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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Playing The Nuclear Card

Washington, 10 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Moscow's decision to admit that it may not be able to control its nuclear arsenal in the future has more to do with its ongoing campaign to block NATO expansion than with a recent deterioration of the situation in Russia.

On Thursday, Russian defense minister Igor Rodionov said that his forces were so short of cash that the high command might not be able to control nuclear warheads in the future.

Western analysts have long pointed to problems in Russia's management and control of nuclear materials and even warheads. And Western law enforcement personnel have occasionally seized nuclear materials which apparently came out of Russia. (and other former Soviet states)

But until last week, Russian officials repeatedly and strenuously have denied that there was any problem at all. And Western leaders have been unwilling to challenge them on this at least in public.

Why then did Rodionov go public now? One possible answer is that he was seeking to extract additional resources for the military from the Russian parliament.

But given the explosive nature of this issue both in Russia and abroad, that answer alone does not suffice to explain the Russian defense minister's admission.

Moreover, the timing of his remarks -- in the middle of a stepped-up Russian campaign against NATO expansion and during Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's meetings in Washington -- suggest that more was involved than just economics.

Instead, Rodionov's comments appear to be part and parcel of the broader Russian government campaign against the expansion of the Western defense alliance. And they appear to be intended to achieve three ends.

First, Rodionov's acknowledgement seems intended to reinforce the message Russian leaders from President Boris Yeltsin on down have been delivering of late: Any expansion of NATO would threaten to undermine the very fragile stability of the post-Soviet region.

Obviously, no one in the West would want to take any steps that would lead to the loosening of Moscow's control over its nuclear weapons. As any number of Western observers have pointed out, such a loss of control could cause all these weapons to fall into the wrong hands.

And so Rodionov's words were timed to get maximum attention in Washington and other NATO capitals.

Second, Rodionov's admission also appears to have been designed to extract more cash for the Russian military -- but from the West rather than from the Russian parliament.

But his pleading of poverty to this audience has two very different goals.

On the one hand, Rodionov's words will certainly be used by Russian leaders to seek even greater assistance from Western countries, given the West's reasonable fear of nuclear proliferation.

And on the other, Rodionov's plea will likely lead to a greater understanding by some in the West of Russia's recent arms sales to Finland, Colombia, and elsewhere.

And third, Rodionov's words also appear intended to split NATO countries on the question of enlargement by playing on popular fears of nuclear disaster.

In many NATO countries, the populations are far more skeptical about expansion than are the national security elites. By injecting the nuclear card into this game, Moscow can count on popular and media criticism of expansion to rise this spring.

It may even succeed in splitting off one country from the current consensus on enlargement -- and Moscow needs to pick off only one NATO member to block any expansion.

To say all this is not to suggest that Russia does not have a problem controlling its nuclear weapons. Rather it is to point out that Moscow's discussion of this problem has far more to do with politics than with facts on the ground.