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Russia: U.S. Senate May Vote Against Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

  • Michael Lelyveld

The U.S. Senate is scheduled later this week to take up the issue of a treaty to ban nuclear testing. The accord faces an uncertain future. RFE/RL's Michael Lelyveld looks at the issues:

Boston, 4 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United States and Russia have resolved a dispute over super computers and nuclear weapons, but experts say greater problems remain for a global treaty to ban nuclear tests.

U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson last Friday closed the case against Russia's diversion of high-speed computers to the nuclear city at Arzamas-16, where the two countries have now inaugurated an "open computing center" to employ Russian scientists.

The compromise on using the computers in the Russian city now known as Sarov was an extraordinary solution to the diversion problem, which has roiled relations for nearly three years. Washington had previously demanded that the machines made by IBM Corp. be returned because they could be used to simulate nuclear weapons tests.

Russia refused to send them back. It also denied U.S. requests to inspect the computers and determine their use for over two years. The conflict prompted the U.S. Congress to place new curbs on computer exports in 1997 for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

Last week's resolution will bring the computers into the cooperative U.S.-Russian project, known as the Nuclear Cities Program, which aids scientists at institutes run by the Ministry of Atomic Energy. The administration has vowed to keep the initiative alive, even though U.S. Congress recently reduced funding for the program next year.

But the solution to the computer controversy also brings the issue of arms control full circle at a time when the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to stop nuclear testing seems in danger of collapse. After years of delay, opponents in the U.S. Senate plan to bring the treaty up for debate this Friday. Critics of the treaty say it is likely to be defeated in a vote the following week.

The U.S. administration favors ratification of the test ban treaty. A top White House official Sunday cited a news report that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency cannot monitor Russia's low-level nuclear testing with adequate precision as evidence that the treaty should be ratified by the Senate.

Chief of staff John Podesta said in a CNN television interview that having a treaty in place would enhance U.S. ability to monitor low-level nuclear testing. He said the accord would also make it easier to demand on-site inspections if there were any doubt whether such testing occurred.

Podesta said there has been a problem monitoring these low-level nuclear tests. He said the treaty enhances U.S. ability to monitor them and to prevent nuclear modernization programs.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that the CIA has concluded it cannot monitor Russia's low-level nuclear tests accurately enough to ensure compliance with the treaty.

So far, only 23 of the 44 countries that have nuclear weapons or some ability to build them have given final approval to the treaty. Experts fear that a defeat in the United States will make it impossible to bring the treaty into force. The failure could also make the Russian super computers controversial again.

Russia signed the treaty in September 1996 under circumstances that are still the subject of some disagreement. Russian officials said they were promised access to U.S. super computers for simulated nuclear testing if they agreed to the test ban. When U.S. officials then barred direct sales, Russia felt justified in smuggling the computers into the country.

The problem was that U.S. officials concluded that there would be no way to tell if Russia was using the computers secretly to design new weapons instead of conducting simulated tests to maintain existing stockpiles. In interviews with RFE/RL, U.S. arms control experts differed on the security risk posed by Russia's continued possession of the computers.

"No effective super Computer safeguard system has ever been devised," said Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington. "If the host country wants to use them for weapons purposes, there's nothing we can do about it."

But Howard Diamond, a senior associate at the independent Arms Control Association in Washington, said the availability of high-speed computers has grown so dramatically in the past three years that the machines at Sarov no longer matter.

"The fundamental question is does the United States really expect Russia to get out of nuclear weapons just because it signed the test ban treaty? Of course not," he said.

The larger problem is that failure of the treaty may only fuel further distrust. Without a treaty, new weapons may not only be developed in secret, but they could also be demonstrated in destabilizing explosive tests. U.S. opponents of the treaty say the United States should not limit its nuclear capability by barring future testing. As in all security matters, distrust feeds on itself.

But beyond the United States and Russia, there are even more troubling concerns. Last year, the United States set a goal for persuading India and Pakistan to sign the treaty by September 1999 after their nuclear tests in May of last year. That deadline, which was timed for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session, has now come and gone.

Elections in India and tensions in Pakistan seem to have all but ended their chances for signing the treaty. Motivation has also been sapped by the failure of U.S. and Russia to ratify the accord. Howard Diamond of the Arms Control Association said that India may never sign until China ratifies the treaty, and Pakistan will not unless India does.

Within the past week, Pakistan has announced the testing of an engine for a new longer-range missile. It has also launched its first missile-carrying ship. Without progress on arms control, the two adversaries risk slipping back into conflict again.

In the atmosphere of worldwide nuclear perils, the agreement between the United States and Russia on the disputed computers appears as a tiny step taken only after great pains. Far more is needed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to defuse the dangers that are brought on by distrust. ss