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Russia: WMDs Abound In Russia, But International Interest Fades

Two years ago, the G-8 states announced an ambitious new partnership to prevent the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological materials amid increased fears of terrorism. The countries pledged to spend an unprecedented $20 billion over the next decade, mostly in Russia, to help Moscow destroy some of its weapons stockpiles and upgrade security at facilities retaining dangerous materials. But so far, according to experts, results on the ground have yet to match the political promises.

Prague, 28 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- When they met for their annual summit in 2002 -- amid much fanfare -- leaders of the world's top industrialized nations announced what they called a new "global partnership against the spread of weapons and materials of mass destruction."

Unlike previous declarations, this plan was to be backed by real money. The world had witnessed the horror of the 11 September attacks the previous year. The need to prevent Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group from acquiring nuclear or biological weapons was uppermost in politicians' minds.

Accordingly, the leaders of the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, Britain, France, Italy and Germany pledged to spend $20 billion over the next 10 years to secure "loose" nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as an important component of the war against terrorism.

Russia was assigned priority focus as the world's largest storehouse of potentially unsecured WMD materials. Since 1992, the United States had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to assist Russia in weapons-decommissioning projects and to fund Russian scientists with military knowledge to discourage them from emigrating to rogue states where their expertise could be used to develop illicit weapons programs.

Those bilateral efforts would now be broadened, with countries like Japan and France pledging hundreds of millions of dollars. Russia itself, as a member of the Group of Eight (G-8), pledged $2 billion to fund new projects.

Only a fraction of the money pledged by the G-8 states for decommissioning weapons has materialized.
This week, independent experts and government officials met in Moscow to assess the progress made after two years. Their conclusion? Mostly disappointment. Only a fraction of the money pledged by the G-8 states had materialized so far. Of the $750 million it promised, France has so far given nothing. Japan, out of $200 million pledged, has provided only $2 million.

Security and weapons expert Laura Holgate attended the Moscow meeting as a representative of the U.S.-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, a private think tank dedicated to raising public awareness about WMD.

Holgate used to manage the U.S. Defense Department's Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which focuses on disarmament projects in the Commonwealth of Independent States. She shared with RFE/RL her assessment of where things now stand.

"My overall reaction would be: some good progress but lots of work yet to be done and unfortunately, no visible sense of urgency to the pace of work, either by the U.S. or its partners in the global partnership," Holgate said. "And that is my biggest concern. It's not whether or not we're taking steps in the right direction, it's whether we're moving fast enough. Because we know these threats are real, we know there are people out there who are pursuing these weapons and these capabilities and will not hesitate to use them. And I only hope and pray that we can be swift and smart and creative enough to address these threats before they become reality."

Stories of Russia's "loose nukes" periodically appear in the media. Earlier this year, Russian newspapers reported on Al-Qaeda operatives allegedly shopping for so-called "nuclear suitcases" -- small, powerful nuclear bombs.

Those reports were vehemently denied by the Russian Defense Ministry, whose head, Sergei Ivanov, has noted there has never been a proven case of military WMD material being smuggled out of Russia.

That might be true, but quantities of nuclear material from non-military industrial or research sites abound in Russia and the CIS. Repeated attempts to smuggle radioactive material have indeed been registered, and according to Holgate there is evidence terrorists might have their eyes on more ambitious targets. "For example," Holgate said, "there were reports from the Russian military itself that some of the transport trains carrying nuclear weapons had been surveilled by terrorists. And, in fact, there were press reports that the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, which houses significant nuclear infrastructure and materials, had been surveilled by the terrorists that ultimately attacked the [Dubrovka] theater in Moscow [in October 2002]. Fortunately, what they found when they surveilled the nuclear institute was significant security that had been provided based on several years of U.S.-Russian cooperation, and so I guess they decided that the theater was a softer target."

Compared to the other G-8 countries, the United States has contributed the most to secure WMD in Russia, with $1 billion slated to be spent next year.

But Derek Averre, a British security expert at the University of Birmingham's Centre for Russian and East European Studies, argues even this is far too little compared to what Washington spends on security at home or to fund the war in Iraq, where no WMD have been found.

"The U.S. continues to spend huge amounts on homeland security when even a fraction of this would boost Cooperative Threat Reduction funds," Averre said.

But money is not the only issue. Bureaucratic obstacles are also an impediment, as Holgate explained.

"There's a trinity of obstacles that gets referred to routinely: access, liability, and taxes," Holgate said. "The access question has to do with how much on-site presence is possible for foreigners involved in these assistance programs at very sensitive sites in Russia -- whether they be a weapons base, or a manufacturing facility, or a fissile-material storage site. Those sites have, for good reasons, security rules about who can visit them. But most people involved in assistance programs perceive that these security rules are being abused in order to keep out Americans and others based on false concerns about spying."

Averre said all the talk about fissile materials should not distract attention from Russia's remaining stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, as well as the thousands of scientists formerly involved in the country's biotechnology armaments industry, who need to be gainfully employed.

"There are other urgent tasks, and one of those is bio-safety and bio-security. Incidents in recent years have obviously pushed that up the agenda," Averre said. "And I think that there is a broad approach needed, specifically in that area -- not only to look after stockpiles of pathogens in Russian institutes, but also to establish a civilian-related commercial biotechnology industry, so that there will be less concern about goods and materials leaking out."

When G-8 leaders meet again in June, this time in the United States, experts hope they will follow up on their commitments -- with more than just rhetoric.

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