US Effort to Aid Ex-USSR In Disarming Bogs Down

THE idea sounds like a simple twist on foreign aid: To help the former republics of the Soviet Union implement arms-control treaties, the United States will partly foot the bill for their nuclear-weapons dismantlement efforts.

Everybody benefits. The hard-pressed economies of the former republics get a boost, while US national security is protected for a relatively small sum of money, by Pentagon standards.

The trouble is, things have not worked out quite that smoothly since Congress first approved money for this program more than a year ago.

So far only about one-quarter of the $800 million assistance pool has been earmarked for projects. Aid actually delivered has been limited to such items as Kevlar-armored security blankets, used to protect weapons in transit.

"All of us here imagined the process would move faster than it has," says a US official involved in the effort.

The so-called Nunn-Lugar assistance program, named after its primary backers, Sens. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, has run smack into the geopolitical realities that could make implementing the START I and START II arms treaties so touchy in coming years.

The first problem was expectations. Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan - the four new nations that inherited the old Soviet nuclear arsenal - all figured that Nunn-Lugar assistance might be a quick source of ready cash. In the negotiations that began after Congress voted the first $400 million for the project in the 1992 budget, the former republics asked the US to just give them money.

But US officials only were willing to earmark funds for identifiable projects, with as much US involvement in the actual work as possible. Thus the biggest chunk of money allocated so far, $50 million, is going for US-made containers to transport and store fissile material from dismantled warheads in Russia.

Other approved projects include an International Science and Technology Center to employ Russian nuclear scientists ($25 million), modifications to railcars used for atomic transportation ($20 million), the Kevlar-armored blankets ($5 million), and design work on fissile-material storage centers ($15 million).

As of the beginning of this year a total of about $204 million of the $800 million fund was spoken for.

The process is further slowed by the fact that in taking the money straight out of Defense Department pockets, Congress ensured that Nunn-Lugar projects would be subject to all the paperwork, legal checking, and audits of domestic Pentagon spending.

"It's as if we're buying paint to paint US barracks," the US official says.

But perhaps the most important roadblock has been geopolitical. Most of the ex-republics have been cooperative - both Russia and Belarus, for example, have signed umbrella agreements outlining criteria for Nunn-Lugar spending.

Ukraine, however, has not, and it continues to stall. While the US has offered it $175 million toward nuclear-weapons dismantlement, Ukrainian officials have asked for the grand sum of $1.5 billion.

US officials dismiss this figure as unrealistic, but say that on details of possible projects they still want to keep a dialogue with Ukraine going.

Ukrainian hesitancy is in fact blocking the whole arms-control process - until Ukraine's legislature ratifies the START I pact, Russia will not start its own START I dismantlements. And the START II treaty just signed with much fanfare by President Bush depends on START I changes being put in place before it, in turn, can take effect.

Senator Lugar has himself said that Ukraine should not get "one penny" of Nunn-Lugar funds until it has affirmed its commitment to START and the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

The underlying idea behind the Nunn-Lugar effort is that the quicker ex-Soviet nuclear weapons are dismantled, the better. Excess armaments lying around could be a temptation to terrorists or even smugglers willing to sell to rogue nations now in the nuclear market, such as Iraq, Iran, or North Korea.

But dismantlement will not be the end of the story.

The hearts of nuclear weapons - highly enriched uranium and plutonium - could prove to be targets almost as attractive as whole warheads, points out Dunbar Lockwood, an analyst with the Arms Control Association, a private US-based think tank. After all, producing such fissile material is the hardest part of building a nuclear arsenal.

The end product of ex-Soviet dismantlement, under current arms agreements, could be as much as 500 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU), and 96 tons of plutonium.

Last fall the US agreed in principle to purchase 300 tons of HEU from the Russian government, for conversion into nuclear-reactor fuel.

"The real problem is the plutonium," Mr. Lockwood points out. Plutonium, one of the most toxic substances known, has no real civilian uses and the US already has all it needs for its own future weapons program.

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