Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Sting

Over the past decade, the U.S. government has spent billions of dollars assisting Russia (and other former Soviet states) in securing their WMD stockpiles, under the Nunn-Lugar program. For the most recent fiscal year ('06), the federal government spent $415 million on the initiative, which is named for its original sponsors, former Georgia Democratic Senator Sam Nunn and Republican Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana.

While the government--and Congress--remain committed to Nunn-Lugar, there has always been an element of controversy associated with the program. Supporters claim the project is woefully underfunded, providing barely enough money to fund stockpile destruction programs, with little left over for non-traditional, counter-proliferation efforts, such as stipends for nuclear scientists who might be tempted to "sell" their expertise to rogue states and terrorist organizations.

Meanwhile, critics argue that Nunn-Lugar places too much faith in Russian officials who don't always live up to their obligations under the agreement. Five years ago, the House of Representatives blocked an attempt to increase funding for the program, noting reports from the GAO and Harvard that found Russian officials were blocking access to sites that the U.S. had targeted for security improvements.

Recent events in Georgia will likely reignite the debate over Nunn-Lugar, and the best methods for improving WMD security in the former eastern bloc. As reported by the Associated Press, Georgian authorities, working with the CIA, set up a sting operation last summer that nabbed a Russian man, who was offering the sell weapons-grade enriched uranium. According to a Georgian official, who provided limited information on the sting operation, the Russian had about 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of enriched uranium when he was arrested. Tests confirmed that the uranium had a "purity" of more than 90%, making it weapons grade material.

A spokesman for the CIA has refused comment on the AP story, and officials at the FBI and Energy Department (which also assisted in the operation) are being tight-lipped as well. While the enriched uranium in question apparently came from a Russian source, there is no information (yet) on how the man obtained his sample, and exactly where it came from.

Equally troubling is Moscow's silence on the matter. A spokesman at the Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the AP report; Georgia's Interior Minister told the wire service that Russian officials have declined to interview the smuggler, despite offers of cooperation from the authorities in Tiblisi.

Troubled relations between Georgia and Russia are one reason for the lack of cooperation in this case. But Moscow's reluctance to participate is also evidence of competing-and seemingly conflicting--goals in the non-proliferation arena. Russia has always been eager to reap the financial rewards of Nunn-Lugar, but it also throws up roadblocks that impede efforts to secure its WMD stockpiles.

The Russians will probably argue that the Georgia case is an isolated, criminal incident and should not affect the broader non-proliferation program. But I would argue that you can't separate these events. If Moscow is truly interested in securing its stockpiles of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, it should be a willing participant in investigations relating to the apparent "theft" of material that could be used to make nuclear weapons.

The U.S. should make it very clear that continuation of Nunn-Lugar (and any funding increases for the program) will be linked to Russian cooperation in all matters relating to non-proliferation, including the Georgia incident. Vladimir Putin's current silence on the matter suggests that Russia has something to hide, and that Moscow's interest in Nunn-Lugar is
largely financial.

2 comments:

José Joseph said...

I don't konw if this is relevant, but 3.5 grams is only 1/10th of an ounce, about the size of a few grains of rice. On the other hand, 100 ounces (there's three kinds of "ounces") is about 3kg, which is enough to be a serious nuisance.

Spook86 said...

Good catch, Jose. In writing the post, I transposed the totals for ounces and grams. Corrected version--on the blog now--reads 3.5 ounces, or about 100 grams of highly enriched uranium. The real question is how much more this guy-and his accomplices--got their hands on, and where the rest of it might be.