Russia and U.S. take on a herculean task

Chemical weapons left after Cold War defy joint effort

April 06, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The research institute where Russian scientists spent decades perfecting ever more deadly chemical weapons consists of a ramshackle collection of laboratories crammed into a triangular plot off the Highway of the Enthusiasts in the heavy-industry belt of eastern Moscow.

The buildings, some apparently abandoned and most in poor repair, are linked by battered above-ground pipes that weave in and out, over and along the muddy alleys.

This was a top-secret place, and it was only six years ago that security officials were prosecuting a Russian chemist for daring to talk about what went on inside.

Now Russia says it is eager to destroy its huge chemical-weapons stockpile and was glad to have the U.S. government construct a state-of-the-art analytical lab here to help that process. Yesterday, Russian and American officials showed off the new lab -- discreetly fenced off from the rest of the institute by coils of barbed wire to keep inquisitive visitors away from what their Russian hosts don't want them to see.

The delegations swept in with television cameras in tow and a ribbon to cut. The rest of the institute was deadly quiet, seemingly abandoned, the only people stirring a few soldiers lurking down the alleyways.

The officials congratulated each other on their cooperation and pledged to move on to the real work that lies ahead.

"I think all involved in the project understand that it has not been an easy thing to arrive at the point where we are today," said U.S. Ambassador James F. Collins.

Since it began in 1996, the joint Russian-American program has been based on the idea that the Americans would pay to destroy Russian weapons because it was in America's interest to do so.

But the effort has been marked by considerable delay, a lack of trust, American accusations that the Russians are withholding information, suspicions within the Russian military that the Americans are stealing secrets and, finally, a decision by a dissatisfied Congress to cut out all funds for the program in this year's budget.

On April 1 Russia missed its first significant deadline under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. By that date, it was supposed to have destroyed 400 tons of munitions; it has yet to build a place to carry out the work.

Yesterday's tour and official transfer of the new lab were designed to strike a positive note and get the money back on track next year in time to begin work on an industrial-scale demolition plant in Shchuchye, in western Siberia.

The United States has spent about $200 million on the Russian program, project manager Adolph Ernst, from the U.S. Army arsenal at Edgewood, said yesterday -- $18.5 million on the lab in Moscow, and the rest on development and design work, mobile laboratories, training and other support activities.

Work on the lab here was able to continue this year because, with the project about a year behind schedule, there was money available from earlier budgets.

Under what is known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, the United States is supposed to spend an additional $688 million in the years ahead to build the Shchuchye plant.

Russia has budgeted about $21 million of its own funds this year, Zinovy Pak, general director of the Munitions Agency, said yesterday -- but typically in Russia the amount spent often falls considerably short of what has been budgeted. Russia is appealing to Western European nations to help it meet its share.

Tons of weapons

The task is formidable.

In Shchuchye the Russians have stored about 2 million artillery rounds and rocket warheads filled with 5,460 tons of chemical weapons material -- mostly nerve agents, which are designed to kill soldiers the way pesticides kill insects.

According to a critical report issued by the U.S. General Accounting Office last year, the plant the United States wants to build would be able to destroy 500 tons a year, meaning the work would extend at least until 2017, 10 years after the date set by the Chemical Weapons Convention for destruction of the entire arsenal.

And Shchuchye contains less than 20 percent of Russia's declared stockpile of 40,000 tons of chemical weapons.

American and Russian officials made it clear yesterday that they believe the program is at a critical juncture. Beset by problems, it will either get moving again within a year -- with renewed U.S. spending -- or face insurmountable obstacles.

Yuri Kapralov, representing the Russian Foreign Ministry, declared that the American money was not charity. "When we were persuaded to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention," he said, "we were told that international assistance would be provided for our efforts."

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