Bush to Focus on Nonproliferation

Times Staff Writer

This month, shortly after Ukraine’s pro-Western president was sworn in, the nation’s prosecutor-general launched an inquiry into reports that up to 20 nuclear-capable cruise missiles intended for transfer to Russia were instead sold to other countries, including Iran and China.

The complaint filed by Ukrainian legislator Hrihory Omelchenko claims that in 2000, Iran received six of the Kh-55 missiles, which have a range of 1,800 miles and are capable of carrying a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead at altitudes too low to be detected by radar.

Omelchenko alleges that a private Russian arms broker and officials in Ukraine’s state-owned arms export agency and security services were behind the deal. The reports caused a storm in the Russian press, not least because the Russian Defense Ministry, in whose name the export licenses were reportedly signed, never publicly reported failure to take delivery of the 20 missiles.

In fact, Russia’s government has denied any knowledge of the transaction, and there have been no allegations that it was involved in the deal. At least one analyst says he thinks initial reports of the deal are “full of holes.”


But the continuing vulnerability of Russia and other former Soviet states to inadvertent loss of weapons and nuclear material is one of many reasons why nonproliferation will be near the top of the agenda when President Bush meets Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Thursday.

“We attach a high priority to a number of issues; perhaps the top of the list is the nonproliferation ... agenda, both in terms of strengthening or establishing efforts to complete securing and dismantling of nuclear [materials], as well as strengthening our joint efforts to prevent weapons of mass destruction from getting into the hands of terrorists,” a senior U.S. diplomat said in a pre-summit briefing last week.

With mounting U.S. concerns that Iran could convert its nuclear power production program into weapons development, Russia announced last week that it expected to sign a final protocol this weekend on handling spent fuel, providing additional protections that would clear the way for the start-up of an $800-million nuclear power plant that Russia is building in southern Iran.

“Iran’s latest steps convince us that Iran has no intention to make nuclear weapons, which means that we will continue cooperation in all areas, including the nuclear energy field,” Putin said Friday.

Nonproliferation analysts in Moscow said it was likely Putin would travel to Iran shortly after his summit with Bush, possibly paving the way for contracts under which Russia would build additional nuclear power plants in Iran.

Bush will almost certainly raise continuing U.S. concerns over Russia’s virtual state takeover of Yukos Oil Co. and prosecution of its former chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, along with perceptions that Putin has rolled back press freedoms and the independence of the courts, parliament and regional governments.

Both sides will also be looking for a way to move past the bruising behind-the-scenes confrontation that accompanied the recent elections of pro-Western governments in Georgia and Ukraine, territories that Russia had regarded as its strategic backyard.

In a possible signal that Russia wants to start a new chapter on the issue, Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov said that Moscow viewed both countries as “absolutely sovereign, absolutely equal states in the new geopolitical architecture.”


“Russia does not need a cold war,” Lavrov told the newspaper Izvestia last week, urging people against “succumbing to irrational anti-Western sentiments.”

“It would merely make more difficult the solution of our internal socioeconomic tasks, would impede our country’s sustained development and its integration in world politics and economics,” Lavrov said.

The issue of Russian nuclear aid to Iran is likely to be one of the thorniest summit issues, despite a growing U.S. conviction that Russia shares Washington’s view that Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions must be contained. The difference, Russian analysts say, is in the approach.

“In the area of nonproliferation, we have serious controversies. The U.S. would insist on Russian support of the American hard line with respect to Iran, and potentially North Korea. Russia would insist on giving priority to diplomatic and economic instruments, not just threats of the use of force,” said Alexei G. Arbatov, co-chair of Carnegie Moscow Center’s nuclear nonproliferation program.


Russian officials believe the safeguards in place would delay any diversion of fuel from Iran’s commercial nuclear applications to a military program for at least a year -- plenty of time for United Nations intervention.

“It’s an open secret that Russia has the same concerns about Iran that the U.S. has,” said Anton Khlopkov, deputy director of the Center for Policy Studies in Russia, which focuses on nonproliferation issues. “And because Russia is closer to Iran than the U.S. is, Russia is trying to understand in detail what is going on in the nuclear field.”

U.S. officials credit Russia with using its diplomatic channels to insist on controls.

“The Russians have done a fair amount of tough diplomacy on the bilateral level with the Iranians in support of the outcome we are trying to achieve,” the senior U.S. diplomat said.


At the same time, the U.S. will be pushing for its own nonproliferation oversight in Russia, via the $1.6-billion Cooperative Threat Reduction program, under which Washington has provided assistance to Russia and other post-Soviet nations in dismantling and securing nuclear and chemical facilities to prevent them from getting into the hands of terrorists.

Kremlin hawks have been increasingly nervous about U.S. access to Russian military facilities under the program. On Sunday, hundreds of Orthodox Christians and Cossacks rallied in the center of Moscow in favor of Russia’s continued sovereignty over its nuclear sites -- an issue both the U.S. and Russia insist is not in jeopardy.

On the issue of the reported sales of Ukrainian missiles to Iran and China, the Russian Defense Ministry said it had no information. “For now, this is Ukraine’s purely domestic issue,” said Col. Vyacheslav Sedov, head of the ministry’s press service.

State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said U.S. officials had seen reports of the missile sales but could not confirm them.


In a telephone interview, Omelchenko said he had evidence that private Russian citizens were “part of an international criminal group” that masterminded the missile deal.

Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, citing Ukrainian military sources, said there were reports that new satellites Russia recently contracted to build for Iran could help produce digital maps for the Kh-55.

“This news made my hair stand on end,” Felgenhauer said in an interview. “Now it doesn’t sound like such an empty threat to me when I hear the president of Iran make a very aggressive statement promising to send ‘the fire of hell’ on the United States and Israel.”

The reports are certain to form an important part of the backdrop to this week’s meeting between Putin and Bush, Felgenhauer said.


“I am sure that during the summit this alarming information will be used by the United States as a heavy tool of pressure on Russia,” he said.

Another analyst, Ivan Safranchuk at the Center for Defense Information, said that although the sales involved Ukraine and not Russia, and the initial report of the missile sales “seems to be full of holes,” the inquiry might raise questions about overall accounting for weapons systems.

“If it transpires that the missiles had been scheduled to arrive in Russia four years ago, and for all this time no one in Russia has sounded the alarm over the missing missiles, then, clearly, it will be a huge scandal,” Safranchuk said. “Regardless of whether the transportation documents were forged or not, not noticing that 20 missiles are missing is a very big deal.”