December 14, 2004

Delay In Securing Russian N-Arms Due To Russians, Lawyers: USA Today

During the 2004 presidential campaign, the Democrats tried making the status of programs designed to render Russian nuclear-weapon fuel harmless a major issue, accusing George Bush of ignoring this gaping vulnerability to terrorism. The Democrats failed to get much traction on this issue, and today's USA Today report explains why. The holdup on securing this dangerous material turns out to originate with arguments over verification techniques from the Russians and threats of liability lawsuits:

U.S. programs to help Russia protect and destroy its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons are far behind schedule, despite President Bush's warning this fall that terrorists getting such weapons is "the biggest threat facing this country."

A half-billion dollars set aside by Congress in the past two years to secure or scrap Russian weapons sits unspent, a USA TODAY review of figures provided by program managers finds. Federal audits released in the past 18 months show hundreds of millions more have gone to ineffective projects.

The delays in safeguarding the stockpiles stem largely from disputes between the United States and Russia over how much access Americans need to inspect Russian weapons sites and verify that U.S. aid is spent properly. The U.S. government also has had trouble reaching binding agreements with Russia on how to manage U.S.-funded storage and disposal facilities and who will be liable if one has an accident.

The liability issue is no mere rhetorical hurdle, either. The Russians and especially the Ukrainians remember the Chernobyl nightmare, which proved Russian designs and maintenance for nuclear reactors dangerously flawed. No one knows how much that cost the old Soviet Union just to contain the damage; and in a free society, the lawsuits would easily outstrip the other costs of such a catastrophe. I have no doubt that Russia wants the US to shoulder the liability while Russia runs the facilities, an arrangement that should make every American taxpayer blanch with fear -- not to mention any Russians in the vicinity of the facilities.

It's not just the liability, either. The US has already built the Russians at least one conversion facility that the Russians immediately converted to another use: building commercial rockets. They have reneged thus far on providing the US clear-cut plans for the use of a second facility in Schuchye, bringing our construction to a halt. We continue to have problems with Russian internal-security agencies allowing the US access for verification of the work. Under these circumstances, why would we spend more money on a failed program?

Developments like this are the reason an extension of the agreement is in doubt:

The bilateral agreement authorizing the programs expires in 2006. And disputes on liability and other issues threaten its renewal.

"Without (a new pact), I think all of our programs would have to stop," says Paul Longsworth of the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration. "Obviously, we're concerned if we don't get resolution soon."

But renewal talks haven't begun. ...

The programs, spending about $1 billion a year, have destroyed thousands of nuclear warheads, missiles and submarines, and big stocks of chemical and biological agents. But they're controversial.

"On (the U.S.) side, there are people who say the Russians are cheating, they just want the money," says Vladimir Rybachenkov, counselor at the Russian Embassy. "On our side, there are some who say the Americans just want to get their noses into our" military sites.

These remarks indicate a more contentious relationship than that of true allies, pointing to the difficult nature of the Russian moves towards autocracy. We need a strong Russia to help us combat terrorism, but we may be seeing the rise of another imperial government -- one that wants its nukes right where they are to cement their status as a world power.

Even that would be tactically acceptable in the short term if we could be certain of Russian control over the weapons material, but unfortunately, Russian security only seems to work well when keeping Americans out. Also, many of the weapons passed from Russian hands at the end of the Cold War to the new republics on its borders, which may have been more cooperative before Putin's rise as a dictator-in-waiting. The newly-independent states may have a lot less enthusiasm for going nuke-free with the rise of a statist government in Moscow. They've seen this play before.

As is usually the case, instead of the knee-jerk Democratic reaction to blame Bush for everything, the truth is a lot more complicated. In this instance, Bush has had no choice but to slow down and untangle every roadblock placed in our way to get the mission accomplished. Congress needs to ask if Americans are willing to simply stuff hard cash into Putin's pockets without any assurance of our strategic aims being addressed.

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