Putin and Bush head to Bratislava for non-proliferation and democracy summit

Publish date: February 23, 2005

Written by: Charles Digges

WASHINGTON—Despite the political upheavals that have separated Russia and the United States since US President George Bush’s reelection, the most dominant public talking points at Bratislava’s Thursday summit—and the one on which Presidents Vladimir Putin and Bush seem to most heartily agree—will be nuclear non-proliferation and containing the threat of loose nuclear material in Russia.


Russia has long depended on the United States Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR)and related programmes—to the tune of some $1.3 billion a year—to help clean up the Soviet nuclear legacy by destroying weapons of mass destruction. And, it is clear enough to Moscow that this it relies on this and other money to keep the Russian nuclear industry—inherited as a creaky Soviet money-pit that has not been remodeled since—chugging along.

Furthermore, following Russia’s recent democratic roll-backs, non-proliferation is also one of a small handful of topics the two leaders can address in public without dispute, and most indications indicate that the progressive failure of open democracy in Putin’s Russia will be addressed behind closed doors.

Nevertheless, Iran’s nuclear programme—for which Moscow is building an $800m light water reactor in the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr—had, according to many US Government sources, recently become as much a concern to Russia as it has to the United States, which has insisted that Teheran is pursuing a nuclear weapons programme.

Is Russia turning on Iran?
This concern hinges on the alleged sale by Ukraine to Iran in 2000 of up t 20 Kh-55 missiles. These missiles have a range of 2880 kilometres and are capable of carrying a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead at altitudes too low to be detected by radar. Also, recent revelations that many of Iran’s uranium centrifuges came from Pakistani nuclear black-marketeer Abdul Qadir Khan’s network, have also put Moscow on edge. “Russia is close to Iran than the US is, so they better be scared,” said on State Department official to Bellona Web.

Nonetheless Russia is so far sticking by Iran in public, according to Russian press outlets. Russia also believes the West is bent on isolating it from other countries in the CIS. The West in turn believes the Kremlin is trying to reestablish control over former Soviet republics. The Yukos affair and Putin’s dismantling of democracy and the free press have poisoned US-Russia relations.

State Department and other officials interviewed by Bellona Web in Washington last week have tipped that the two leaders will talk about upping the tempo on securing Russia’s weapons-usable nuclear materials, only 38 percent of which after 12 years of effort are under reliable lock and key. They are also likely to talk about breaking the legislative log-jam laid by the US Department of State that has prevented the 2000 US-Russia Plutonium Disposition agreement from moving forward.

The slow pace of non-proliferation
The 2000 agreement between former US President Bill Clinton and Putin, stipulated that both countries, in parallel progress, would destroy 34 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium declared surplus to each countries arsenals.

Later, Bush said these efforts would focus on mixing weapons grade plutonium with uranium in Mixed oxide, or MOX fuel for burning in specially retrofitted reactors. This disregarded the vastly cheaper and safer method—by the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) own calculations— of immobilisation, via which weapons-grade plutonium is, generally speaking, encased in highly radioactive glass and stored in special containers.

The US MOX program is slated to cost some $4 billion and Russia some $2 billion. But Russia has thus far refused to succumb to US liability demands that place all liability implementation of the MOX programme. The DOE and others in the nuclear disarmament establishment that support the controversial plan are anxious for Putin and Bush to reach a liability resolution.

Most analysts in Russia and the US agree, however, that the cumbersome, expensive and behind-schedule will collapse under its own weight—a goal the State Department was shooting for when it refused to renew the MOX programme’s five-year 1998 Technical Agreement, grinding MOX research to a halt on both sides of the ocean.

A US official told Bellona Web, however, that the new State Department, under the control of Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s former National Security Advisor, is sending along amended liability documentation for the MOX programme for sideline negotiations at the summit.

The US is also bringing with it newly proposed legislation for the creation of a “non-proliferation czar” to oversee U.S. efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The Omnibus Nonproliferation and Anti-Nuclear Terrorism Act of 2005 would establish within the White House an Office of Nonproliferation Programs, to be headed by a director nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

The director, who would serve as the president’s chief nonproliferation adviser, would be responsible for overseeing the various programs conducted by the Defense, Energy and State departments. Among the director’s responsibilities would be guiding the development of nonproliferation budgets and setting priorities.

It is as yet unclear how this would interface with European donor nations’ efforts. Responsible European Union and US administration officials could be reached for comment.

Concerns for Russian democracy
It thus remains to be seen whether discussions in the area of nuclear non-proliferation are substantive or simply a distraction to divert from what some State Department officials expect to be closed door raps from the diplomatic ruler.

In comments to Slovak state television last week, Bush said his "good relationship" with the Russian leader would "give me a chance to say in private—ask him why he’s been making some of the decisions he’s been making."

The senior US official said; "If you talk to Russian experts, they will tell you Putin recoils from public criticism – that’s not the most effective way to deal with him. Bush has been criticized by some for not being more vocal publicly. On the other hand, the point is (that) you want to be effective."

Washington’s political elite is expecting the US president to come back with results in this area.

Republican Senator Richard Lugar, co-author of the 1992 CTR legislation and current Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, last week urged Bush at a Senate hearing devoted to Russia’s deomcratic back-peddling, to "make democracy, human rights and the rule of law" priorities in his talks with Putin. Senator Joseph Biden, the panel’s top Democrat, asked bluntly, "When are we going to get tough with Russia?"