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U.S.: Lawmakers Seek Russian Debt Cut For Nonproliferation Efforts

  • Jeffrey Donovan

As the U.S. and Russian presidents prepare to sign an arms-control treaty at a summit in Russia this week, the future of another key arms-control issue is being debated: the proliferation of Russian weapons-of-mass-destruction technology. As RFE/RL reports, the U.S. Congress is stepping up its efforts to address the threat.

Washington, 20 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- After facing the chopping block last summer, U.S.-funded nonproliferation programs in former Soviet countries are enjoying a renaissance in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States.

Last July, the new Republican administration of U.S. President George W. Bush had proposed cuts of up to 10 percent to what many considered a hugely successful series of programs. Since 1991, the programs have helped former Soviet countries dismantle a dangerous Cold War legacy: their nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction programs -- named after their creators, former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn and Senator Richard Lugar -- have helped to deactivate some 5,000 former Soviet warheads and destroy hundreds of ballistic missiles, missile silos, bombers, and nuclear test facilities.

The programs, which have cost some $3 billion so far, have also helped employ struggling former Soviet scientists in a bid to shield them from the siren's call of working for "rogue" states that seek weapons of mass destruction -- perhaps in league with terrorists.

However, while popular even among the military in the U.S. and former Soviet Union, the programs were unpopular among some hard-line conservatives in both countries. In Russia, detractors view the programs as an underhanded way of destroying the country's military capabilities, while U.S. critics say the projects are ineffective and simply throw money at corrupt foreign officials.

Some of those American critics were in the Bush administration, whose proposed cuts in the programs were poised to be included in the 2003 draft budget -- along with massive increases for unproven projects such as a national missile defense.

But when terrorists struck the U.S. on 11 September, the Nunn-Lugar programs were suddenly back in vogue. If terrorists could fly airliners into the country's most important landmarks, so the thinking went, then surely they wouldn't hesitate to detonate a nuclear bomb in a U.S. city -- provided they could get their hands on the material to build one.

And observers widely view Russia as the most likely place for any terrorist to go shopping for that material. Senator Joseph Biden, a champion of the Nunn-Lugar programs and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calls Russia "a terrorist's candy store."

Indeed, Congress promptly restored the slashed Nunn-Lugar funds to the 2003 budget and then added 20 percent more -- for a total of more than $1.5 billion for next year alone. And with a post-11 September perspective, the Bush administration threw its weight behind the new funding.

But as Bush gets set to sign an arms-control treaty at a summit in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin beginning 23 May, there are also fresh efforts afoot in the U.S. Congress aimed at improving Russia's ability to safeguard and decommission weapons-of-mass-destruction, or WMD, technology.

Co-sponsored by Biden in the U.S. Senate, where it has already passed as part of another piece of legislation, the Russian Debt Reduction For Non-Proliferation Act would lay the groundwork for future forgiving and restructuring of part or all of the $3.8 billion of U.S.-held Russian debt in exchange for concrete nonproliferation steps by Moscow.

The bill is still being debated in the House of Representatives, but it is believed to have a good chance of being approved. RFE/RL spoke to two of its sponsors in Congress: representatives Adam Schiff and Ellen Tauscher, both Democrats from California.

Tauscher said the new treaty to be signed this week in Moscow, which will slash strategic warheads by some two-thirds, also offers fresh opportunities to use new technologies to improve methods of verifying whether each side is respecting the pact, which foresees both the destruction and the storage of warheads.

Tauscher is the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, which oversees the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration. She describes the bill's function: "The bill would essentially give the Treasury Department the authority to open the portfolio of American-held Russian debt and look to restructure it for verifiable programs that secure nuclear-weapons material, know-how, and make sure that we don't have any proliferation problems."

Tauscher said the bill will allow for up to $150 million to be restructured over the next two years. But with the Treasury Department mechanism in place, the bill could eventually restructure Russia's entire debt to the U.S. in a way that would make it attractive for Moscow to cooperate.

Schiff, reflecting widespread concern among U.S. lawmakers about the security of Russian WMD technology, makes this observation: "I think there's probably no conduct more worth [encouraging] than having Russia accelerate its effort to dismantle some of its chemical-, nuclear-, and biological-weapons stockpiles that are safeguarded, and stem the flow of expertise from the former Soviet Union to countries that are a threat to the United States."

Both lawmakers say part of the motivation for this bill is to help Russia to cover part of the cost of its nonproliferation activities.

"This is a way of dovetailing with Nunn-Lugar and making sure that Russia has the resources to fulfill its part of the nonproliferation effort," Schiff said.

A strong supporter of Nunn-Lugar, Tauscher said this bill will be complementary. "This is just another tool in a toolbox that's available to both of us to encourage good behavior and to [encourage] good behavior."

But last week, a prominent Republican voice suggested adding an even larger tool to that box. Richard Perle, a key Pentagon adviser and former assistant defense secretary, has long complained about Russia's alleged proliferation of WMD technology to Iran, a country that Washington accuses of sponsoring terrorism and sabotaging the Middle East peace process.

Perle told a political discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations that such activities by Russia are obvious, even if Moscow denies it. He said the U.S. shouldn't worry about getting Russia to admit the activity and instead simply treat the problem with pragmatism.

"It's like pornography: You know it when you see it, and defining it is not the key enterprise. If you want to get this solved, don't send a diplomat, send a banker to discuss it," Perle said.

That "banker," Perle suggested, should offer to forgive or restructure the $42 billion of Soviet-era debt held by Germany, the U.S., and other Western countries. He said a good place to start would be offering to forgive Russian debt in exchange for Moscow's dropping its "business" in Iran, where -- among other things -- it is helping to build an $800 million nuclear power plant.

"I would not rule out sharing the financial burden that results from forgoing a market that for them is just a market, but for us is potentially very dangerous," Perle said.

Perle added that most of the money lent to the Soviet Union was done so for political reasons and now that the West has received its "political payback," it should renegotiate that debt.

Asked about Perle's idea, Congressman Schiff suggested that it could eventually win bipartisan backing in Congress. "I think we should use every lever possible to end the Russian transfer of expertise and technology to hostile countries like Iran. And we should be fully prepared to explore the use of our debt in that fashion."

Of course, private Western banks, many of them in Europe, may not be so keen about renegotiating Russia's Soviet-era debt mountain. But the bill in Congress is a step -- albeit a small one -- in that direction.