents are likely to leak out anyway, and Moscow has pledged to make the document public in the near future.
The 200 "training" missiles were not the only surprise in the Soviet statistics that came with the final treaty. Equally striking was the large number of non-deployed, or stored, Soviet missiles, which the official admitted was "on the high side" of U.S. intelligence estimates.
The Administration and the intelligence community have accepted the Soviet explanation for the discrepancy in totals, the official said, noting that U.S. inspectors will be allowed to see the bogus missiles.
The discrepancy in the Soviet missile count arose because a few weeks ago, Soviet negotiators in Geneva said the treaty would eliminate more than 1,950 missiles on their side. But as the data came in, broken down by type of missile, the total only added up to 1,752.
The Soviet explanation, according to the senior official, was that the Soviets initially had counted the dummy missiles as non-deployed, or stored missiles.
"Now we are told that these are inert missiles, many filled with concrete," he said.
"They also told us that they thought we had more missiles than we listed," he added.
The reason for that Soviet error could be that "we try to make our training missiles as realistic as possible," he said, and spy satellites might be unable to distinguish the false from the real weapons.
But the large number of training missiles now claimed by the Soviets indicated a "Potemkin-like approach," he said, in which the Soviets deliberately set out to deceive U.S. satellites.
The reference is to the 18th-Century Russian field marshal, Grigory Potemkin, who built beautiful sham villages in the Crimea to impress the Russian court.
Soviet deception, including digging impact craters for missiles in a way to suggest greater accuracy than was achieved, has been widely alleged by conservatives.