No doubt, we should be thankful for this week's agreement among the former republics of the Soviet Union to keep the Red Army's strategic nuclear forces under a unified command headed by Russia.
That way at least, we know who's supposed to have his finger on the trigger over in Moscow, who it is we have to deal with when it comes to those big questions about the future of human civilization as we know it.Boris Yeltsin, the popularly elected president of Russia, isn't a favorite of a lot of people at the White House and State Department. Many in Washington consider him a crude if well-meaning and courageous man who's never really understood the subtleties of international diplomacy.
But however crude and unschooled Yeltsin may be, no one here denies that he's a quick study and that they'd much rather be dealing with him than, say, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan.
But like it or not, Secretary of State James Baker and his arms-control experts probably should be dealing with Nazarbayev, and while they're at it, presidents Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan and Nikolay Dementey of Belarus.
All of these people, and probably the leaders of the other former Soviet republics, have nuclear weapons under their jurisdiction that aren't covered by the agreement between leaders of the new Commonwealth of Independent States.
In fact, at least 8,000 of the former Soviet Union's estimated 27,000 nuclear warheads aren't covered by the agreement. That's because they're part of the Red Army's short-range or tactical nuclear forces and aren't supposed to be a direct threat to the United States or Europe.
What happens to these 8,000 or so nuclear weapons is anybody's guess at this point.
Last September, President Bush announced that the United States was unilaterally removing about 3,000 nuclear warheads from American Lance missiles and artillery shells based in Western Europe. His hope was that Mikhail Gorbachev, then leader of a largely intact Soviet Union, would do away with most of his short-range and tactical nuclear weapons, too.
Well, Gorbachev didn't last long enough to carry through on his end of the deal, if he ever intended to. And Yeltsin doesn't have anywhere near the authority Gorbachev had a year or so ago.
Under the CIS arms agreement, Yeltsin will have control over the 104 SS-18 multiple-warhead strategic missiles based at Derzhavinsk and Zhangiz-Tobe in Kazakhstan, but he won't be able to tell Nazarbayev what to do with the hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons believed to be deployed with Red Army units nearby.
In fact, it's not at all clear who has control of these weapons - not only the ones in Kazakhstan, but the tactical and short-range weapons thought to be deployed in most if not all of the former Soviet republics.
These weapons may not be able to hit London or New York, but they can cause a lot of trouble. Most of them are as powerful as the atomic bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Clearly, you wouldn't want them in the hands of a nut case.
Paul Warnke, the former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, made a sensible proposal about these weapons last month. He said the Bush administration should open direct negotiations with Nazarbayev and the other new national leaders as soon as possible with the aim of reducing and eventually eliminating these short-range and tactical weapons.
Warnke worries that these nuclear arms could be "nationalized" as weapons of the new armies of Kazakhstan, Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan. In his worst-case scenario, they might fall into the hands of separatist terrorists or ethnic rivals, or possibly be put up for sale to all comers on the secret international arms market.
Obviously, this problem will have to be addressed and as soon as possible.