Maintaining the Proliferation Fight in the Former Soviet Union

By Biden, Joseph R., Jr. | Arms Control Today, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Maintaining the Proliferation Fight in the Former Soviet Union


Biden, Joseph R., Jr., Arms Control Today


With the end of the Cold War, the immediate threat of a nuclear holocaust between the United States and Russia has receded, but the threat of a nuclear disaster remains. Today, there is a real risk that former Soviet weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or the technology needed to build them, will find their way to rogue states, terrorist groups or even criminal organizations. If such weapons should ever be used, their impact will be catastrophic. It will hardly matter that "only" one or two cities at a time may be so hideously incinerated.

The war against these "loose nukes" and "brain drain" threats is as important as any war in our history. It is a war fought with security assistance-financial and technical-to states of the former Soviet Union rather than with armed force. Its battles are against unemployment and lax security in the vast complex of former Soviet WMD facilities. Its fronts are an array of firms and institutes and Russia's 10 "nuclear cities," as well the international frontiers where smugglers try to move sensitive materials to states like Iran, Iraq or Libya.

This is a war that the United States dares not lose. In December 1998, the Russian press reported that the chief of Russia's Federal Security Service in the Chelyabinsk region said that employees at one sensitive plant had tried to steal 18.5 kilograms of weapons-usable nuclear material. A month earlier, 3,000 workers at Chelyabinsk-70, the nuclear city now called Snezhinsk and one of the country's two nuclear weapon design centers, held a protest over unpaid wages.l In 1996, the director of that facility committed suicide in despair over his inability to pay his personnel. The threat remains real, kept at bay in no small measure by the array of assistance programs, U.S. and other, that have responded to the changed security environment following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still, more must be done.

In his January 1999 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton announced an Expanded Threat Reduction Initiative that will expand and strengthen U.S. security assistance programs by 60 percent over the next five years. (See Table 1, next page.) In its fiscal year (FY) 2000 budget request, the administration requested over $1 billion for these programs. While the administration's request for extra funding is desperately needed and merits wholehearted support, it still does not match the level of the threat facing the United States.

As the United States moves to increase funding for new threat reduction programs-such as the Nuclear Cities Initiative, which seeks to help Russia to downsize its nuclear weapons complex without throwing scientists out on the street-it is important also to support and improve existing efforts. One of the earliest Department of Energy (DOE) programs, Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP), was begun in 1994 to address the threat to U.S. non-proliferation goals posed by former Soviet weapons scientists and technicians who, driven by their country's worsening economic straits, might offer their expertise and know-how to countries of proliferation concern. The IPP program, a cooperative arrangement between U.S. and former Soviet national laboratories and other institutions, has sought to channel the first-rate technological capacities of the latter countries into productive, non-military endeavors.

Despite its relative youth-IPP is only five years old-the program has been a frequent target of attacks. Its future has been imperiled at times by wildly inconsistent funding and by allegations of mismanagement. As the United States seeks to strengthen its security assistance programs, the IPP program has once again come under the spotlight. The scrutiny is welcome, but it is important to understand that this program has served U.S. interests and that its maintenance and improvement are key at this time of strained U.S.-Russian relations.

The GAO's Report

On February 22, the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report on the IPP program that was again critical of program management. …

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