Proliferation of the Bigwigs

The summit between President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush this Thursday in Bratislava will address proliferation. There are serious disagreements between Moscow and Washington in almost every other area. Russia believes the West is bent on isolating it from other countries in the CIS. The West in turn believes the Kremlin is trying to reestablish control over former Soviet republics. The Yukos affair and Putin's dismantling of democracy have poisoned U.S.-Russia relations. The war on terrorism is no longer a unifying factor: The American campaign to install democracy in Iraq and the Russian war to enforce its will in the North Caucasus are as far apart ideologically as the United States and Russia are geographically.

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Nonproliferation seems to be the only area where the two countries can agree. Since the collapse of communism, the United States has spent billions to help dismantle Soviet weapons, and the Russian leadership has accepted this aid. Tens of thousands of nuclear warheads and thousands of delivery systems have been dismantled with U.S. and European assistance. However, the ongoing mutual distrust between East and West and miles of red tape on both sides has marred the effort. The United States invested hundreds of millions of dollars into a factory to destroy nerve gas in the Siberian town of Shchuchye in the Kurgan region. The plant is still not up and running, however, and both sides are accusing the other of creating the delay.

A facility to safely store some 10,000 plutonium "pits," the balls of arms-grade metal plutonium that are the nucleus of a modern warhead, sits half completed at the Mayak nuclear facility in the Urals. Hundreds of tons of arms-grade material -- enough to make tens of thousands of nukes -- are stored in conditions that are officially considered unsafe.

There are hundreds of rusting nuclear subs that need to be dismantled and plenty of other extremely dangerous materials in Russia that need to be stored. At the Bratislava summit, the presidents may announce some new initiatives and earmark more money to solve these problems.

It would indeed be an achievement if some of the projects that have been in the works for so long, such as Shchuchye and Mayak, were finally finished. Yet how can cooperation on nonproliferation truly succeed when the relationship between the United States and Russia is in trouble?

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West feared that hungry Russian nuclear scientists would go to rogue states and pass on their knowledge, taking badly guarded "loose nukes" with them. Programs were initiated to keep scientists working, and secure fences were funded to keep the warheads safe. Nonetheless, certain Pakistanis established an intentional network to spread nuclear materials and technologies, while North Korea provided the know-how to make primitive midrange ballistic missiles. Centrifuge uranium enrichment equipment from Pakistan, contaminated with arms-grade uranium, was discovered in Iran. There have been no documented cases of genuine arms-grade material leaving Russia, but do we really know the entire story?

Ukrainian officials recently confirmed that some 20 Kh-55 strategic cruise missiles were smuggled to Iran and China in 2000, possibly with the help of corrupt Russian officials. China has the capability to mass-produce the Kh-55 and fit it with warheads, but it does not have the strategic bombers to make them an intercontinental weapon. It may not have to wait long to get them. Last December, General Vladimir Mikhailov announced that during the Chinese-Russian joint military exercises planned for this year, the Air Force will fly the strategic Tu-95 Bear bombers in hopes that "the Chinese will perhaps want to buy them." The slow-flying prop Tu-95 can only be used effectively as a Kh-55 carrier. Thus, it's not starving scientists but rich officials in Putin's regime who are selling the weapons that may eventually threaten Russia itself.

In all the serious documented cases of nuclear proliferation -- in Pakistan, in North Korea, in France, which gave Israel nuclear technology -- the rich and powerful were always to blame. It does not make any sense to build a higher fence if the bosses are doing the smuggling.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.