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Russia: Fears Of Y2K Malfunctions Prevail

The U.S. government says Russia is not ready to handle the widely anticipated computer problems when 1999 rolls over into the year 2000. RFE/RL correspondent K.P. Foley reports from Washington.

Washington, 14 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Despite some progress and a change in official attitudes, U.S. policymakers still say Russia is not and will not be prepared for the widely anticipated computer problems predicted by some to occur when the year 1999 rolls over into the year 2000.

The expected problems are known collectively as the "millennium bug," or simply as "Y2K," (for Year 2000). The fear is that computers that control everything from bank transactions to nuclear power grids will misread the end-of-the-year changeover in dates and malfunction.

The United States government has spent tens of millions of dollars upgrading computer systems to avoid any problems with massive computer breakdowns. Private businesses in the U.S. have also invested millions in computer upgrades. Washington is confident that the U.S. will be ready for the new year. Officials have said that any computer problems are likely to be minor and will not cause disruptions in the life of the nation.

Officials, however, are not so sure about the rest of the world, especially Russia. U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) is the vice-chairman of a Senate committee reviewing Y2K readiness issues in the U.S. and around the world. He told a recent press briefing that there are legitimate expectations of "serious disruptions in Russian communications, banking and energy.

"With the relative instability of a region that is still struggling to define itself, the impact of Y2K is immeasurable. Economically Russia is only treading water -- and that's being optimistic quite candidly -- struggling to keep its head up. The commercial implications of a computer problem of the magnitude of Y2K, which could easily strike at the heart of an already vulnerable economy ought to be a concern to everyone."

The principal fear, however, is the security of the Russian nuclear weapons command and control system. U.S. officials have said several times they are worried that outmoded Soviet computer equipment could fail at the New Year, leading to the specter of a spontaneous launch of a nuclear missile.

Senator Dodd noted that "Since the end of the Cold War nations of the world have remained concerned about the safety and the control of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union, a fear more than 7,000 nuclear warheads still exist with over 1,300 delivery systems. A fear of the Y2K-related malfunctions of these systems, specifically faulty early-warning systems, should be a matter and is a matter of great concern."

Dodd expressed relief that talks between Washington and Moscow on establishing a joint nuclear weapons system monitoring center specifically aimed at easing Y2K fears resumed recently. Russia suspended participation in the talks when the U.S. and its NATO allies began last spring's military campaign against Yugoslavia. However, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen and Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyvev on Monday signed an agreement to place Russian military officers at a monitoring center in Colorado to observe U.S. missile warning data during the year 2000 computer transition.

Dodd said the U.S.-based center will "facilitate cooperation and communication so that the world remains safe and peaceful during the New Year holidays and immediately thereafter."

Dodd also warned of other potential problems, particularly in the nuclear power industry, in Russia and other regions of the former Soviet Union. He said:

"And let's not also forget that there are many Chernobyl-type facilities within the borders of the former Soviet Union -- 16, to be exact. No one is expecting any sort of catastrophic nuclear meltdown because of Y2K. On the other hand, the 16 of the Chernobyl-type facilities within the borders of the former Soviet Union -- we need to have a very clear understanding that Y2K failures will not create immediately safety hazards for the people in these countries and beyond their borders.

"However, the computers controlling daily operations may well experience problems that impact safety operations. The stability of these nuclear power plants is among Russia's highest priorities. In fact, Russia nuclear power experts will meet with their U.S. counterparts this week to participate in regulatory exercises."

Dodd said he believes that it is "clearly in our self-interests ... to do everything possible to assist the Russian Federation." Dodd said that, allegations of official corruption in Moscow and criminal theft of international aid aside, Russia must not be left to struggle alone with the Y2K issue. Said Dodd:

"This is a real problem, it's a serious one, the Y2K issue is. It's something we know something about where we can play a positive and constructive role without humiliating people in Russia, as we try to get them to be more cooperative and to work with us on other issues.