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Russia's 'Loose Nukes' - a Myth That Distorts US Policy

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Finally, doubts about the security of nuclear weapons facilities are puzzling. My own visits to sensitive Russian defense enterprises and military installations have revealed very tight security, yet we are told of nuclear weapons and materials leaking out of the nuclear complex. One wonders if the spending of US millions for the security of Russia's nuclear materials may not promote as much mischief as it is designed to prevent. Is there an incentive, in fact, for Russians to overlook or sustain some kind of "modest" leakage in nuclear materials so that alarms will remain on and coffers will remain open?

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The Clinton administration nurtures the myth that Russia cannot manage its nuclear security. It warns that Russia is a nuclear accident waiting to happen, and that nuclear weapons, materials, and scientists will leak out unless we act.

Government, military, and intelligence officials in Russia vehemently deny that Russia is the source of radioactive isotopes found in Europe. Alexander Lebed, the former national security chief, pointedly argued that nuclear security is a Russian, not a US, problem. A senior representative of the Russian Duma told me that Russia is maintaining its nuclear security. He argued that public attention to the economic plight of the nuclear complex "will create the very problems that we want to avoid."

Russia willingly accepts roughly $400 million each year in Nunn-Lugar denuclearization funds for a total of $1.6 billion since 1992. But US funds are fueling nationalist fires in Russia, as Russians conclude that they imply condescension about Russia's own ability to secure its nuclear weapons and materials.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, skepticism increases about using taxpayer dollars to subsidize Russian nuclear security when we are cutting domestic programs in order to balance the federal budget. Despite administration opposition, Congress cut Nunn-Lugar funds from $400 million to $377 million - a 6 percent reduction. Only the prestige of Senators Nunn and Lugar prevented Congress from zeroing out all funds. Clinton administration worries about Russian nuclear leakage are not supportable. As the administration reorganizes in its second term, it should consider more productive ways of addressing the real problem of proliferation. A sound policy for helping states attain security without nuclear weapons has three components.

First, the real problem is "loose salesmen" rather than "loose nukes." Hence, we must restrict sales or transfers of nuclear technologies that create independent capabilities for producing nuclear weapons. Weak international inspection regimes for the transfer of nuclear technologies and materials must be strengthened. Direct Russian sales of critical nuclear materials or technologies to rogue states - like Iran, Iraq, or North Korea - threaten US security.

Second, it follows that the US should develop independent capabilities to monitor and prevent the sale or transfer of nuclear technologies and materials. The $400 million spent per year on Russia could help the United States bolster our own inspection capabilities. We must strengthen our ability to detect and prevent the surreptitious movement of terrorist weapons and materials into US ports and airports.

Third, the US program of subsidizing Russia's nuclear security is no substitute for Russian action. Russia has a national interest in preventing nuclear leakage and can handle its own nuclear security. Senior Russian officials are adamant about their ability to manage nuclear materials on Russian soil.

In conclusion, with no significant evidence of nuclear leakage, the United States must reevaluate the "loose nukes" myth. Sadly, this myth diverts our attention and resources and weakens the credibility of US policy regarding perhaps the most vital security issue of the 1990s.

* William C. Martel is associate professor of international relations and Russian studies, and director of the Center for Strategy and Technology, at the Air War College, Maxwell AFB, in Montgomery, Ala.