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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Decries Blocked Computer Sale

Russia's nuclear officials said Thursday that they feel "cheated" by a U.S. decision to block their purchase of American super-computers designed to simulate 'virtual' nuclear explosions, and that the dispute could derail cooperation on nuclear disarmament.


A Commerce Department decision blocking the Russian Nuclear Power Ministry's purchase of the IBM and Hewlett Packard computers was apparently made because Russian officials acknowledged the hardware would be used for simulated nuclear tests.


But according to ministry officials, Moscow signed the historic Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on the specific understanding that it would get the American technology needed for virtual testing, allowing it to keep its nuclear arsenal up to date without exploding any warheads.


"After signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, we thought that we had entered a new phase of cooperation and mutual trust with from the U.S. side on why the decision to block the computer sale was made, due to the Thanksgiving holiday.


Since the test ban treaty was ratified at the United Nations in New York in October, all the world's nuclear powers have undertaken to conduct only "virtual" nuclear testing, said Yury Pinchukov, director of the independent Association for Non-proliferation.


One of the main obstacles to getting the treaty signed had been concerns on the part of India and Russia that they lacked the requisite computers to keep their nuclear technology up to date without live tests. India, along with its neighbor Pakistan, refused to sign the treaty.


But the path to Russia's agreement was smoothed by American assurances that the necessary IBM and Hewlett-Packard made technology would be supplied, according to Pinchukov.


"The Indians said that we would be cheated, and it turned out they were right," said Petrov.


The Department of Commerce decision, which was made public in an article Tuesday in the American trade newspaper, Journal of Commerce, bore echoes of the Cold War Cocom restrictions that prevented the transfer of computer technology to the former Soviet Union.


But Cocom was scrapped in March 1994. U.S. officials were quoted in the Journal of Commerce article only as saying that licenses for the sale had been denied because the Russians had "admitted" the computers would be used to simulate nuclear tests.


Initially, according to the Journal of Commerce article, the Russians had said they wanted the super-computers for environmental modeling. Later, Nuclear Power Minister Viktor Mikhailov said they were wanted to check existing nuclear stockpiles.


And in a Sept. 9 letter, the journal said Mikhailov specifically denied that the computers would be used to develop new weapons.


While Russia desperately needs the fast computer technology, it believes there should be no problem with getting the technology in any case.


"The accurate simulation of a nuclear explosion requires a very powerful computer and very sophisticated programs, which Russia is still a long way from developing," Pinchukov said.


"The Russian atomic ministry only agreed to sign [a test ban treaty] because they expected the computers. Russians have always relied on live tests. ... It is unlikely for the moment, but it is possible that the atomic ministry could resume [live tests] if they have no other choice."


The Department of Commerce's decision "leaves Russia in an impossible situation," said Petrov, who would not comment on whether the block was linked to last year's sale of reactor technology to Iran or last week's conventional submarine sale to Teheran.


"The U.S. refused us, that's all," he said. "All we can do is draw our own conclusions, and behave differently in the future. ... I would not wish to see a return to what we went through before, but in order to have friendship, you have to have trust. The basis of this decision is that the Americans do not trust us."


A national representative to the test ban treaty talks in Geneva -- who requested anonymity -- agreed that the U.S. decision threatened to shatter the growing nuclear cooperation between the United States and Russia, and said the dispute could push Russia into supplying nuclear technology to "dangerous states."