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Russia: Initiatives Aim To Minimize Risk That Underpaid Scientists Might Stray (Part 2)

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russia's vast storehouse of nuclear and chemical arms has prompted worries in the United States and Europe, should any of those materials fall into the hands of terrorist groups or rogue regimes. Of equal concern, however, is the human element: the thousands of underpaid scientists across the region who could potentially supply their weapon-making knowledge to the highest foreign bidder. In the second part of a two-part series on Russia's weapons of mass destruction, RFE/RL examines the "people factor."

Prague, 6 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In March 1995, members of the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo sect attempted the mass killing of commuters on the Tokyo subway through the use of deadly sarin gas. Twelve people died and more than 3,000 others had to be hospitalized in the biggest attack to date by a terrorist group using chemical weapons.

One of the findings that quickly emerged from the subsequent police investigation and trial of leading cult members was the degree of interest in Russia by the wealthy doomsday sect, specifically its repeated attempts to obtain Russian arms and weapons of mass destruction.

According to a 1995 case study prepared by the U.S. Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, senior cult envoy Kiyohide Hayakawa visited Russia 21 times from 1992 to 1995. Hayakawa helped purchase a Soviet-made MI-17 helicopter and invited Russian engineers to Japan to help train sect members to maintain the helicopter.

Documents later seized from Hayakawa made specific references to the cult's desire to purchase nuclear weapons. Aum Shinrikyo opened offices in several Russian cities and actively solicited scientists at provincial universities to join. Cult leader Shoko Asahara and 300 fellow Aum Shinrikyo members even managed to gain an audience with the head of Russia's Security Council, Oleg Lobov, and other top government officials. Several more meetings between cult members and Lobov were recorded between 1993 and 1995. What they discussed remains unknown.

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, tens of thousands of scientists across the country worked for Moscow's chemical-, nuclear-, and biological-weapons programs. They were a privileged elite. Many of those scientists are now struggling on salaries of $50 a month, left to fend for themselves by a system that once catered to their every need.

In that context, the fear that some of those scientists could accept offers from cults like Aum Shinrikyo or "rogue" states such as North Korea to work on their weapons programs has prompted several initiatives, principally run by the United States, to ensure this risk is minimized.

One of those initiatives is the United States Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF). Created by the U.S. Congress in 1995, the foundation has several aims, as Cathy Campbell, vice president for programs, explained: "We have a number of objectives as stipulated in our founding legislation. We were created by Congress, and in the founding legislation, Congress identified several objectives for CRDF to pursue. They include providing productive civilian research-and-development opportunities with scientists in the former Soviet Union that basically provide alternatives to emigration. Certainly, nonproliferation objectives are a main priority and objective of our organization, but we are also tasked with assisting in the establishment of a market economy in the former Soviet Union by promoting collaboration with industry."

To date, the foundation has provided cash grants to some 5,000 scientists across the former Soviet Union to allow them to continue their research. Cindi Mentz, the foundation's head of nonproliferation programs, told RFE/RL that even more important is to bring these once-secret scientists into the international community and to show them ways to channel their skills into civilian business applications. "What we do is we help these people make the links with civilian scientists, both in their country and with U.S. scientists. We provide them with an opportunity to establish their credibility in the civilian science community. The Russian science community didn't publish frequently outside of Russia. There was not a critical peer review of the work that was being conducted, and now we have opportunities to present their work at international conferences and seminars, to be published in international scientific journals, and to really become part of the international scientific community," Mentz said.

The foundation has a program focused on helping promote technologies that could have commercial applications, providing money to scientists from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to meet industrial partners in the United States. They also provide training in how to write a business plan and other key aspects of the marketplace.

While it is impossible to tally just how many scientists from the CIS have been dissuaded from offers to work on other states' weapons programs thanks to the U.S. initiative, staffers in Washington have little doubt the program is worthwhile. And the commercial aspect has already yielded some success stories. Mentz cited some recent examples: "We have a group of former biological-weapon scientists who are working with a company in California on a drug for tuberculosis. We have a group of scientists from Ukraine who are people who once designed missiles who are now working on a unique type of refrigeration unit that goes in the back of trucks for grocery stores, based on their experience with cryogenics."

All this and a degree of "peace of mind" for an annual price tag of $22 million, the foundation's yearly budget for funding thousands of scientists across the former Soviet Union. By comparison, the U.S. military spends that amount every 30 minutes.

But as Campbell noted, even the foundation's current modest budget could be under threat, indicating a comparatively low degree of priority given to the "people factor." "The president's budget that was released [this week] projects declining funds under the Freedom Support Act, so that would argue that we may be facing a more difficult budget environment coming up real soon," Campbell said.

In fairness, while Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union are the focus of much nonproliferation attention, experts note that the United States itself and other Western countries also bear responsibility for directly and indirectly contributing to the spread of potential weapons of mass destruction -- and the knowledge of how to build them.

John Eldridge is editor of "Jane's Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence," an annual survey of global weapons of mass destruction. In an interview with RFE/RL, he noted that many of the scientists working for "rogue" regimes or suspect organizations received their degrees at Western universities. "A lot of the [people who receive] legitimate science degrees given by British and American and French and German universities -- all over the world really, Japanese, too -- these people are going back and are possibly involved in clandestine developments, so, it's very, very difficult to track that," Eldridge said.

More controversially, Eldridge noted that Western governments, including the United States, have a record of backing political regimes or opposition groups that end up using the resources given to them in "boomerang" fashion. "They have backed regimes without having the vision to see which way the regime was liable to develop 20 years down the line. We've seen that both with Osama bin Laden, who was strongly supported by the U.S. in Afghanistan, in earlier years. Now, look what's happened there. Look at Iraq, which was strongly supported. It was a favorite export destination for a lot of Western nations before. It was seen as a bastion against Iran, so propping up these regimes or backing the opposition, particularly with chemical weapons and things like that, is an absolute recipe for disaster," Eldridge said.

A recent examination of declassified U.S. government documents by "The Washington Post" shows that the administrations of U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush authorized the sale to Iraq of materials with both civilian and military applications, including poisonous chemicals and biological viruses.

As the world prepares for possible war in Iraq and watches the escalating nuclear crisis in North Korea with anxiety, experts say far greater priority should be given to programs that help prevent nonproliferation before it is too late.