Long-Awaited US Waiver Releases Millions in CTR Funds

Publish date: August 10, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

US President George Bush signed a temporary waiver this week that will allow millions of dollars to be released to programmes aimed at reducing the threat posed by Russia's deteriorating nuclear, biological and chemical weapons infrastructure.

But the flow of non-proliferation cash will run dry again on Oct.1 unless congressional proponents of the so-called Nunn-Lugar act — officially known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction act, or CTR — can rally enough support in Congress to turn what is currently an annual certification process into a permanent waiver, a congressional aide told Bellona Web Friday.

Under current legislation, the Pentagon must "certify" Russia as committed to non-proliferation, or else roughly one-third of CTR activities controlled by the US military shuts down. That certification process is run on a fiscal-year basis, which is why the waiver that President Bush signed Wednesday — 11 months into the 2002 fiscal year — is valid only for slightly more than a month and a half.

The administration of Bill Clinton signed the certification every year. But last spring, the Pentagon and the Bush administration told Russia not to expect certification because the Kremlin was allegedly withholding information about its chemical and biological warfare infrastructure.

The US administration was further concerned that Russia might still be developing unconventional weapons, and thus decided not to grant certification, administration sources said at the time. Instead, the administration asked Congress to permit President Bush to waive the certification on grounds that the CTR programmes were in America’s national interest.

The denial of certification also meant — rather embarrassingly for the Bush administration — that the warhead cuts agreed to at the May summit in Moscow between Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, could not begin to be realized, even though orders for warhead decommissioning began to pile up with the US Defence Department several days before the summit, one government official said.

The current waiver, which was signed by President Bush on Wednesday, according to the congressional aide, will release some $450 million in US Defence Department-managed funding and $70 million worth of programmes run by the State Department that have been affected by the impasse.

Between now and October — when Congress will debate on whether the certification process will continue annually, or will receive a permanent waiver as part of the US Defence Appropriations bill — the congressional aide told Bellona Web that CTR will pour the newly-released funding into a number of new programmes that were stalled by the US administration’s decision not to certify CTR last Spring.

The source said these new projects will include: security enhancements at 10 Russian weapons sites; training to enhance the reliability of guards at storage sites; the decommissioning of two missile submarines; the decommissioning of 30 sea-to-land ballistic missiles (SLBMs); the decommissioning of an unspecified number of SS-24 and SS-25 missiles that are loaded on trains and shuttled around the countryside; and a verification visit by US officials to the Mayak Chemical Combine, which is approaching completion of a CTR-funded weapons-grade plutonium repository.

Conservatives in Congress have resisted granting the latitude that a permanent waiver would carry, citing suspicions that Russia may still be developing germ and chemical weapons in military labs that remain closed to foreigners.

But both former Senator Sam Nunn, a Democrat from the state of Georgia, and Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican from Indiana, who created the CTR programme 11 years ago, this week separately welcomed the President’s signing of the waiver. But they also warned that the programme would be in constant jeopardy unless Congress granted a permanent waiver.

"Getting the permanent waiver is crucial. Otherwise we’ll get bogged down in this re-certification every year, which puts six, eight, 10 months’ gaps in the programme," the congressional aide told Bellona Web.

"My guess is that we will get the permanent waiver, but Congress is going to have to work hard for it," he said.

The temporary waiver came as Russian scientists, attending a smallpox conference in Lyon, France, disclosed new information about a suspicious outbreak of that disease in 1971 that some experts say was caused by a Soviet biological weapons test on an island in the Aral Sea in the now independent Kazakhstan, the New York Times reported.

The congressional aide, however, said there was "no connection at all" between the statements made by the Russian scientists in France and Bush’s signing of the temporary waiver.

Nevertheless — because the Bush Administration’s initial reasons for not signing the CTR certification centred around doubts about Russia’s forthrightness regarding its biological and chemical weapons capabilities — officials at the Lyon conference said that Russia’s willingness to discuss the incident showed progress, the Times reported.

At the conference, the Russian scientists said they had destroyed some tissue samples and biological material, which the United States had hoped might shed light on the outbreak that killed two children and a young woman before it was contained, the paper said.

The Russian delegation said in informal discussions that they considered the outbreak in Aralsk to have been of natural causes, which is at odds with a report about the incident, released last June by the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

According to the Times, the Monterey report said that the outbreak began after a ship doing ecological research in the Aral Sea sailed too close to Vozrozhdeniye Island, where a military smallpox test then under way sent out a deadly plume of germs, infecting a crew member, who carried the virus back to the city.

Although officials in Kazakhstan have investigated the epidemic’s origins, Moscow has never acknowledged that it happened or that smallpox was ever tested in the open air, the paper reported.

But the Monterey researchers asserted that the strain of smallpox virus in Aralsk appeared to have been unusually potent, raising questions about whether America’s smallpox vaccine would work in the event of an outbreak of this particular strain there, said the Times.

The Russians said, according to officials familiar with the discussions in Lyon, that although clinical tissue samples from those infected in Aralsk had been taken at the time, the material was destroyed when Russia quietly moved its smallpox strains from a lab in Moscow to the Vector Institute in Siberia, where the country’s large collection of smallpox strains is now stored, the Times reported.

The Russian scientists also reported that there was nothing irregular about the tissue samples removed from Aralsk, but this was viewed with wide scepticism at the conference, the Times said.