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THE FINAL CURTAIN : Paradox for U.S.: New Threats Arise From an Old Foe's Demise

December 31, 1991|DOYLE McMANUS and KAREN TUMULTY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — For more than 40 years, U.S. Presidents worried about "containing" the Soviet Union, preventing a hostile superpower from extending its sway across the world.

Now, suddenly, the problem is no longer holding Russia back--but propping it up.

The collapse of the Soviet Union into 12 independent republics has handed President Bush the biggest foreign policy challenge since the beginning of the Cold War: stabilizing a superpower in the throes of fragmentation and decay.

Russia still poses a threat to the United States and its allies, Administration officials and other experts say. Only now, the threat comes from weakness instead of strength--from chaos instead of Leninist ambition.

"Much as we will benefit if this revolution succeeds, we will pay if it fails," Secretary of State James A. Baker III warned in a speech at Princeton University earlier this month.

"The dangers of protracted anarchy and chaos are obvious. Great empires rarely go quietly into extinction," Baker said. ". . . A fall toward fascism or anarchy in the former Soviet Union will pull the West down too."

Baker, CIA Director Robert M. Gates and other senior officials have listed a sobering litany of morning-after problems in Russia and the other former Soviet republics. All could have serious effects on the peace or prosperity of the rest of the world.

They range from issues of immediate urgency, such as maintaining control over more than 27,000 nuclear weapons, to the unpredictable consequences of economic collapse in a commonwealth of 300 million people on Europe's eastern doorstep.

The debate over how to prevent those catastrophes is already the most contentious foreign policy argument Washington has seen since the Persian Gulf War. Bush, who won credit for sure-footedness in foreign policy during his first three years in office, is under more fire than ever before for his hesitant approach to rescuing the former Soviet republics--even from some Republicans.

"The Administration ought to draw up a much more comprehensive plan," complained Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The President has spoken many times of letting people (in the republics) sort things out. . . . But I would feel more comfortable if the President and the secretary of state had a more comprehensive view of what is likely to occur and what we can affect."

Within the Administration, Baker has spoken out for a greater U.S. commitment to helping Russia's new leaders succeed--despite warnings from some Bush political advisers that voters will rebel against a President who proposes a new foreign aid program in the middle of a domestic economic downturn.

Bush has made a general promise of support for Russia and the other reforming republics. "We will do it because, as Americans, we can do no less," he said after the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day. But the President has proposed no specific programs or price tags beyond a modest aid package that is mostly emergency loans for food.

There is little debate on one issue: The need to assure reliable control over the Soviet nuclear arsenal, from giant intercontinental missiles that could wipe out U.S. cities in minutes to thousands of portable warheads that would make tempting weapons for terrorists.

"Nuclear weapons are still at the top of the list," a State Department official said.

Despite Bush's frequent public assurances that there is no cause for concern, many officials are still worried. At the moment, the existing controls over nuclear weapons have been preserved in the hands of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and the Soviet military command system. But in the long run, no one knows whether that stable command system will survive.

"Part of the problem is that the fate of the soviet military Establishment is undetermined," warned John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at Washington's Brookings Institution.

"The really bad scenario is that the command system comes unglued and loses track of their nuclear weapons," he said. "Only slightly less bad is that the command system stays together but becomes extremely suspicious of the United States and the rest of the world." In that case, he said, Russian military behavior in a crisis--either international or domestic--could be unpredictable.

One answer, Steinbruner said, would be a new system of "cooperative security" that would make partners of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Soviet general staff. "If NATO doesn't include the Soviet Union, it doesn't have a future," he said.

The Administration is also discussing ways to prevent an exodus of former Soviet weapons experts to countries--like Libya or Iran--that might want to buy their expertise for nuclear weapons development programs.

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