Loose nukes get shortchanged?

Some Russia experts say money for a missile shield should be spent on nonproliferation programs.

It is the biggest nonreligious holiday on the calendar, when Russians relive past military glory to celebrate the World War II defeat of Nazi Germany.

But today's traditional Victory Day military parade in Red Square is but a shadow of its former Soviet-era self. No strategic missiles will lumber ominously past the Kremlin gates; no tank battalions will rumble over the worn cobblestones.

While the show may signify that Russia is no longer a superpower - a point often made by President Bush's policy team - analysts warn that administration plans to trim US funding for nonproliferation programs dangerously neglect the threat that Russia's vast remaining nuclear arsenal still poses.

Mr. Bush pledges to spend tens of billions of dollars to build a new missile defense shield. But proliferation experts argue that a fraction of that spent to control Russia's "loose nukes" - and to prevent the spread of bomb-grade enriched uranium, plutonium, and scientific expertise - may be a better bargain.

"When you consider the contributions these programs are making to US security, they cost far less than one-half of 1 percent of the defense budget - it's small change," says James Clay Moltz, a director of the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California.

"We're seeing the [US] defense budget increasing for new weapons," Mr. Moltz says, "but decreasing for the kind of cooperative security approaches that really will reduce the long-term threat."

A bipartisan task force commissioned by the Energy Department noted in January that Russian weapons or nuclear material could be sold to "terrorists or hostile nations" - and that "dozens" of attempts to do so have been thwarted in recent years. This is the "most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today," it found. "It really boggles my mind that there could be 40,000 nuclear weapons ... in the former Soviet Union, poorly controlled and poorly stored, and that the world isn't in a near-state of hysteria about the danger," Howard Baker, the former Senate majority leader and task force co-chair, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a month ago.

The panel called for a four-fold funding increase to $3 billion per year for the next decade. Bush's proposed 2002 budget chops some 10 percent off nonproliferation funding for Russia, which now stands at $874 million.

The debate is emerging as the administration is conducting a comprehensive review of all such programs for Russia. The political atmosphere, too, is acrimonious. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has taken a tough stance, accusing Russia of being an "active proliferator." Moscow complains that Washington is gripped by the "spirit" of the cold war.

Russia has been a chief opponent of Bush's missile defense plans, and President Vladimir Putin has made a point of improving relations with US arch-foes from Cuba to Iran. Tension grew further in February over the tit-for-tat expulsion - begun by Washington - of 50 diplomats from each side for spying.

One result, analysts say, is that politics is mixing with security concerns. Under the microscope is Russian transparency - especially in nuclear dealings with Iran and India - and access by American officials to sensitive sites.

"The danger is still there, it's a serious problem, and US assistance has been important in dealing with it," says Oleg Bukharin, a proliferation expert and researcher at Princeton University in New Jersey. "The problem is that if you stop this train, it might be very difficult to get it moving again."

Russian political support for US nuclear-control programs could fall away too, he says, and while "Russia does not behave politically correctly all the time," the US should not forget that Russia holds a unique strategic card. "If you look objectively at threats, the only possible scenario in which the US could be destroyed is if Russia launched its nuclear weapons," Mr. Bukharin says. "All other threats, like terrorism or rogue missiles, are nothing [in comparison]."

Just days before the Bush inauguration, that point was made by the Russia task force. While citing "impressive results thus far," it said that if funding wasn't boosted, there would be an "unacceptable risk of failure" that could lead to "catastrophic consequences."

Hardest hit are those programs that focus on finding alternative work and payment subsidies for scientists, to minimize the risk that they apply their knowledge elsewhere.

Such programs include the Nuclear Cities Initiative, which seeks to convert military facilities and jobs in 10 "closed" cities. While it is a regular target of critics, supporters say it provides a key blueprint. "This is the best strategy to guarantee that Russia's nuclear reductions are irreversible," says Alexander Pikayev, head of nonproliferation at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Cutting this program undermines the solution itself."

The "human factor" is the reason, he says, citing cases in which guards - meant to be monitoring US-funded video surveillance systems - might not show up for work in winter.

"The long-term solution is not just to deliver these technical systems, but to do something about the human factor." Failure to do so, he warns, will cause "significant leakage of [Russian] materials and expertise that could trigger nuclear missile development" in rogue states, which in turn could undermine Washington's missile defense plans.

"This acceleration would be very high," Mr. Pikayev says. "This is why, by the time the US would be ready to deploy an efficient missile shield, those [hostile] countries might already have strong nuclear and missile capabilities."

A study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace illumines the risk. Surveying scientists in five Russian nuclear cities, it found that 62 percent earn less than $50 per month. Also polled were experts in missile enterprises, 21 percent of whom said they would want to work in a foreign military complex.

Changing such attitudes has been the aim of US nonproliferation policy. And while Russian analysts say Moscow is more aware of the problem and is increasing its own funding, it is the tip of the iceberg. "There is not enough money for anything in Russia, even for nuclear arsenals, which deserve much more attention," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the independent Politika Foundation think tank in Moscow.

"The idea of punishing Russia by not cutting its nuclear arsenal is a strange idea, with a strange logic," he adds. "If you spent half of that sum [proposed for the US missile defense shield] on Russian disarmament, you probably wouldn't even need the shield."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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