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Three-Card Monte With Missiles : Arms control: The Soviets were duty-bound by treaty to eliminate their SS-23s, but they suddenly turned up in Eastern Europe. Why isn't the Bush Administration worried?

April 15, 1990|FRANK J. GAFFNEY JR. | Frank J. Gaffney Jr . , a former senior official in the Reagan Administration's Defense Department , is director of the Center for Security Policy in Washington

On Feb. 23, the Bush Administration advised Congress: "The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty continues to meet its goal of eliminating an entire class of U.S. and Soviet missiles under condition of strict verification. As of Nov. 30, 1989, the Soviet Union has eliminated all 957 of its shorter-range missiles and all 238 of its launchers for such missiles."

Within days, an article published in the East German press revealed that perhaps six operational launchers and as many as 24 missiles of the same system banned by the treaty were deployed in the German Democratic Republic. Subsequently, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria admitted that they, too, had Soviet SS-23s stationed on their soil.

These disclosures should have set off alarm bells in Washington and other Western capitals. After all, they call into question the basic premise of the intermediate-range missile treaty--that it has, in fact, resulted in eliminating the Soviet missile systems it proscribes.

Worse, the covert SS-23 deployments reinforce a charge made by critics of the emerging treaty on strategic arms reduction: that its allowance for a limited number of mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles is utterly unverifiable.

If detecting and monitoring covertly deployed mobile missiles is tough when all the missiles are prohibited--as in the INF Treaty--keeping tabs on a limited number of them would be impossible. As a practical matter, the Soviets' undeclared SS-23s suggest that Moscow could field a strategically significant force of mobile SS-24 or SS-25 ICBMs with little fear of getting caught.

Presumably, such worries are behind Washington's downplaying of the SS-23 deployments in Eastern Europe. The Bush Administration has evidently accepted the unprovable Soviet assertion that the missiles were transferred to the East Europeans before the treaty banning them was signed. If that's true, the Soviet Union would not be guilty of an outright violation of the agreement--the sort of thing that happened under previous Kremlin regimes but was said to be inconceivable under Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

This explanation, however, should still worry devotees of arms control. It suggests that even as the Soviets demanded the elimination of 72 U.S.-supplied missiles in West Germany to complete the INF treaty, they were preserving their option to deploy comparable missiles with allies.

If this scenario isn't technically a violation of the intermediate-range missile treaty, it at least suggests that the Gorbachev regime is capable of sharp practices and bad-faith negotiating. This is not the sort of image a government in the midst of negotiating no fewer than five major arms-control agreements wishes to project. Even Western diplomats can appreciate that if Gorbachev were capable of playing fast and loose on the INF treaty, he just might be willing to do so on the vastly more militarily significant accords in the works.

Mindful of this sticky public-relations problem, the Kremlin hopes to finesse it by offering yet another explanation for the missile shipments: The Soviet leadership, the Kremlin maintains, did not know that its nuclear-capable missiles were being transferred to other countries. Unnamed Soviet officials briefing reporters in Washington last week said that unidentified "people who transferred (these missiles) did not report" their actions, causing considerable surprise in Moscow when the East German press revealed the transfer.

Even more astounding, Washington appears prepared to let it go at that. A senior U.S. official last week told reporters that the "transfer was certainly not an act of bad faith on the part of the Soviet government as a whole . . . It's a problem that's now solved."

It is hard to overstate the dangerous consequences of thinking that this problem is now "solved." For one, it entails accepting the remarkable proposition that the Soviet government is not responsible for actions taken by its parts. That would represent a profound erosion of the standard by which Moscow's compliance with arms agreements is to be judged. Also, the "solution" implicitly accepts the proposition that the Soviet military is not under the rigorous control of the civilian leadership--a real show-stopper for new arms-control accords.

The Soviet SS-23 transfers pose an unwanted but inescapable litmus test to the Bush Administration and those who plan to support the new arms treaties it is negotiating. Should the present willingness to trivialize, or even to dispense summarily with, the serious implications of the Gorbachev regime's behavior regarding the SS-23s go uncorrected, they will have little credibility when professing confidence in the verifiability of their agreements and in the prospects that the Soviet Union will live up to its future obligations.

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