Torn between nuclear safety and Chechnya

Condemning Russia's war with economic sanctions could jeopardize

US officials have waved their arms, issued statements of condemnation, and even warned the Russians that they "will pay" for their military offensive into Chechnya.

But in reality, the US is unlikely to take concrete action against Moscow - for the reason that there are far greater security concerns in the region.

To be sure, if Russia were to carry through on threats of a crackdown on the 40,000 remaining civilians in the Chechen capital of Grozny, it could provoke some official response. But for America and its allies, any action is likely to be tempered by larger strategic concerns.

If the US were to impose unilateral economic sanctions - one of the tougher options on the table - they could jeopardize programs that help Russia safeguard its nuclear stockpile.

Since the end of the cold war, the US has been quietly building these programs to help the former Soviet Union states destroy missiles, protect nuclear material, and prevent a mass exodus of experts who know how to build atomic bombs.

In the year 2000, the US is expected to spend close to $800 million on such projects.

"It is the preeminent issue in national security [today]," says Rose Gottemoeller, the assistant Energy Department secretary who heads the section on non-proliferation and national security.

Whereas the US once feared attack from the Russian military they are now more concerned about the accidental setting off of Russian weapons or the selling of nuclear material and information to rogue states.

They are also concerned about "brain drain," in which underpaid scientists can be lured away from the former Soviet states for better pay in a country like Iraq or North Korea.

Because it has some 45,000 nuclear warheads and 650 tons of nuclear material, Russia still has the greatest potential to damage the US. And, the worse its economy gets the more likely it is that they could lose the ability to control their weapons.

"[No] one wants them to fail and have more problems than they've got," said President Clinton this week when asked about the possibility of the US taking action to stop Russia from fighting in Chechnya.

Or, as a state department official put it, "these [nuclear non-proliferation] programs aren't a favor for the Russians, they're for our own benefit."

But while programs to safeguard Russia's nuclear stockpile have in the past been kept relatively quiet, they are now getting increasingly politicized, leading some scientists to worry about the future of their efforts.

In a recent report, the National Academy of Sciences criticized new federal procedures that make it more difficult for foreign scientists to visit nuclear weapons laboratories in the US.

As a result, the report says, other countries, such as Russia, are beginning to limit the visits of US scientists.

"It's a very tempting topic for Russian hard-liners to take up," says John Boright, the Academy's executive director for international programs.

According to Jon Wolfsthal, a former Energy Department worker, US officials had been working for years to get the Russians to open up more of their labs and let American scientists into the country faster than the 45 days it normally takes for visa approval.

But recently, Mr. Wolfsthal says, it has taken the US government 54 days to approve visas for foreign scientists - making any discussions with Russian officials about greater access fruitless.

"We were having success [persuading the Russians] until we started imposing our own delays," Mr. Wolfsthal says.

Furthermore, the scientists at the academy say, an ongoing moratorium on foreign visitors is creating a sense of discrimination and hurting America's talent pool in the nuclear fields. In 1996, more than half of US doctoral students in science and engineering programs were not American citizens, according to a National Research Council study.

"We live in an age in which information is of central importance to US national security," the report explains.

The tightened restrictions by the US - aimed at visitors from "sensitive" countries such as Russia, China, and India - were put in place by Congress in response to accusations that China obtained valuable nuclear weapons information at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

According to Ms. Gottemoeller from the Energy Department, however, the US has begun making exceptions when visit restrictions could interfere with a non-proliferation project.

"There's a bit of tit for tat going on," she says. "But I would put that down as a normal way of operating in a sensitive nuclear environment."

There may, however, be legitimate reasons to be concerned about improper exchange of information, the academy acknowledges. And, scientists say, information leaks can come from all sources - not just foreign visitors.

One former Soviet official alleges that harmful information may have come from a program in which scientists from the US work with scientists from the former Soviet Union.

According to Ken Alibek, a former deputy in the Soviet biological weapons program from 1975-1991, some aspects of a US project are "helping to improve the knowledge of how to develop biological weapons."

But, says Mr. Alibek, who now lives in the US, "I support most of the programs."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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