Bellona holds Successful U.S. – Russia meeting

Publish date: March 9, 2000

Written by: Thomas Jandl

The big prize in U.S-Russian cooperation, an enlarged Cooperative Threat Reduction program, remains elusive.

In what has become an annual event, Bellona organized a workshop in Washington March 1-2 on international cooperation in nuclear materials management. This year’s event focused on providing a group of newly elected Duma Deputies a first opportunity to familiarize themselves with the problems as well as with the decision makers in Washington.

The top cooperative nuclear materials management program is Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR, also known as Nunn-Lugar after the two senators who initiated the program). With a budget of roughly $450 million per year to dismantle tactical missile submarines, CTR has a major impact on Russia’s defense budget. Since last June, the United States Defense and Energy Departments together with the Russian ministries for Defense, Economy and Nuclear Energy, are assessing the possibility of dismantling multi-purpose submarines (SSNs) under a joint program modeled after CTR.

Speaking to the group of 18 Russian officials from the State Duma and the federal administration, former program director Col. (ret.) Jim Reid made it clear that the U.S. Congress will be careful in funding the dismantlement of submarines that do not necessarily pose a strategic threat to the United States. Evaluations of past contamination, said Reid, do not seem to support a claim that the environmental threat alone is significant enough for the United States to pay for the dismantlement of the 120-odd SSNs.

Russia to shift focus towards SSNs
In response to Reid, Duma Deputy Aleksey Aleksandrov pointed out that while the United States may not see in the SSNs a major threat, Russia does. Aleksandrov said that these multi-purpose submarines pose the more immediate problem, given their often precarious technical conditions and the fact that in some boats, nuclear fuel has been kept on board for 30 years. Aleksandrov predicted that the Duma will emphasize these submarines over the missile boats, which CTR is dismantling as strategic threats to the United States.

Enter Lugar
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the remaining founder of CTR (Sam Nunn has retired from the Senate), has meanwhile taken the position that asking the United States to pay for submarine dismantlement for purely environmental reasons is a non-starter. In Lugar’s view, the environmental concerns, albeit justified, concern the European nations to a much larger extent, thus Europe has to take a lead on this issue.

A key staffer to Lugar said, however, that the United States could potentially make a step in assisting Europe by providing technical and financial assistance for the missile-capable boats, given their theoretical strategic threat to the United States.

This is an opening for the Russian side to grab, with emphasis on bringing the European Union in as a partner.

Delegation makes the Hill rounds
Aside from the two-day Intergovernmental Working Group (IGWG) meeting, the Russian delegates used the opportunity to meet their U.S. counterparts. The delegates met with IGWG speakers Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) and a number of administration officials and industry representatives. They also had a personal meeting with Ambassador Eileen Malloy, Special Assistant to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the all-powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Any U.S. funding, for CTR, SSN dismantlement or other cooperative projects, such as the Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation (AMEC), must pass muster in Stevens’ committee.

Good impressions
The U.S. participants were impressed with the Russian delegation. One U.S. administration official called the delegation "the most progressive group of Russian officials" she had met. With the new Duma (elected last December) composed of approximately 70% of freshmen members, it is too early to say whether this impression of a small group can be readily translated onto the entire parliamentary body.

A new openness would, however, be helpful. In order to attract additional U.S. funding, a number of legal hurdles must be overcome, which were also discussed at the IGWG. The remaining problems from previous years are liability, taxation and access to sites. Some Russian speakers suggested the new Duma would be willing to take a fresh look at these problems and resolve them on a case-by-case basis if more general solutions prove evasive.

Work in progress
Bellona has organized three similar meetings since February 1998. The goal is to bring a large number of international decision makers in contact through a semi-formal discussion about the issues of key importance.

The IGWG is the result of the first two meetings in Brussels in 1998 and in Washington in January of 1999. At present, Bellona USA, the U.S. affiliate of the Bellona Foundation, is working on institutionalizing the IGWG, creating a Steering Committee with U.S., Russian, European Union and Norwegian participants, and endowing the IGWG with stable funding.

A next IGWG is tentatively scheduled for the Spring of 2001. Following a remark by Sen. Stevens, the IGWG hopes to invite a group from the U.S. Congress’ appropriations committees in House and Senate to Murmansk to evaluate the scope of the problem on site.