Stymied by Nuclear Secrecy

During last week's visit to Moscow, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice created quite a stir when she told journalists that progress has been achieved in talks to allow American inspectors access to Russian nuclear installations. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was quick to deny this: "Visits by U.S. inspectors to nuclear installations in Russia are not under consideration. It's not an issue."

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During the summit between President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush in Bratislava, Slovakia this February, the official Kremlin web site published, apparently by mistake, a preliminary draft of the Joint Statement on Nuclear Security that contained a sentence about U.S. inspectors having access to nuclear installations. The official text of the statement did not contain this clause.

Since then, there has been much speculation about the issue in Moscow. Within nationalist circles connected to the military, it is believed that the Kremlin is in secret negotiations to sell control over Russia's nuclear deterrent to the Americans.

It is an idea that has been much harped on since the demise of the Soviet Union. Under the pretext of ensuring nuclear security, the United States will occupy Russian nuclear bases. The last Soviet superpower feature it still has will be lost, and Russia will be under the full control of the secret World Government. Ivanov was so categorical in his denial because fear and opposition is rampant.

In fact, the U.S. military has been performing on-site inspections of Russian nuclear bases regularly since the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was ratified in 1991. Russia has provided detailed data about the performance of test flights of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.

At present, the main problem is access to specific nuclear industrial installations within so-called "closed nuclear cities." As the Bratislava Statement put it, "While the security of nuclear facilities in the United States and Russia meets current requirements, we stress that these requirements must be constantly enhanced to counter terrorist threats."

Most experts, Russian and foreign, agree that nuclear warheads attached to ICBMs are secure: In their concrete silos on land or in silos on submarines, the warheads are well guarded by minefields, barbed wire and concrete-fortified machine-gun positions. During the Cold War, the military believed that U.S. forces would attempt to take over the Russian nuclear arsenal before it had the opportunity to fire, which explains the heavy security. To better guard nuclear weapons from ground attack, our ICBMs were gathered into regimental positions of 10 missile silos in one cluster with one command silo and a common defense perimeter. The United States, in contrast, scattered its ICBM silo positions to make them less vulnerable to a "disarming" Russian ICBM attack.

Nuclear materials and parts of fully or partially dismantled warheads are stockpiled in several of the 10 closed cities of the nuclear ministry, or Minatom, which later became the Federal Atomic Energy Agency, or Rosatom. An official paper signed in November 1997 by Minatom Minister Victor Mikhailov stated that over 500 tons of arms-grade plutonium and uranium were stored in Russia in conditions that "do not meet international safety standards." As the dismantling of the Soviet nuclear arsenal continued, warhead assembly factories, which did not have adequate storage facilities, were saturated with nuclear materials. More than 20,000 nuclear weapons can be made out of 500 tons of arms-grade plutonium and uranium.

The U.S. has over the last decade spent billions of taxpayer dollars to upgrade nuclear security in Russia and is ready to help elevate the security of nuclear material storage within Rosatom. But without inspections and control, the U.S. Congress is reluctant to provide funding for security upgrades.

Rosatom is not happy to comply, afraid the inspectors will spy on Russian nuclear secrets, recruit locals in closed cities or simply discover and make public the embarrassing backwardness of security procedures. However, a high-ranking U.S. official told me that officials are indeed close an agreement to gain access to a large number of previously closed nuclear industrial sites.

It is good news that Moscow and Washington are close to finding a formula for jointly addressing the vital issue of the vast stockpiles of arms-grade nuclear materials in Russia. It is bad that negotiations are being conducted Soviet-style Ч in almost complete secret Ч allowing conspiracy theories to dominate public debate.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.