US Bid to Help Dismantle Ex-Soviet Arsenal Falters

WITH Russia's political situation growing more confused by the day, the $800 million United States program to help dismantle ex-Soviet nuclear weapons is plodding along more slowly than expected.

The situation concerns US officials because the safe implementation of nuclear arms reductions is a primary national interest, and nobody knows what might happen if there is a resurgence of right-wing power in Russia.

"It's really serious over there, and it's important to get money committed as fast as possible if we're going to have an impact on what happens," says Tom Graham Jr., acting director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

The first $400 million of the Nunn-Lugar assistance program, named after its primary backers, Sens. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, was approved by Congress more than a year ago. But so far just $303 million has been earmarked for specific projects, according to figures cited by US officials last week. Of that only about $25 million has been spent.

Part of the reason for the slow pace is the US bureaucracy. The Nunn-Lugar program is being paid for by Defense Department funds, and the money is subject to all the paperwork and audits of domestic Pentagon spending.

Part of the cause is confusion in the former Soviet republics that retain nuclear weapons. Officials from Russia, Belarus, Kazahkstan, and Ukraine now understand that Nunn-Lugar doesn't mean cash, no questions asked. But they have not been quick to organize projects that will qualify for the funds.

Russian officials have not, in fact, requested US assistance and money for dismantling nuclear weapons. They have apparently decided for national security reasons to handle dismantling nuclear warheads themselves. But they have asked for funds to build storage facilities for the highly dangerous plutonium cores of disassembled bombs.

US officials have been trying to convince their Russian counterparts that the plutonium, which cannot be used as commercial reactor fuel, has no future commercial value. The US has agreed to purchase 500 tons of highly enriched uranium mined from former Soviet weapons. This material can be used as commercial reactor fuel.

A final cause of the difficulty is the political situation in Ukraine. Unlike the other former republics, Ukraine has balked at signing an agreement governing Nunn-Lugar spending and has yet to affirm its commitment to the START arms pact signed by the Soviet Union or to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Russia has said it won't implement START until Ukraine acts. And the START 2 pact, signed with much fanfare by President Bush near the end of his term, cannot take effect until START is under way.

The US has offered Ukraine $175 million to help dismantle the SS-24 and SS-19 missiles and silos it still has on its soil. The Ukrainians have rejected that as insufficient - though they are not demanding $1.5 billion, as one official in Kiev had suggested.

At a meeting in January between US and Ukrainian delegations the key subject was "security assurances, and what form they would take," says immigration official Graham.

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