Nunn-Lugar in Jeopardy

Publish date: April 10, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

The Bush administration has told Moscow that it is squeezing several new disarmament projects because of its concerns about Moscow’s compliance with treaties banning many chemical and biological weapons, State Department and Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

Some existing programs may be affected too, the New York Times reported in an article published April 8.

By American law, the US government must decide annually whether Russia is “committed” to complying with the treaties it has signed with the United States.

In a cable sent to Moscow last week, according to US embassy officials here and State department officials in Washington, the State Department said the United States had not been able to certify that commitment and, thus, the administration would be unable to start new initiatives or provide new financing for programs to reduce the threat posed by each country’s considerable nuclear, biological and chemical stockpiles, those officials said.

That the cable was, in fact, sent is seen as a victory for Russia detractors within the Bush administration, the Times reported. But, said one embassy official, it does not indicate that it will become policy.

“It’s a cable, nothing more and does not mean that any of these disarmament programs will be cut,” he said Wednesday. “It does not signal new policy.”

But if, eventually, its contents become law on Capitol Hill, it could leave one of the most importnant Russio-American nuclear submarine decommisioning in dry dock.

Critics have recommended that the administration inform Russia that it had not issued the certification and, therefore, that there would be no new Cooperative Threat Reduction projects. Nor would existing programs be extended beyond their current level of financing.

These same critics had been pushing for months for a tougher stand toward Russia on weapons of destruction and its compliance with arms control treaties, even though the administration has concluded that the programs benefit American national security, said the Times.

The lack of certification affects a range of disarmament activities — from military exchanges to American help in stopping the theft of Russian nuclear warheads, Pentagon officials said Wednesday. Such projects account for about $370 million in programs carried out under the Cooperative Threat Reduction Act, an effort started in 1991 on Capitol Hill that has enjoyed strong support from Congress and the Clinton administration, and record budget requests from Mr Bush, State Department officials said Wednesday.

The cable, coming a month before President Bush is to meet the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow, does not accuse Russia of violating the bio aand chemical weapons treaties. Nor has the administration ruled out a certification in the future, a US Embassy source said.

But the decision puts Moscow in the hot seat that Washington insists on more co-operation and transparancy with respect to weapons of mass destruction, local and US anaysts say.

“The last few months Russia has not been co-operating with inspection teams,” said Alexander Pikayev of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Wednesday.

“Whether or not they are hiding anything is one question, but the true tragedy of any cuts to CTR would be the submarines awaiting full decommissioning in Murmank and Vladivostok,” he added. “This would simply fuel an ecological disaster for political posturing.”

State Department Officials said in emails and phone interviews that the bulk of the $1.3 billion in projects intended to reduce the threat of unconventional weapons would not be affected by the lack of certification. For example, the $500 million in disarmament projects supervised by the Department of Energy do not require the certification.

But the approximately $450 million in programs managed by the Defence Department and the $70 million run by the State Department will probably be affected, officials said.

The threat reduction program has aided countries in the former Soviet bloc destroy nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and associated infrastructure, and stop the theft or spread of such weapons.

In exchange for American aid and scientific co-operation, the law requires that the administration certify that Russia is “committed” to complying with the treaties it has signed banning and restricting such weapons.

While several similar programs permit the president to waive the certification requirement if the program is deemed essential to national security, the law authorising Cooperative Threat Reduction projects contains no such waiver.

The Clinton administration issued the certification each year and most recently in January 2001. But the Bush administration did not issue the certification when it was due this January.

In March, Mr. Bush’s top aides and cabinet members decided to ask Congress to give the administration the authority to waive the certification requirement. The administration has included the request for such authority in the emergency supplemental spending bills for the State Department it sent to Capitol Hill House and Senate aides said in interviews last week that while it was likely that Congress would grant the waiver authority, it was unlikely to do so before Mr Bush travels to Russia to meet with Mr. Putin, the Times reported.

Hard-liners in the Bush administration have grown increasingly disturbed by Russian actions with respect to its chemical and biological weapons treaty commitments. Though the United States has approved plans to help Russia destroy vast stocks of chemical weapons, officials noted, Moscow has yet to acknowledge that it made in Soviet times “fourth generation” chemical weapons agents, which are many times more lethal than the most advanced nerve agents the United States produced, the Times said.

While Western scientists have been able to visit several former Soviet facilities where such weapons were made, Russia has not given any foreigners access to the four biological laboratories that have been controlled by the military. Russia maintains that it is not violating the biological or chemical warfare conventions, and argues that American military labs are not open either.

“Russia’s actions, like its declarations about what was done in Soviet times, the lack of transparency in its ostensibly defensive programs, and its refusal to share the strain, among other things, raise serious questions about Russia’s willingness to abide by its treaty obligations,” one state department official was quoted as saying in the Times on Tuesday.

Lietenant Stepan Nikorov of the the Defence Ministry press office, however, took a more optimistic view of the situation.

“Well, if we’re not destroying weapons, that’s all the better for us then, isn’t it?” he asked rhetorically.