The end of Nunn-Lugar?

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 ...

David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman

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.

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 covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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