Of the 11-person delegation—which included Norwegian Ambassador Torbjørn Norendal, US Congresswoman Betty McCollum and Congressman Ed Schrock—two American congressional staff members accompanying McCollum and Schrock and four Norwegians sent by the Oslo foreign ministry were, at the last minute, told they were denied access to the shipyard by the administration of the Murmansk region, where the shipyard is located. The administration officials based the rejections on a Russian Ministry of Defence letter addressed to Nerpa and forwarded to them, which blocked these six members of the delegation.
Just last month, Norway inked a €10m deal with Moscow to destroy two of the Russian Northern Fleets outdated and rusting non-strategic Victor III class submarines—one at Nerpa, the other at the Zvyozdochka shipyard in Severodvinsk in the Arkangelsk region. The United States, meanwhile, has poured millions of dollars over the past 11 years into supplying Nerpa with submarine dismantling equipment through the Pentagon-run Cooperative Threat Reduction, or CTR, programme.
To be sure, international nuclear disarmament experts have dealt with refusals of access to sites they are working on by Russian authorities ever since Moscow began to allow threat reduction efforts in the early 1990s. But the timing of the refusal to members of last weekends group came as a special slap in the face to the delegation, said US and Norwegian officials familiar with the situation.
This visit was no inspection, but a study trip—in that sense, the whole affair was a missed opportunity for the American side to learn about aspects of non-strategic submarine dismantlement, said a US official who knew the details of the visit. He added that the United States hoped these denials were simply a mistake or glitch that will be resolved with openness from the Russian side. Incidents like this clearly cannot continue to take place.
Norwegian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Karsten Klepsvik agreed, saying: This might have a very negative impact on all of our plans for future dismantlement efforts.
He added that the foreign ministry had filed a formal complaint with the Russian Embassy in Oslo. We are awaiting further explanation though we are not expecting that we will receive any further clarification, he said.
According to Murmansk officials, the denials were handed down from the Russian Ministry of Defence—but both American and Norwegian members of the delegation quickly blamed Russias Federal Security Service, or FSB, the KGBs successor organisation, for derailing the trip. Regardless of where the denials came from, the Nerpa Shipyard does not fall under the purview of the Defence Ministry, but rather that of the Russian Governments Shipbuilding Agency.
Under this arrangement, which was codified by two 1999 governmental decrees—Nos. 665 and 878—the Shipbuilding Agency, having absorbed some of the functions formerly performed by the Ministry of the Economy cooperates with the Ministry of Defence in the formulation of defence procurement orders, cooperates with the Ministry of the Economy in choosing, via a competitive process, the shipbuilding enterprises and organisations to carry out conversion programmes. Furthermore, according to the 1999 presidential Decree No. 651, which formalised the creation of the agency, it is in charge of naval shipyards.
As a naval shipyard, Nerpa, therefore, is answerable only to the Shipbuilding Agency, and the agency itself has only a cooperative—not a subordinate—relationship with the Defence Ministry. And that relationship, according to the governmental decrees, is limited to Russian maritime defence contracts, which do not concern the Norwegian dismantlement efforts or CTR activities.
Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the Defence Ministry—although the refusals may, through usual Russian bureaucratic snafus, have arrived on its stationary—would have had anything to do with the denials. A spokesman for the Defence Ministry in Moscow denied ever having heard of the planned trip and confirmed that his Ministry had no say—as per Decrees 665 and 878—over the Nerpa shipyard beyond cooperation on ship building.
We are not involved in any of Nerpas dismantlement efforts, said the spokesman, who asked that his name be withheld. Sometimes these projects are not popular with the Defence Ministry, but it is Minatom [Russias Ministry of Atomic Energy] and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that answer for these projects.
Both Minatom and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they would not comment on the denials.
The US official in a position to know details of the trip said in a telephone interview that there is a lack of clarity as to who was responsible for the denials.
The documents for the special visas required for the visit were all filed, as required by the Russians, 45 days before the proposed visit, the official continued. There should have been no problems, and there was nothing exceptional in the work histories or expertise of those Americans that were denied.
The 11-person delegation had been invited by the Murmansk regional administration and was travelling as part of a Norwegian-American parliamentary exchange programme. They were informed of the denials—which had been issued while the delegation was already en route to Murmansk—just as they arrived in town.
Vladimir Motlokhov, vice-governor of the Murmansk region, tried to mollify the delegation by offering to let the five members with clearance visit the Nerpa facility, but the group refused and left Murmansk immediately. Either we all go or no one goes, Norway’s Norendal was quoted by local Murmansk newspapers as saying.
I have no idea why these six particular individuals were refused, Motlokhov said in a telephone interview with Bellona Web. Their documents were presented on time so there should have been no problem.
He added that somebody gets refused on practically every trip of international delegations wishing to inspect nuclear installation in the Murmansk region. It happens here and in every country, even in Norway and the United States—its something between the ministries.
Motlokhov, however, insisted that it was—as far as he knew—the Defence Ministry that had issued the denials, and insisted further that the Nerpa shipyard is a Defence Ministry-controlled installation, despite governmental decrees and comment from the Defence Ministry itself indicating the contrary. He denied that the refusal of six members of the delegation was a result of pressure by the FSB.
because we are, in fact, very interested, he said in a telephone interview with Bellona Web. Russias economic problems are well-known, as are its ecological problems, and we are grateful for the help we are receiving.
Yevgeny Khorishko, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, which arranged the complicated visa procedures for the American delegation, said in a telephone interview that the incident was the result of a misunderstanding between Moscow and Murmansk authorities.
Who Quashed the Trip?
But Representatives McCollum and Schrock were not appeased by Russias diplomatic assertions.
In a joint statement issued prior to their departure from Russia last weekend, they said we were surprised and outraged by this inexplicable and totally unjustified decision, apparently made in Moscow by the Federal Security Service. This action is in violation of international agreements between the government of Russia and the US and Norwegian governments which stipulate that assistance to Russia for such programmes must be transparent and unfettered access should be permitted.
FSB officials reached in Moscow offered little comment on the incident, and said they had not ordered the denials. But one spokesman, who would not give his name, said, there are legitimate security reasons for such denials, but because they are classified, I will not discuss them.
Klepsvik said it was unacceptable that the FSB be involved in any of our projects—but we see them all over during visits to Russia.
McCollum, who serves on the House of Representatives International Relations Committee, and Schrock, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, likewise, were not convinced by the FSB spokesmans hints at protecting national security.
There can be no legitimate security basis for restricting a congressional visit to a site where obsolete, decommissioned nuclear submarines are being dismantled—particularly when this programme is being funded by our government and the Norwegian government, the joint statement continued.
It is particularly counterproductive for the Russian government to take such an action when the United States and Norway are working with Russia to fund additional dismantling of obsolete submarines. This arbitrary action by the FSB can only increase opposition in the US Congress for funding such programmes, McCollum and Schrock concluded.
Oslo Russian Embassy spokesman Vinoviyev noted that the incident did not signal the beginning of another cold war. But he took umbrage with the Americans and Norwegians assertions about FSB interference.
Russias security structures are free to decide whether to admit someone or not—it is their decision, he said.
According to the US official who knew details of the trip, one of the Americans who were refused admission to Nerpa ironically hadnt even been able to make the trip and was not present in Murmansk. Both Norwegian and US officials refused to release the names of those who had been denied access, or refuseniks as they had been dubbed by Murmansk media.
But according to one knowledgeable source in Murmansk, who requested anonymity, the two Americans who were denied entry to the Nerpa were both professional staff members of two US congressional committees. One, according to the source, was Thomas Gordy, who works in Congress as a public relations official and an assistant for defence legislators. The other, the source said, was Jennifer Walsh, a congressional Scandinavian specialist.
The Murmansk source was unable to supply a detailed list of those who were refused on the Norwegian side, but he said all of the rejected people work in defence-related positions at the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. According to the rejection letter sent by the administration of the Nerpa shipyard—a copy of which was obtained by Bellona Web—two of the foreign ministry rejectees are defence consultants and the other two are aviation specialists.
US and Norwegian officials refused to confirm this information, and Norwegian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Klepsvik denied that any of Norways visitors had any special knowledge that would have led to them getting scratched off the list.
They were picked more or less at random, Klepsvik said. On the US side, neither Walsh nor Gordy could be reached for comment.
According to Murmansk press reports, Motlokhov told the delegation that the denials were issued because within the framework of Russian law, granting access to sites run by the Ministry of Defence is beyond the competence of the regional government. What Motlokhov failed to mention to the delegation is that the Nerpa shipyard is not run by the Defence Ministry.
Nonetheless, in a meeting with the visitors, he said that I share your concern about what has happened and regret what has happened, according to Murmansk papers. We have done all we can to assure that your visit went according to plan. We punctually sent all necessary documents to all the concerned ministries.
Alexander Ruzankin, first deputy head for the Murmansk regions department of economics, likewise, maintained that the Defence Ministry was responsible for the denials. But he went one step further and vaguely criticised the delegations visa arrangements. Indeed, an aide to McCollum said it appeared that authorities in Murmansk did not receive an up-to-date list of the delegations members, the Associated Press reported.
If the Americans had concluded a direct agreement with Nerpa, then it would have been an agreed upon list of those who could visit the facility, Ruzankin told Murmansk newspapers. Otherwise, denials are possible—it happens almost every time such delegations come to us.
Ruzankin went on to say that in most instances as a rule the regional administration is able to secure all necessary permission within required time limits. But this time, the Defence Ministry outdid itself—the list of refuseniks arrived late in the evening as the foreign delegation was already on its way to Murmansk, he was quoted as saying.
The Shadow of the FSB
The Murmansk administrations repeated invocation of the Defence Ministry as the agency that bungled the visit to Nerpa for the two Americans and four Norwegians led many experts to conclude that the FSB decided to derail the expedition in disguise.
The recent outpouring of foreign money and aid to Russia to help dismantle its submarines following Junes G-8 summit in Evian, France, has raised the cockles of Russias counterintelligence within the FSB, said Moscow-based analyst Pavel Felgenhauer in a telephone interview. In his opinion, booting part of the delegation was a way of showing the panoply of foreign donors who is really running the show.
The FSB is increasingly prominent and those who are trying to disarm Russia are not popular with them, Felgenhauer said.
He added that the apparent FSB blockade doesnt represent any major policy change in submarine dismantlement, but the denials increased the status of the FSB and let donor nations know who is in charge—it gave the FSB a chance to flex its muscles.
Refusals Will Mean More US Congressional Trouble for CTR
Currently, the Pentagon-run CTR programme is limited to destroying only ballistic submarines that once posed a threat to the United States—something Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, and cofounder of the CTR programme, Senator Richard Lugar is trying to change.
Other countries, like Norway, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Canada, have pointed out the environmental and security dangers of the Russian Navys retired non-strategic, or multipurpose, submarines, the majority of which are older than their ballistic counterparts and are stored rusting at sea, some barely able to float, with their spent nuclear fuel still on board.
Senator Lugar, who with former Senator Sam Nunn founded the Nunn-Lugar or CTR programme in 1992, has in recent months campaigned heavily that CTR be allowed to expand beyond congressional restrictions to include non-strategic submarines, and the joint delegations visit, had it not been blocked, would conceivably have lent credibility to widening CTRs horizons in this direction.
Instead, it seems to have lent ammunition to CTRs congressional opponents, whose arguments toward cutting CTRs minimal $450m annual funding—which is less than one tenth of one percent of the US yearly defence budget—centre on Russias perceived lack of cooperation about access to Russian sites CTR is assisting. Lugars office had no comment on the denials issued by the Russian government, citing non-involvement with the House of Representatives affairs.
Jon Wolfsthal, deputy director and a non-proliferation expert for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said denials of access are not an uncommon occurrence.
But its not helpful when explaining the need for these projects to funders, he said in a telephone interview from Washington.