Russia

WEAPONS FOR SALE?

Moscow’s aging stockpiles represent a growing threat to the world

PAUL WEBSTER December 16 2002
Russia

WEAPONS FOR SALE?

Moscow’s aging stockpiles represent a growing threat to the world

PAUL WEBSTER December 16 2002

WEAPONS FOR SALE?

Moscow’s aging stockpiles represent a growing threat to the world

Russia

PAUL WEBSTER

A CRUMBLING STATUE of Lenin stands guard over the Russian village of Shchuch’ye and its Cold War legacy—80 loosely guarded buildings containing a total of nearly two million shells filled with sarin and VX nerve gas. Each shell, at this remote site in the Ural Mountains 1,500 km southeast of Moscow, is capable of killing a stadium-full of people. To keep these and other stockpiled Russian weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists, the West has spent almost $12.5 billion over the past 10 years trying to help rid Russia of its surplus chemical, biological and nuclear arsenals. More money for the job is coming, some of it from Canada: on Nov. 25, Foreign Minister Bill Graham ar-

rived in Moscow with the initial $5-million installment of $1 billion in cleanup money Ottawa plans to give Russia over the next 10 years. “We’re very concerned about that stuff being around,” Graham told Maclean’s. “It’s a threat to us.”

But the race to destroy Russian stockpiles is one the West may already be losing. Russian sites are notoriously insecure, with stockpiles guarded by underpaid, badly trained and ill-equipped security forces. The CIA says some biological weapons may have already been stolen from the country, which

some analysts call a “Wal-Mart for terrorists,” and smuggled to Iraq. Analysts also believe weapons-grade uranium has been smuggled into North Korea, while Chechen militants have sought—and possibly obtained— nuclear weapons.

Even as the West continues to pump in money, critics in the U.S. Congress say Russia, which under a series of international agreements has pledged to reduce its stockpiles, is not living up to its end of the bargain. Western money appears to be disappearing: a recent Russian parliamentary audit revealed that US$270 million in foreign aid earmarked for nuclear disarmament was unaccounted for. Some observers, meanwhile,

charge that Western funding for stockpile reduction allows Russia to divert resources to new nuclear programs that are in contravention of international non-proliferation guidelines.

Monetary oversight is difficult to enforce in Russia. So is establishing what, if any, existing stockpiles have already been destroyed: Russia has barred foreign inspectors from some of its sites. There is big money at stake: under the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, a program launched by the G8 last June at the Kananaskis summit in Alberta, $31 billion (including the $1 billion from Canada) was pledged to dismantle Russian arsenals. Now, the G8 countries are demanding that Russia co-operate fully by accounting for funds and allowing site access. If the Russians refuse, it is unclear whether all the money will be advanced. “We have made it clear to Russia that there is going to have to be significant improvement,” said Jim Wright, assistant deputy minister for global security in Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department. “Site access is a serious issue.”

So is Russia’s ongoing nuclear program.

Nowhere in Russia is the vulnerability of its arsenals more frightening than in the Siberian ports of Vladivostok and Murmansk

President Vladimir Putin has made strengthening his country’s nuclear forces a top priority. The Russian military is currently building 40 naval nuclear missiles and is modernizing both naval nuclear forces and a fleet ofTupolev-160 bombers, the backbone of Russia’s airborne nuclear attack forces. Advanced weapons research has also been boosted at 10 ultra-secret research cities, where an estimated 40,000 specialists are working on new nuclear weaponry. “They’ve come to expect the West will pay for safetyeven as they have been rearming in great secrecy,” says Charles Digges, a Moscow-based researcher for Bellona, a Norwegian agency that tracks Russian nuclear safety.

New weapons aside, Russia is coming under increasing pressure to fix the problems

in its stockpile reduction program. Canadian officials can testify to how difficult it is to get things up and running. Canadian funds have already been spent on building roads and power lines to a proposed plant in Shchuch’ye where chemical and biological weapons were to be destroyed. It’s unclear if that plant will ever be built (the U.S. had suspended funding, but may now go ahead if Russia fulfills its commitments and is accountable for the money). Canada also spent money promoting a plan to use plutonium from Russian nuclear weapons as fuel for reactors in Ontario. But Russia now wants to keep the plutonium for its own nuclear program. “They see this stuff as gold,” says Digges, “and there is enormous opposition to letting the West destroy it.”

Nowhere in Russia is the vulnerability of its Cold War arsenals more frightening than in the Siberian ports of Vladivostok and Murmansk. There, 131 submarines lie idle, in decrepit condition, many with reactors, nuclear fuel and possibly even weapons still aboard. (In November one decommissioned nuclear submarine near Vladivostok caught fire, raising fears of a nuclear catastrophe; panicked

local firefighters managed to extinguish the blaze.) Russia plans to chop the subs into scrap by 2010. And some of Canada’s $ 1-billion commitment may go to the safe destruction of the vessels. “I consider the submarines a clear and present danger to Canada,” said Graham. “If radiation gets loose it’s going to end up in Canada, because it’s right across the Arctic Ocean from where we are.”

But as Canada considers pouring millions into the submarine program, other foreign donors already involved in the initiative are increasingly unhappy. Japan, which has committed more than $400 million to the submarine projects, has found it difficult to convince Russian authorities to let its own investigators audit the results. The head of the Japanese effort, Toshiyuki Kawakami, says that while the Japanese have been granted access, Russia has stipulated a 95-day notice period, which is a “hindrance to the flexibility of investigation schedules.” Britain, meanwhile, set aside $125 million for Russian disarmament programs, including submarine dismantlement. But Moscow refused to guarantee that sponsors wouldn’t be held liable should an accident occur during

cleanup operations, says Ian Downing, head of the British government’s nuclear safety program for Russia. “They seem to have changed all the ground rules,” he says. “They are unable to agree to the normal interna-

tional terms for these kinds of agreements.”

The lack of co-operation has forced the Bush administration to reconsider future funding under the G8 initiative. Raphael Della Ratta, a weapons control researcher at Princeton University’s Russian American Nuclear Security Advisory Council, says numerous U.S. programs in Russia, including efforts to halt production of weapons-grade plutonium, re-employ unemployed Russian weapons scientists, and bolster security at numerous weapons facilities, have been derailed by Russian secrecy. “The problems with transparency are getting worse,” he says. “Are they complying with the biological and chemical weapons treaties? Are they disarming? If Russia doesn’t have the money to be an equal partner, they could at least co-operate as an equal partner. But they haven’t.”

Washington is also angry over Russia’s decision to invest in new nuclear weapons— and over Russian nuclear aid to Iran, where Russia is building a civilian reactor and has plans to construct up to six more. Bush’s assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation, John Wolf, says there can be no doubt Iran is “a leading exporter of support for terrorist groups.” Because of that, Wolf says, Russian nuclear aid to Iran means the U.S. is “forced to juxtapose” aid to Russia with Russian aid to Iran.

Moscow seems unmoved by the growing criticism. During a recent press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov downplayed Western concerns—even as he welcomed the prospect of more funds to come. “We are now working on the practical implementation of how the promised money will be delivered,” he said. “It would be untimely to talk about any problems at this point.” But there’s no denying the threat posed by aging stockpiles. Yuri Vishnyevsky, head of Russia’s state nuclear energy inspectorate, recently confirmed that several kilograms of uranium, including weaponsgrade material, have gone missing. Last week, the CIA revealed that a Russian virologist might have taken an especially lethal strain of smallpox to Iraq in 1990. In the face of such revelations, demands that Moscow account for the funding it is receiving will only increase—even as relations with Western donors continue to chill, lí1]