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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A Looming Proliferation Threat

Washington, 3 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Falling salaries among Russian scientists working on nuclear weapons and missiles represent a looming proliferation threat, according to a study by an American think tank.

That is because, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a report released this week, many of these underpaid specialists may now consider selling nuclear materials or even offering their own services abroad.

Prepared by Russian social scientist Valentin Tikhonov, who was able to gain access to areas still closed to Western scholars, the Carnegie study reports on surveys conducted in eight Russian cities, five of which specialize in building nuclear weapons and another three which are involved in the production of missiles and missile-related technologies.

According to the Carnegie report, 62 percent of all workers in the enterprises in these cities make less than $50 a month, with more than half of the scientists involved reporting being forced to take a second job to make ends meet. Almost nine out of ten said they had suffered a decline in their standard of living, and a majority felt their salaries were only a third or half of what they should be.

Because of the precipitous decline in their incomes, the report suggests, at least some of the scientists may be tempted to sell off some of the nuclear materials to anyone with the money to buy. And at least some of the nuclear and missile scientists said they would like to work outside of Russia, raising the specter that they might sell their services to rogue states interested in developing a nuclear missile capability.

If the scientists either sell nuclear materials or offer their services to rogue states, the report says, this would exacerbate "the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation" around the world. If they do both, that could represent one of the most serious proliferation threats of all time. And to prevent that, the Carnegie report urges that both Moscow and the West work together to increase the salaries and job satisfaction of the scientists involved.

At the very least, it says, "the Russian government and associated experts have a responsibility to understand the particular social and economic problems that beset these specialists at a time when Russian reforms are evolving" because "the better these trends are understood, the more effective targeted programs to address current circumstances will be."

What makes the Carnegie report so disturbing is that it comes after almost a decade of efforts both by Moscow and by Western governments and especially that of the United States to try to prevent any leakage of nuclear weapons, equipment, or personnel out of the countries that emerged following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Beginning almost immediately after 1991, the U.S. successfully pushed for the return of all Soviet nuclear weapons to the Russian Federation. It promoted the dismantling of nuclear weapons and the denaturing of nuclear materials. And it provided assistance through the Nunn-Lugar program to sustain Russian nuclear scientists and thus dissuade them from selling their services to rogue states.

Since 1991, the so-called Nunn-Lugar program -- named for U.S. Senator Richard Lugar and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn -- has helped destroy some 5,000 nuclear warheads as well as weapon materials and delivery systems.

Throughout this decade, the Russian government has continued to insist that it has complete and effective control over nuclear weapons, nuclear materials, and nuclear and missile scientists. So far, there is no evidence that Moscow has lost control over the weapons, but there has been leakage of at least small amounts of nuclear materials and some nuclear and missile scientists seeking higher-paid work.

The Carnegie report suggests that there may be more leakage of both in the near term unless something more is done to address the income needs of the Russian scientists. And its conclusions are likely to prompt at least some Western governments to consider extending more assistance to prevent the flight of nuclear fuel and nuclear scientists to countries like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

But precisely because the Carnegie study calls into question much of the optimism at the core of most earlier investigations into this matter, its findings are likely to spark a new debate in both Moscow and the West about just what is the best way to prevent proliferation at a time when the major nuclear powers are cutting back their programs while some other countries are seeking to acquire such weapons.

And in that debate, some are certain to call for a new round of disarmament talks, while others are likely to insist that the Russian government must take steps to control the situation with its nuclear scientists if it wants to be taken seriously. But as the Carnegie study reminds, while this debate is taking place, ever more Russian nuclear and missile scientists will be reconsidering just what their options are in the post-Cold War environment.