It's no mean feat to destroy an artillery or missile shell filled with a chemical weapon like VX, sarin, or soman. Very delicate operations are needed to drain the shell, then destroy the agent without harm to workers or those living nearby. Imagine the challenge of destroying 1.9 million shells in 110 buildings holding 5,400 metric tons of the deadly stuff.
That's what confronted Russia after the Soviet collapse at the chemical weapons storage site at Shchuchye, 100 miles from Russia's southern border. Today, those shells -- many of them stored for years in wooden warehouses with corrugated metal roofing -- are being dismantled and destroyed, and one important reason is the foresight of two senators 20 years ago.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, it left behind a vast arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and materials. Much of it was vulnerable. The Soviet system had controlled this stuff by strict rules and punishment of people, but when the party-state imploded, the physical protections were not foolproof. A lot of materials were kept secure by no more than a lock on the door and, perhaps, a wax-and-string seal.
Given Soviet secrecy, the condition of these industrial plants and storage facilities wasn't widely understood in Washington in late 1991 and early 1992, at the time of the fall. President George H.W. Bush, who took pride in his foreign policy accomplishments, was facing a difficult re-election campaign at home at a time of growing unease over a mild recession. People in his administration were loathe to consider aid to the former Soviet Union -- one of them said that the Russians should be allowed to go into "free-fall." Cold War thinking ran deep.
But Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) was alarmed by the nuclear security problems. He had witnessed first-hand the chaos and insecurity from his own visit to Moscow the previous summer, right after the failed coup attempt, and his concerns were amplified by his contacts in Moscow. Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wisc.) was also worried, although more about humanitarian disaster. Their first effort to craft a bill for Soviet aid failed to gain much traction on Capitol Hill. But Nunn did not give up, and when he joined with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) they managed to rally Congress to approve legislation that would transfer $400 million from other defense accounts to a new effort to secure nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union.
Over the years, this program proved its worth, helping Russia, which had an empty treasury, dismantle and destroy missiles, submarines and chemical weapons facilities, among other things -- including the construction of a huge chemical weapons destruction facility at Shchuchye. The program has since grown to $1 billion a year and expanded well beyond the former Soviet Union.
On Wednesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed a report that it does not intend to extend the umbrella agreement for Nunn-Lugar when it expires next year. Sen. Lugar, who is leaving the Senate at the conclusion of this session, was recently in Moscow hoping to persuade them to continue the agreement, perhaps with amendments. Now it looks like the future of Nunn-Lugar faces more serious hurdles.
Russia was never comfortable with accepting foreign assistance like Nunn-Lugar, but it was also clear to many diplomats, scientists, engineers, and military people in Russia that their government could not do this alone in the turbulent years of the 1990s. Russia's treasury was nearly empty, and cooperation with the United States made sense in the face of dangers which the Russians understood all too well. Whatever wounded pride they harbored was swallowed in the face of more urgent needs.
Today, a resurgent Russia can easily afford to carry on the dismantlement and clean-up with its own money. That is one reason for their decision to end the agreement. Another one surely has to do with pride and the desire to shed dependence on the United States for anything. President Vladimir Putin has also recently kicked out the United States Agency for International Development, which was funding pro-democracy programs. Putin wants to project a Russia standing on its own two feet.
What will matter now is whether, without U.S. assistance, Russia has the willpower and the determination to continue the mission on its own. There will be a temptation to slacken off, to keep the old weapons just in case, and to devote resources to building new ones. In the Foreign Ministry announcement, there was a suggestion that Russia might be open to a new agreement that would better fit Russia's situation today. No telling what will go into such a deal, or whether it is even possible given the recent tensions, but it is worth a try. Nunn-Lugar proved quite durable during many ups-and-downs in relations with Moscow, and with a new agreement, there is still work to be done.
David E. Hoffman
In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev permitted elections for the first popularly elected legislature in Soviet history. The Communist Party still dominated, but about a third of the seats in the 2,250-member chamber were open, and in many of them, establishment party members were booted out. When the first session of the new Congress of People's Deputies opened on May 25, the nation was mesmerized by the televised proceedings. Work stopped on factory floors as millions of people witnessed an astonishing new phase in Gorbachev's revolution from above -- open criticism of the powers that be.
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Georgi Arkadyevich Arbatov, a lion of the Soviet establishment whose influence spanned the final decades of the Cold War, passed away Friday in Moscow. He was 87. An obituary was published today in the New York Times, capturing his role as the founder and director of the Institute for the Study of the United States and Canada, and a bridge between the superpowers at a time of mistrust and suspicion.
One of Arbatov’s most important contributions to the end of the Cold War was carried out behind the scenes in the 1980s.
When Mikhail Gorbachev was looking for advisors who could help him navigate toward radical change, both at home and abroad, Arbatov was among those who became part of his progressive brain trust. Among other things, Arbatov urged Gorbachev to withdraw from Afghanistan, to impose a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, and pull back the large Soviet conventional forces in Europe. Gorbachev did them all.
We sometimes forget that a revolution like that unleashed by Gorbachev could not have been the work of one person. To bring it off, Gorbachev needed the small group of reform-minded thinkers around him; they faced immense inertia and resistance. Arbatov had witnessed the years of stagnation before Gorbachev, and could have simply stood back and waited, but instead he became one of those trying to change the system from within. Much more ambitious change was to follow, but Arbatov played an important role in those critical early years, when Gorbachev was just at the outset of “new thinking.”
Anatoly Chernyaev, who became Gorbachev’s chief foreign policy aide, recalled in his book My Six Years With Gorbachev that the Soviet leader ordered all calls from Arbatov be put through to him immediately. Chernyaev said Gorbachev treated Arbatov with respect “for his outstanding, practical mind, his clear and nondogmatic views, his adherence to principle on political issues, and his sincere desire to help the country.”
In Russia and the Idea of the West, Robert English reported that three weeks after Gorbachev took office, Arbatov produced a 40-page memo that outlined a new approach to Soviet foreign policy, including an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, and conciliatory steps toward Western Europe and China.
Eduard Shevardnadze told English that when he took over as Foreign Minister in 1985, he listened carefully to Arbatov's briefings on arms control negotiations, which debunked the inflated threats provided by other Soviet officials, and provided a calmer, more realistic assessment of the military balance. “I knew that we had to go forward, but I had no real data or numbers,” Shevardnadze recalled. He found the answers from Arbatov and his institute.
Like many, Arbatov later became disenchanted with Gorbachev’s endless tactical maneuvers, which at times seemed to undercut his own reform principles. But Arbatov wrote in his own memoirs, The System: An Insider's Life in Soviet Politics, published in 1992 in English, that he was slow to notice this because “I was so fascinated and enchanted by Gorbachev” in the early years.
After all the memoirs and diaries are published, after the myths are created and exploded, there is something quite bracing about the transcripts and official minutes of once-secret White House meetings. People often have imperfect memories of what was said at a meeting, which makes it all the more important and interesting to read the official record of a dialogue as it actually unfolded.
A fresh cache of declassified and original materials on President Reagan and the Cold War is coming to light with the publication of The Reagan Files: The Untold Story of Reagan’s Top-Secret Efforts to Win the Cold War, edited by Jason Saltoun-Ebin. The documents contained in the volume are raw, genuine and illuminating.
Here’s a gem: a White House meeting Sept. 8, 1987, Reagan and his cabinet members were debating negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan confides, cheerfully:
I have a friend who tells me that in the Soviet Union their right-wingers are starting to call Gorbachev 'Mr. Yes' because he agrees with everything that I propose."
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Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has signed a decree which could end of one of the most successful of the programs that helped Russia cope with the legacy of the Cold War arms race.
This is the International Science and Technology Center in Moscow, which was formed by Western countries in 1992 to assist scientists, engineers and others redirect their talents from weapons work to civilian projects.
On August 11, Medvedev signed a decree to pull Russia out of the program. Without Russia's participation as a partner and host -- it was a founding member-- the ISTC may not survive. Medvedev's decree will take effect in six months, according to a report by the RIA-Novosti news agency.
The State Department's new arms-control compliance report is out, the first since 2005, and the unclassified version shows that uncertainty about biological weapons still casts a shadow over the globe. Iran, North Korea, and Syria may have germ-warfare programs, and neither China nor Russia have come completely clean about their past.
Doubts exist not only about which states may possess biological weapons programs, but also the weakness of the main international treaty outlawing them, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. This treaty has never lived up to its original promise, and is badly in need of an overhaul. At the same time, beyond the diplomacy, there's also plenty of uncertainty -- and precious little information --about whether terrorists or crazed individuals could mess with germ weapons.
The new strategic arms treaty with Russia is a gift for Republicans, not as a political weapon against President Barack Obama, but as the fruit of their own labors. The treaty is a logical, modest step down the long road of strategic nuclear arms control, led by Republicans from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan. In all those years of the Cold War, whether by détente or confrontation, they sought to restrain an existential threat and create rules and stability in a world of mistrust and uncertainty.
The new treaty goes further toward those goals than the hawks of yesteryear could have ever imagined. Republicans ought to vote for ratification and tell voters they fulfilled Reagan's greatest wish, to lock in lower levels of the most dangerous weapons on Earth. Reagan often talked about "peace through strength," and this treaty measures up to the slogan.
In the event of a nuclear missile attack on Russia, three hard-shell briefcases filled with electronics are set to alert their holders simultaneously. Inside each is a portable terminal, linked to the command and control network for Russia's strategic nuclear forces. One of them accompanies the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, wherever he goes. It is known as the Cheget, and allows the president to monitor a missile crisis, make decisions, and transmit those decisions to the military. It's similar to the nuclear "football" that accompanies the American president.
But a new book by a leading Russian security analyst points to a surprising disconnect in the system, a potential flaw that has not been widely understood. Under Russia's 1993 Constitution, the president is the commander in chief, and if incapacitated in any way, all of his duties fall to the prime minister. Yet the prime minister does not have a nuclear briefcase at his disposal. The other two Cheget briefcases are actually held by the defense minister and the chief of the general staff, as was the case in Soviet times. The resulting ambiguity, warns Alexei Arbatov, could be dangerous in the event of a nuclear crisis. In today's Russia, neither of the military men has the constitutional or legal responsibility to make a decision about how or whether to launch a nuclear attack. Certainly, they would be among the top advisors to the president at a time of crisis, but they are not decision-makers.
Why the danger? The United States and Russia still maintain nuclear-tipped missiles on alert for rapid launch. The land-based U.S. missiles can be ready to launch in four minutes. Warning of an imminent attack might require a president to make very rapid decisions with limited information. In such an emergency, whether in the White House or the Kremlin, you'd want very precise roles for each decision-maker, without ambiguity or uncertainty.
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David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.