Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 104

Officials in Moscow yesterday scrambled to clarify President Boris Yeltsin’s impromptu pledge at that morning’s signing ceremony of the Russia-NATO "Founding Act" to the effect that Russia would no longer aim nuclear missiles at NATO states. The English translation of his remarks, as released by the White House and, initially, by other sources, had Yeltsin saying that "all of those weapons are going to have their warheads removed." This is not what he meant, said those in Moscow. In fact, the missiles are to be taken off combat alert and will have their targeting programs erased and replaced with so-called "zero flight missions." (White House press release, Interfax, May 27)

Yeltsin’s goodwill gesture might be long on symbolism but it was short on substance. Russia, the U.S., the UK, and France had already taken such action vis-a-vis each other. Thus, yesterday’s announcement would apply only to the non-nuclear members of NATO. Military experts agree that most modern strategic missiles can be retargeted in minutes if not seconds. These pledges might give comfort to those who worry about an "accidental" launch. However, by this term they usually mean an "unauthorized" launch. And a rogue Russian missile unit commander with the knowledge and capability to fire a missile without higher authority would also probably be able to re-enter the targeting data.

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