The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Related Items
 Russia Report

  Russia's Nuclear Force Sinks With the Ruble

By David Hoffman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 18, 1998; Page A01

MOSCOW, Sept. 17—Russia's strategic nuclear weapons complex, stretching from bomb-design laboratories to missile silos, submarines and early warning systems, is showing fresh signs of distress and decline amid the country's economic implosion.

The evidence is scattered and incomplete because the complex is shrouded in secrecy, but recent public disclosures suggest that thousands of workers in the atomic arsenal are not being paid for months at a time and that there have been major setbacks in Russia's plans to modernize its weapons systems.

Moreover, President Boris Yeltsin recently signed a top-secret strategic weapons review that is designed to lay out priorities for Russian forces into the next century. Western analysts and Russian officials say the plan envisions continued shrinkage of the strategic arsenal but that the actual decline may be even deeper and faster than the Kremlin foresees.

Russian officials have repeatedly claimed their strategic nuclear forces are secure and that an accidental launch or theft of a weapon is not possible. But as the country has sunk deeper into economic chaos, there have been glimpses of disorder and despair among the guardians of its nuclear forces, who often are situated in remote, poorly supplied, "closed" bases and cities.

For example, Alexander Lebed, the retired army general and governor of the huge Krasnoyarsk region in Siberia, sent an open letter to Moscow in late July demanding that servicemen at Uzhur-4, an intercontinental ballistic missile base southwest of Krasnoyarsk city, should be paid their back wages.

Lebed said he was "seriously thinking of establishing territorial jurisdiction" over the base. "We in Krasnoyarsk are not rich yet," he wrote, "but in exchange for the status of a nuclear territory we could feed the formation and become a headache for the world community along with India and Pakistan." Servicemen at the base had not received their pay in five months, Lebed said, and before he sent the letter, wives of the servicemen had protested by blocking them from reporting to work at the missile silos.

In the nuclear-weapons design sector, too, complaints have been intensifying. Workers at Russia's premier weapons laboratory, Arzamas-16 -- now known as Sarov -- and other design and construction centers staged public protests last week to highlight the government's failure to pay them.

Ludmilla Zuikova, a librarian who works at Arzamas-16, came with a busload of discontented workers to protest in Moscow. "We haven't been paid for a few months," she said. "This is terrible; it's terrible when people are starving, when an educated person has a family that's starving -- his kids, his wife."

"Everything will stand still and just rot," she said. "This is atomic technology, after all; it is unique. . . . So that in the future the world can be calm, so that people won't worry, so that you don't think we pose a threat to you, we need money so that this atomic source can he held to standards."

"We haven't been paid for 2 1/2 months," she said. "People don't have anything with which to buy notebooks for their kids, who are about to start first grade. Can you imagine? There is no help from the government whatsoever. Instead, we get groceries and food in place of our salaries. Bread, milk, the most basic things. Flour, all to maintain the minimal standard of living."

When the workers went to the Ministry of Atomic Energy, which oversees weapons design and manufacture, acting minister Yevgeny Adamov told them that the government owes the ministry $170 million and had not given it so much as a ruble in two months.

The strained Russian military has been plagued by a series of grisly mass killings by distraught and deranged servicemen, mostly in conventional forces. But the prospect of a more serious incident was raised last weekend when an armed conscript aboard a nuclear-powered submarine went berserk and gunned down eight of his shipmates at a base near the Arctic port of Murmansk.

The sailor, Alexander Kuzminykh, 19, was killed when a special forces team stormed the torpedo room in which he had barricaded himself. The submarine was a 360-foot-long, Akula-1 class vessel named Bars, or Snow Leopard, which carries no nuclear weapons but is powered by a nuclear plant.

The regional director of the Federal Security Service, Vladimir Prikhodko, told the newspaper Kommersant Daily: "The country was on the verge of a nuclear catastrophe. . . . . If the sailor . . . blew up the munitions stored [on the sub], we would have had a second Chernobyl."

Aside from human stress, there are signs of continuing deterioration in the hardware of Russia's nuclear weapons delivery systems and its early-warning network for detecting ballistic missile launches. Some Western analysts have warned that Russia's impaired early-warning system could provoke a mistaken decision to launch a retaliatory strike. During the recent Moscow summit, Yeltsin and President Clinton agreed to set up a system to share early-warning information.

The string of early-warning radar sites that bounded the Soviet Union has fallen on hard times, as former Soviet republics have made financial and military demands on Moscow. At the end of August, Russia had to relinquish an early-warning station in Latvia under a 1994 agreement. Russian officials have said they hope to compensate for that loss by constructing a new station in neighboring Belarus, but money for that project remains in doubt.

Russia also maintains two fleets of space satellites to spot missile launches, but their shortcomings were outlined in a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office, which found that the satellites do not provide 24-hour coverage.

The report said that Russia maintains six satellites in high elliptical orbit that use relatively unsophisticated sensors to monitor possible missile launches against the background of space. On average, the report said, they provide a view over U.S. missile fields for only a quarter of each satellite's orbit. Using data provided by NASA, the report estimated that the Russian satellites provide coverage of U.S. missile sites for only 17 hours day, and perhaps "significantly less."

A second group of satellites, in geostationary orbits, "cannot detect ballistic missiles launched from large areas of the Earth's oceans -- areas where the missiles carried by [U.S.] Trident submarines are within striking range of Russian targets," the report said.

The vulnerability of Russian early-warning systems was highlighted by a recent North Korean launch of a ballistic missile that fell into the Sea of Japan, off Russia's Far East coastline. The first comment by Russian Rocket Forces spokesmen was that their early-warning system "did not register" the launch, and subsequent explanations were contradictory.

On July 3, Yeltsin chaired a meeting of the Kremlin security council at which he approved a plan for Russia's strategic forces into the next century. By some accounts, the review was designed to set priorities and steer Russia toward the levels envisioned in a future Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty -- START III. At the 1997 U.S.-Russian summit in Helsinki, those levels were tentatively set at between 2,000 and 2,500 warheads on each side after 10 years. Both in Russia and the United States, however, analysts believe Russia's arsenal will be far smaller than that, because of obsolescence, budget cuts and a failure to modernize its nuclear forces.

The START II treaty of 1993 -- which still has not been ratified by the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma -- calls for 3,000 and 3,500 warheads on each side. But there is widespread agreement here that Russia cannot afford this many and probably cannot afford even the lower levels envisioned for START III.

Alexei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the Duma defense committee, who has backed ratification of START II, proposed recently that both countries negotiate still deeper cuts, down to 1,000 warheads on each side, and bring START II and a new START III to the Duma simultaneously.

"There is very little resistance in Russia today to arms control," said Sergei Rogov, director of Russia's Institute for the Study of the USA and Canada. "There is very little concern about arms control. It's not the question of controlling the arms, it's the question of the collapse of the remnants of the Soviet military machine because of budget reasons. In this sense, there is a consensus in Russia we need something like 1,000 nuclear weapons." Nevertheless, no progress was reported on the stalemate over START II at the recent Clinton-Yeltsin summit here.

Russian military officials have said that one outcome of Yeltsin's July review was a decision to arm Russia's future land-based missile force with only one type of missile, the single-warhead Topol-M, or SS-27, which is now being deployed in small numbers. Arbatov said, however, that "even that system is now imperiled. . . . This present crisis has cut very deeply into the defense budget."

Some Russian politicians had argued for preserving older multiple-warhead missiles or building new ones, but that argument was rejected by Vladimir Dvorkin, director of the 4th Central Research Institute, a once secret research center for Russian Rocket Forces. Dvorkin, in a written commentary, said that Russia should stick with the Topol-M -- although tests are two years behind schedule -- because the country's nuclear weapons complex is deteriorating.

"The nuclear workers of the closed city of Snezhinsk [formerly known as Chelyabinsk-70] are polishing lenses," he said. "Scientific and production groups are breaking up. The production base is falling to pieces." At stake is whether "Russia is or is not going to be a nuclear power."

The July review also decided, according to Russian and Western analysts, that the country's submarine-based missile force will carry about half its nuclear warheads, compared to 35 percent now, a shift envisioned under the START II treaty. William M. Arkin, an independent consultant, has said that the shift is to be accomplished by improving the performance of existing nuclear-armed submarines, then introducing a new generation of missiles and submarines.

But Arkin and others note that prospects for the new subs and missiles are doubtful. Navy chiefs recently acknowledged that the new sea-based missile type had been scrapped because of repeated test failures. As for the first of the new generation of submarines -- the Yuri Dolguruky, on which construction began with much fanfare -- Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, commander in chief of the Russian navy, said changes are being made to its design. "All work has been suspended at the shipyard," he said.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top

Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar
 
WP Yellow Pages