Report Says US-Russia Threat Reduction Efforts Lack Coordination, Political Will and Cash

Publish date: November 18, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

Vacillating political support, an uncoordinated approach to solving proliferation issues in Russia, and a chronic shortage of funding are throwing a wrench into the works of US-Russian bilateral efforts to secure and destroy the Cold War's legacy of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), a joint report released last week by two influential Washington-based think-tanks concluded.

The current approach threatens to leave vast WMD stockpiles in Russia prey to thieves and terrorists, says "Reshaping US-Russian Threat Reduction: New Approaches for the Second Decade," a joint report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Russian American Nuclear Security Advisory Council that was issued Wednesday.

"The inability or refusal of the governments to correct these problems threatens to leave vast stockpiles of nuclear and chemical weapons and biological agents vulnerable to acquisition by terrorists, rogue states and black marketers," is the central finding of the report, said its authors in a statement.

Particular focus in the report was trained on the Nunn-Lugar programme, the oldest, at 10 years, of the American non-proliferation efforts operating to destroy WMD on the territory of the former Soviet Union. The programme got its name from former senator Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, and Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar, who together drafted the original bill in 1992.

"The issues that the report addresses are a concise statement of the challenges that lay ahead of us, and the programme’s need for political support and coordination," Mark Helmke, a policy advisor to Senator Lugar, told Bellona Web in a telephone interview from Washington

"We have been focusing on these issues for a long time," Helmke added.

Nunn spoke Thursday at the opening of a two-day Washington conference devoted to stopping the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, at which the RANSAC/Carnegie paper was presented and much discussed. He painted a terrifying picture of what nuclear terrorism could mean in the near future.

In October 2001, Nunn told the conference, according to The Moscow Times, that U.S. government officials were informed that terrorists had acquired a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb and planned to smuggle it into Manhattan and detonate it. If they had succeeded, the intelligence reports said, they would have killed hundreds of thousands of people and destroy New York City.

"This intelligence report, thank God, was later judged to be false. But it was never judged to be implausible or impossible," said Nunn, the newspaper reported.

"This should focus our attention on two fundamental questions. First, if the intelligence report had been accurate, and the bomb had been real, and had gone off, what would we wish the day after, and the week after, and the months after — what would we wish that we had done to prevent it? Second, why aren’t we doing that now?" Nunn added.

The RANSAC/Carnegie report is an attempt to address some of these concerns and is based on several months of workshop sessions, which drew together the opinions and findings of several governmental and non-governmental experts from Russia, the United States, and Europe to illuminate the common hurdles and pitfalls that impede efforts to avert what is the most potent world security threat since the Cold War.

"The meetings uncovered that threat reduction efforts in all of the WMD complexes were suffering from a very similar set of problems, but that compartmentalization of these efforts had impeded crosscutting analysis of these issues and the development of strategic responses to them," wrote RANSAC’s Executive Director Kenneth Luongo and Deputy Director of Carnegie’s Nonproliferation Project, Jon Wolfsthal, in the report’s forward.

"But this year, as the tenth anniversary of the threat reduction effort passed, it is clear that much of the agenda has lost its urgency and that many fundamental problems persist with no clear plan for resolving them."

The programmes do work
Despite that dark prognosis, the report begins with the assertion that sustained threat reduction efforts do, in fact, work, and says that the past decade of Nunn-Lugar and its US Department of Energy, or DOE’s, partner programmes, and efforts from the G-8 and Europe, have shown "quantifiable results."

Indeed, as Lugar advisor Helmke noted, Nunn-Lugar and its sister programmes at the DOE are accomplished for about $1 billion a year out of an annual US Defense Budget of $390 billion.

According to the report, as well as the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, roughly 6,000 nuclear warheads have been removed from deployment; more than 400 missile silos have been destroyed; nearly 1,400 ballistic missile, cruise missiles, submarines, and strategic bombers have been eliminated; some 40 percent storage and transportation of nuclear material and weapons have been made more secure; 150 tonnes of weapons-grade uranium has been eliminated; a major biological weapons plant has been destroyed; and some 40,000 chemical, biological, nuclear and missile weapons scientists have been provided with support to pursue peaceful research.

But the report notes that these results are tarnished by the fact that roughly half the nuclear weapons-grade material in Russia remains poorly secured. That’s enough material to build thousands of nuclear bombs.

Moreover, previous US-funded security improvements focused on protecting plutonium or highly enriched uranium from theft by nuclear facilities’ own employees. But there has been far less attention paid to the risk of these materials falling into the hands of Chechen guerrilla fighters, like the 50 heavily armed terrorists who stormed a Moscow theatre last month.

Furthermore, the destruction of chemical weapons is only just beginning, said the report, and much about the Soviet Union’s former biological weapons activities remains a mystery.

"Reform of the agenda, and the acceleration of its implementation are required if key goals are to be met and the risk of proliferation successfully managed," the report said.

"The recent G-8 pledge to provide up to $20 billion over the next decade has provided an opportunity to catalyse and accelerate progress […] and it should be seized upon."

Funding crunches
The report’s authors place heavy emphasis on the need for more money.

"Over $1 billion a year is being made available for international threat reduction programmes," the report notes. "Still, there are a number of efforts that could accelerate progress if additional funding were made available."

These include redirecting weapon scientists, eliminating additional quantities of highly enriched uranium, implementing plutonium disposition programmes, ending production of weapons-grade plutonium, converting research reactors that currently use highly enriched uranium, and improving border, export and customs controls, according to the report.

"Additional funding could also allow for expanding the scope of threat reduction," the report says. "The paths forward for financing major activities are unclear and largely depend on a higher degree of political support than currently exists," the report says.

Much of the hope for this additional funding seems to rely on the G-8 "10 plus 10 over 10" pledge made at the June 2002 Kananaskis Summit in Canada.

But there has been little action on that pledge since, and it is unclear if or how the G-8 nations will follow up on it by the time they meet next June in France.

Political commitment
The publication of the report coincided with Congress’ passage last Wednesday of the US National Defence Authorization bill, which was held up for — among other reasons — debates concerning a new draft of the Nunn-Lugar act’s certification requirement.

Last spring President George Bush had refused to re-certify Nunn-Lugar because elements of his administration said Russia was not being candid about its chemical weapons stockpiles. In August, he signed a temporary waiver that let the programme resume activities until Oct. 1, and meanwhile virtually begged Congress for a permanent waiver.

Arguments surrounding this certification process — the US president is required by law to annually certify that Russia is fulfilling its Nunn-Lugar commitments — have stalled Nunn-Lugar work in Russia for nearly eight months this year.

The 2003 Defense Authorization bill contains provisions that Nunn-Lugar be re-certified only every three years, which programme proponents hope will avoid deadlocks like this year’s in the future. President Bush is expected to sign the new law sometime next week.

But the re-certification debacle, and the waffling of the Bush administration’s commitment to Nunn-Lugar are a vivid illustration of quasi-schizophrenic political attitudes toward US-Russian nonproliferation efforts — especially in the US — identified by the report. Such incidents serve to bolster the report’s assertion that the necessary political support to sustain threat reduction efforts is absent in the current global setting.

"Success in threat reduction requires sustained political support and the expenditure of political capital in support of the agenda by the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan," says the report.

"However," it continues, "truly robust political support for threat reduction is very rarely demonstrated and is often more rhetorical than real."

This inconstant support, says the report, has resulted in funding restrictions, bureaucratic squabbles, and dangerously long delays in implementing programmes.

One embarrassing result of this was a backlog in weapons destruction contracts signed at the Moscow summit by Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, reported on in May by Bellona. With Nunn-Lugar uncertified, it was illegal for the newly scrapped missiles to be dismantled through its funding.

The report also calls for Russia, specifically, to improve the atmosphere of threat reduction by advancing in several areas, such as financial transparency, legal protections and facility access.

"The technical nature of much of the threat reduction work, the complexity of its implementation, the intangibility of some of its objectives, its cost and intrusiveness, bureaucratic inertia, the stigma that much of threat reduction is still foreign aid and the still unsettled nature of Western-Russian relations all cut into political support," the report notes.

Coordinating strategies
Another rut for threat reduction, the report concluded, was the lack of a coordinated strategy in directing the various programmes that have sprung up on all fronts, from the dozens of US agencies involved, to European assistance, to nongovernmental organizations.

Many of these entities, the report contends, run according to their own agendas, which often work at cross purposes with other nonproliferation agencies.

"There is a need to develop a comprehensive strategy that integrates all of these efforts and provides some overall direction and prioritisation," the report says. "Such a strategy would go a long way in improving the effectiveness of threat reduction programmes and more quickly reduce proliferation risks."

Evidence of the lack of strategy includes the absence of a central coordinator inside the U.S. administration to oversee all threat reduction activities — a so-called "nonproliferation czar." This idea was rejected by the Clinton administration. There is also the need, said the report, for streamlined congressional oversight over US nonproliferation programmes.

There should, furthermore, be more discussion about how these programmes can be expanded outside the former Soviet Union and other countries considered proliferation risks, said the report. Something in this vein was recently accomplished in Belgrad, Yugoslavia, when weapons-ready uranium was transported by a joint Russian-US team to Russia for storage.

However, because of restrictions under US threat reduction laws, much of the effort had to be underwritten by the privately financed Nuclear Threat Initiative, or NTI, an NGO founded by former senator and co-author of the Nunn-Lugar act, Sam Nunn, and US media mogul Ted Turner.

Biological and chemical weapons
The report notes that "there is a particular concern about the former Soviet biological weapons
(BW) complex. The security of existing pathogen libraries, the past scope of work, the current whereabouts of [biological weapons stocks] and BW-related experts … are all critical concerns."

"The destruction of chemical weapons is just starting … many [chemical weapons] bunkers sit above ground, vulnerable to attack."

Russia has the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenal — 40,000 metric tonnes of various warfare agents, from sarin and VX nerve gases to blister agents like mustard gas and lewisite.

The United States has the second-largest arsenal, with about 31,000 metric tonnes of chemical weapons. Both Russia and America have pledged to destroy their arsenals, and the United States has offered Russia financial help to do so. But critics within the apparently divided Bush administration derailed that pledge for most of this year when the president refused to re-certify Nunn-Lugar.

Other lingering threats
In addition to merely 40 to 50 percent of Russia’s fissile materials being under lock and key, and the ramshackle barn-like structures that house chemical and biological weapons, the report noted that there are some 40,000 nuclear weapons scientists in Russia who are looking for work. Some support has been offered to them through the Energy Department’s Nuclear Cities Initiative, and Nunn-Lugar programmes. But the jobs these programmes provide are often short-lived, making higher wages in proliferation risk countries wishing to obtain nuclear programmes look all the more enticing.

Another 7,000 biological weapons scientists are searching for work, too.

Meanwhile, the thousands of chemical weapons in Russia provide their own proliferation challenge. "The key proliferation dangers in the chemical weapons (CW) complex are the security of the existing weapons, brain drain, and the inability to destroy the existing stockpile," the report says.

In addition, the Russian missile complex is also a potential proliferation concern. Some scientists have reportedly been assisting other countries considered proliferation risks and comparatively little has been done to transition these scientists to other employment, according to the report. And recently, Russian news agencies carried reports that Iran, with the help of Russian technology, has developed a missile that could possibly reach Israel.

The brighter side
One proposal included in the report for strengthening threat reduction would be to more directly link these efforts with arms control treaties.

"New agreements such as the Moscow Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty currently have no relation to threat reduction, but threat reduction could be instrumental in facilitating the implementation of these treaties in the future, and these linkages should be explored."

Moreover, for supporters of Nunn-Lugar, there is a bright spot on the horizon: For the first time in 16 years, Lugar is again chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He regained the post after Republicans won the Senate this month, and his more senior colleague, Jesse Helms, retired.

Lugar advisor Helmke said the senator’s office would shortly submit new legislation and call congressional hearings to broaden the Nunn-Lugar mandate, which would include many of the suggestions put forth in the RANSAC/Carnegie report.