U.S. officials might be granted unprecedented access to Russian military nuclear facilities by the end of the year for inspections that Moscow previously fiercely opposed, according to a document that was briefly posted on the Kremlin web site after last week’s U.S.-Russia talks in Slovakia.
The document was replaced early Monday with a version excluding the paragraph about the inspections, and the Kremlin insisted that the original document had been posted in error.
The switch, which was first reported by Kommersant, raises questions about what agreements President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush may have reached during their closed-door meeting Thursday. Speculation has swirled in some circles that the two leaders might have sealed security or nonproliferation deals that were not made public.
The document in question, a copy of which was provided to The Moscow Times by Kommersant, is titled “Joint Russian-American Statement on Nuclear Security Cooperation” and contains a number of typographical errors.
The new version on the Kremlin web site is error-free and nearly identical to an English-language version posted on the White House web site after Thursday’s meeting.
“The appearance of the text that Kommersant referred to was the result of a computer error,” a Kremlin spokesman said on condition of anonymity.
He said, however, that he was not ready to say whether Russia might allow on-site inspections of its military nuclear facilities under an agreement that is not reflected in the joint statement.
The paragraph missing from the new version said the Defense Ministry should determine by July 1 which nuclear sites need upgraded security systems and that visits to those sites and nuclear facilities managed by the Federal Atomic Energy Agency should begin before December.
It is not clear from the text whether the sites would be visited by joint U.S.-Russian teams of inspectors or only by Russian officials. Kommersant suggested in an article Monday that the inspectors would include Americans.
“Kommersant is making a mistake by jumping to the conclusion that the text of the joint agreement implies inspections of Russian nuclear facilities by U.S. officials,” the Kremlin spokesman said.
Defense Ministry officials did not return requests for comment Monday.
Federal Atomic Energy Agency chief Alexander Rumyantsev defended the security measures at his agency’s facilities Monday. “The security and protection systems at our nuclear sites are the best in the world, not all counties have something like them,” he told reporters, Interfax reported.
According to the joint nuclear statement, Rumyantsev and U.S. Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman will head a group overseeing joint nonproliferation efforts. It also says the United States and Russia will speed up efforts to upgrade security at Russian nuclear facilities and aim to have the sites fully secured at the new levels by 2008 — ahead of an earlier target of 2012.
In addition, the two countries will work together to develop and share “best practices” and “security culture” at nuclear facilities; develop low-enriched uranium fuel to use in research reactors; and ensure the return of spent high-enriched uranium fuel from the U.S.- and Russian-designed research reactors in third countries.
Securing Russian nuclear material remains a priority for Washington, and Congress has earmarked billions of dollars to strengthen the security infrastructure of Russian nuclear sites after the Soviet collapse. The ongoing struggle against terrorism and the growing nuclear ambitions of so-called rogue states have fueled U.S. fears that poorly guarded fissile materials might eventually wind up in the wrong hands.
Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information’s Moscow office, said Moscow was playing a dangerous game by accepting up to $1 billion per year from the United States to safeguard its nuclear facilities but strongly opposing U.S. requests to visit the sites. “Russia does not want look like a giant nuclear waste dump in the eyes of its Western partners. But by accepting the U.S. money to upgrade security at its nuclear sites, Russia seems to be acknowledging that it cannot handle the problem without outside help,” he said.
This behavior will strengthen the belief of some U.S. politicians that Russia is irresponsible and needs stricter controls, Safranchuk said.
Russia currently allows U.S. inspectors to visit nuclear facilities that both countries have agreed to destroy as a part of a threat reduction initiative.
The Defense Ministry also lets U.S. monitors into a model nuclear storage site in Sergiyev Posad outside Moscow, where it demonstrates security systems that it says are used at all nuclear facilities, Safranchuk said.
He said Russia’s reluctance over inspections had little to do with fears about the quality of the facilities’ security or possible complaints that U.S. money meant for security was spent improperly. “It is a strategic decision: Russian officials believe — and rightfully so — that if they allow inspectors once, they will never get rid of them,” he said.