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Financial Times (UK)
January 29, 2003
The west must help Russia to destroy its weapons
By Andrew Jack

More than a decade after the end of the cold war, the growing threat of international terrorism poses a fresh risk for Russia's ageing Soviet-era military stockpile - and a new opportunity to destroy it through a tighter relationship with the west.

If the arms race helped to cripple the Soviet Union and precipitate its collapse, it also left a legacy that increasingly threatens those beyond its former boundaries. Work has only just begun on destroying its 40,000 tonnes of chemical arms; and more than 1,000 tonnes of weapons-grade nuclear material is still in storage around the country.

Only the most rudimentary security measures protect the many thousands of additional sensitive civilian, as well as military, locations across Russia's 11 time zones that house lower-radioactive material capable of being used to make "dirty bombs". For a long time, theft by demoralised employees and impoverished local residents seemed the greatest problem. As the infrastructure crumbles and the possibility of organised terror intensifies, the danger has become far broader. The Soviet-era debt that helped to fund these materials in the first place remains a burden for Russia. It provides a useful bargaining tool that the west should now use, by offering "debt for disarmament" write-offs in return for concrete results. East Germany received substantial financial help when it was integrated into West Germany and reformist Poland benefited from large write-offs of its Soviet-era debt. Russia, which had a liberal-minded government willing to assume the burden of its communist predecessors, retained more.

Today, there is some Dollars 38bn in outstanding Paris Club loans, the money Russia owes to foreign governments. That is more than a tenth of its gross domestic product and creates an annual interest burden of about Dollars 2bn, or more than 4 per cent of government spending. While Russia can afford to service its obligations, and has done so without question in recent years, it represents a considerable sum that could be used more productively.

The west - which clearly benefited from the end of the cold war - has not entirely neglected its duties towards Russia. Western Europe has made some contribution to funding disarmament in the country. But, in spite of its proximity to Russia, it has done considerably less in helping to cope with the Soviet military legacy than the US. The latter has earmarked about Dollars 1bn a year in assistance over the past decade.

Much of the burden of responsibility for the slow pace of change inevitably lies with Russia. Its economic weakness during the 1990s did not help. But Moscow's ambiguity over its attitude to the west, particularly within its largely unreformed military hierarchy, has proved a big obstacle.

There are also concerns over corruption. While many millions of dollars were spent in the 1990s on weapons decommissioning, the results to date are disappointing. Only recently has there been a sign that Moscow will waive customs duties and taxes, as well as civil liability in the event of accidents, on foreign contractors offering to provide nuclear clean-up.

That is why debt for disarmament offers unique advantages. Western creditor nations could write off existing debts, offering a strong incentive to Russia to co-operate. But they should do so only based on results, once precise objectives were met. Russia's economy is much stronger than before and it pledged Dollars 2bn of its own money to the clean-up at the Group of Eight summit in Canada last summer. It can thus afford much of the up-front costs, which would give it a stake in ensuring that the work was done effectively.

President Vladimir Putin surprised many in the west with his support for the international coalition against terror in late 2001. He still needs to show many of his opponents within Russia that he has received something tangible in exchange. Debt write-offs are among the suggestions his officials have made. The two biggest obstacles are Germany, the largest Paris Club creditor, which has long resisted debt write-offs, and ensuring that Russian work is carried out in accordance with international standards.

Nevertheless, given the alternatives, it ought to be possible for the west to find technical solutions. By the time the G8 leaders gather in St Petersburg to celebrate the city's 300th anniversary in late May this year, on the eve of their next summit in Evian, they could do worse than ensure that conditions for such a deal are in place.

The writer is Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times

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