White House blocks purchase of Soviet technology Yeltsin hopes to sell aerospace hardware

March 01, 1992|By New York Times News Service

The Bush administration has quietly blocked the purchase of missiles, rocket engines, satellites, space reactors, spacecraft, and other aerospace technology from the former Soviet Union, federal and industry officials said last week.

The federal officials said that their opposition to the purchases is part of an administration policy intended to force the Russian space and military industry into such a decline that it poses no future threat to the United States.

But the policy, which threatens hundreds of potential deals by government agencies and U.S. industry, has come under mounting criticism, and some analysts predict that it may be relaxed or reversed.

The Russian government is trying to reverse the policy by telling the White House privately that in exchange for the recent easing of its long-standing objections to development of an anti-missile system, Moscow wants Washington to allow the importing of high-tech Russian goods.

This trade-off was discussed by President Boris N. Yeltsin during his meeting with President Bush at Camp David on Feb. 1, said a federal official who spoke on condition of anonymity. No agreement was reached, however, the official said.

In recent months, teams of federal and civilian bargain hunters have combed the former Soviet Union for the cream of its industrial complex, which centers on rocketry and space goods.

The items are often more advanced than similar ones in the West and can be purchased at close-out sale prices. So far, however, the shopping spree has fizzled.

The government can control the flow of Russian space goods into this country through import rules and licenses, and federal and industry officials said they did not believe that a single major deal had been approved.

The import ban is seen as complementing the Bush administration's bid to redirect Russian nuclear bomb designers. The administration recently pledged $25 million to help establish an institute to keep them occupied with peaceful scientific work.

But U.S. critics of this policy, including some federal officials, say that acquisition of Moscow's best technologies could save Washington and U.S. industry billions of dollars in development costs, ease Russia's economic woes, discourage the movement of Russian scientists, engineers, and technicians to the Third World, and help the United States compete with foreign rivals.

Publicly, the Defense and State departments have shown great reluctance to support any purchases.

And privately, while apparently issuing no blanket prohibitions, the departments are making the criteria for any deal so tough as to be virtually impossible to meet, industry specialists say.

Donald J. Atwood, deputy secretary of defense, told the Senate committee that considers defense appropriations that he had blocked his department from buying a Russian space reactor, saying the administration had "great concern" about aiding the military-industrial complex of the former Soviet Union.

John P. Boright, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for scientific affairs, said the issue was "sensitive and complex."

The United States, Mr. Boright told a congressional hearing on Feb. 21, had to be "cautious not to inadvertently support organizations and capabilities that could represent a future threat."

That stance was challenged last week by two senators, Pete V. Domenici, a Republican of New Mexico, and Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, both of whom argued that potential military threats had been eclipsed by economic ones.

On Tuesday, Ms. Mikulski, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA, wrote President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III urging that a special federal working group be created to see if Moscow's space assets might aid the American civilian space program.

Senator Mikulski said America's foreign rivals were sure to seize the opportunity if the United States did not.

"It is my hope," she wrote Mr. Bush, "that our nation will not be placed at an economic disadvantage."

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