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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lack of Cash, Time Leaves Russia Open to Y2K




Armed with thick repair manuals and rosters of technical experts, Russian officials have opened an all-out campaign to expel the so-called year 2000 bug from the nation's 8 million computers, their microchips and their programs.


But 96 kilometers south of the Kremlin in the little town of Stupino, Mike Tuffs is not waiting for the victory party. Tuffs, regional technology manager for American confectionery giant Mars Inc., asked the regional government and utility officials last year how they planned to deal with the problem.


What he found was that many did not know that their equipment was vulnerable and that others believed - wrongly - that they were already protected.


Mars has since outfitted its two Russian factories to continue during power and water breakdowns, and it is stockpiling raw materials in anticipation of transportation and customs problems.


"Our greatest concern is for public utilities and state organizations,'' Tuffs said. "It would appear that many public organizations are not aware of the equipment that they use and how they interact and how a failure in one area will affect another.''


What worries Tuffs also rattles the technology chiefs of other companies, as well as computer consultants. They say Russia has awakened to the Year 2000 threat too late, spread the alarm too thinly, and has far too little money to perform much more than digital triage on the government and economy.


"There's a potential for major damage to the infrastructure,'' said Andrei Terekhov, a mathematician from St. Petersburg and the general director of Lanit-Terkom, a business that works on year 2000 problems.


Apart from Mars, many other multinational companies that have conducted their own research - Nestl?, British Petroleum and Global One, an international telecommunications concern - have elected to prepare for trouble.


Mars executives say they expect power and telephone blackouts in early January, followed by weeks of scheduled brownouts as utilities try to spread power evenly throughout the nation. To avoid any tie-up of imports and exports in customs offices, Mars will suspend international shipments around Jan. 1.


The company also has begun to educate local officials and businesses about the problem, part of an effort to maintain good relations with Moscow and the region. The need is there, Tuffs said. In some cases, Mars has received written assurances from officials outside Stupino that the area is ready for the new year, even when the company's examination proved otherwise.


Executives at Global One said the long-distance networks were safe, but planned to beef up emergency power supplies at their computer center downtown. However, most local calls are routed and timed by a switch whose maker no longer exists, says Lawrence Haw, a telecommunications consultant.


"It's not year 2000 compatible,'' Haw said. "There's nobody to work on this switch. There haven't been any software upgrades. There's no vendor for the switch anymore. So who's going to do the upgrades?''


The difficulties arise from the longtime reliance of computer programs on two-digit date designations for any year, with 19 presumed to be the preceding digits. Computers, software and electronic devices may malfunction if they read 00 as 1900. Many programs were written by people who have died, have dropped out sight or are working on the problem elsewhere.


"There are obsolete applications on which, very often, entire factories, banks and real-time critical systems depend,'' Terekhov said.


There is also the potential that not much will happen. Government officials say they are addressing all problems in critical areas like atomic energy and nuclear missiles.


The semiprivate companies that supply power, gas and other essential services say they are at work, too. In addition, Russia enjoys a peculiar advantage. Because it has been slow to adopt computer technology, many functions like factory processes can be run manually.


Alexander Myasnikov, a representative here of the Gartner Group, technology consultants from Connecticut, said in an e-mail posting that most major Russian companies would solve Year 2000 problems in their central operations, but that "in remote branches there can be some problems.''


The government predicted in April that even if its assault on the Year 2000 bug proceeded as planned, up to a fifth of all computers would malfunction in January. With 56,000 government computer systems, 16,000 of them critical, officials are worried.


"I can't and shouldn't say either that something is not going to happen or speak of catastrophic outcomes,'' said Alexander Krupnov, the chairman of the State Telecommunications and Information Technology Committee, which is leading the effort on the Year 2000. "I stick to something in the middle.''


The government effort began in earnest last fall. Regional centers were set up to certify technicians whom businesses could hire. A government-wide inspection of vulnerable equipment and the drafting of backup plans were ordered. U.S. officials familiar with the plans said Moscow was serious and focused. However, the problems are huge.


An estimated two-thirds of the nation's desktop computers need repair. But most owners cannot be warned. Many manufacturers are out of business or lack sales records.


Many programs used outside big businesses are bootlegged. Hundreds of military and industrial tasks rely on decades-old programs written by programmers who may have gone to the U.S. and Western Europe. And nearly everyone is too broke to throw money at a nebulous computer bug, anyway.


The government said its repairs would cost $1 billion to $3 billion. That is up to one-seventh of a federal budget that already cannot pay some pensions and domestic and foreign debts.


The one area where catastrophe seems all but impossible is in nuclear weapons. Officials say most crucial military computers, including those in the nuclear force, use programs that are not date sensitive, rendering them immune to Year 2000 problems.


Russian and American officials allow that in a worst-case scenario early warning systems could send false signals as the satellites on which they rely drift slowly out of alignment. But because such errors have been anticipated, the chances that they would lead to a nuclear strike are all but nil.


A leading consultancy, The Gartner Group, ranks Russia among the worst prepared nations for the Year 2000 transition. Gartner predicts a month of turmoil in Russian financial markets, two months for utilities and hospital and three months for transportation and telecommunications.


Other American specialists, though, say they believe that the Russians will weather whatever January brings by virtue of two proficiencies. One is their expertise in programming and maintaining computers. The other advantage is the ability to deal with adversities. Suspensions of power, water and telephone service would cripple most Western cities but in much of Russia, such breakdowns are a fact of life.