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#11 - JRL 7252
4 July 2003
Copyright 2003 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science. All rights reserved.
NUCLEAR WEAPONS: Russia Revives Sagging Research Program
By Paul Webster
Paul Webster is a writer in Moscow.

MOSCOW--The Cold War may be history. But for the two former archrivals, it seems that nuclear weapons never go out of fashion. President George W. Bush's attempt to move ahead with research on a new generation of low-yield nuclear weapons (see main text) has a disturbing parallel in Russia, which appears bent on its own modernization program.

In his annual address to Parliament on 16 May, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that work on Russia's "next generation [of] strategic weapons" is almost complete. Although "it's almost impossible to know exactly which weapons he was referring to," says Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow office of the Center for Defense Information (CDI), a Washington policy analysis center, Safranchuk's best guess is that Putin was referring to a program launched in 1999 to develop nuclear warheads with adjustable yields, much like the U.S. "bunker-buster" bombs. "It was a signal, that's for sure," says Safranchuk.

It's not unusual for Russia to rattle its nuclear saber in response to unwelcome shifts in U.S. strategic arms policy. Last December the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned that the U.S. missile defense program could trigger a new space-based arms race. And Russia's minister of defense, Sergei Ivanov, said shortly after Bush and Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty in May 2002 that the pact, which limits the total number of offensive weapons, "unties the hands" of Russian nuclear designers by failing to spell out the composition of each country's nuclear arsenal.

Although it's hard to know the significance of such comments --Russian espionage laws forbid inquiries into the country's secret weapons programs--there are indications that the program is coming out of hibernation. Alexander Chernyshev, deputy head of research at the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Experimental Physics (VNIIEF), one of Russia's two main nuclear weapons design centers in the closed city of Sarov, says that "young people are attracted into the research programs now. The Russian government stabilized funding, and it's now increasing."

Chernyshev's assertion, made at a December conference on nuclear threat reduction organized by CDI in collaboration with the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy's Institute of Strategic Stability, matches the conclusions of the Institute for The Economy in Transition, a Moscow policy research center. Its 2001 report noted that while the budgets for nuclear weapons research bottomed out in 1997 at 14% of late Soviet-era levels, there's been "a noticeable shift" from civilian research priorities to defense in recent Russian science budgets. Since 1999 spending on defense research has increased fourfold, to $10 billion. The budget for weapons research stands at $1.37 billion this year, according to a recent statement by Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, and is scheduled to jump by 35% in 2004.

Demographer Valentin Tikhonov of the Russian Academy of Sciences spotted a similar trend after questioning 200 of Russia's 15,800 nuclear weapons researchers. He found that job prospects and working conditions seem to have improved significantly since the early 1990s. Whereas 57% of researchers polled in Sarov in 1992 wanted to work abroad, Tikhonov reports, only 7% did so 7 years later.

Russian and Western scientists are also sharing less information than in years past. One reason is increased security and secrecy at the nuclear cities, say Russian officials, but another reason is concern about U.S. motives. "There is a lot less experimental cooperation between U.S. and Russian defense labs than there was 2 or 3 years ago," says Vitaly Dubinin, deputy head of VNIIEF. "Trust is the problem."

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