Is the West Rearming Russia?

Ottawa and the G-8 might be financing a new nuclear storehouse

Is the West Rearming Russia?

Minutes before the battered Tupolev touched down in Archangelsk, Russia’s gateway to the Arctic Ocean, the plane banked sharply. The late August rainclouds thinned long enough to give me a twilight view down across the White Sea toward a row of decrepit decommissioned Soviet-era nuclear submarines tied alongside the giant drydocks at Zvezdochka, one of Russia’s biggest nuclear submarine repair bases. In the distance, across the Dvina river, I could see conning towers nestled like mysterious obelisks amongst the slipways of the Sevmash shipyard, where the Russian navy is building a fleet of brand-new nuclear submarines. There, a thousand metres below, was the secretive heart of Russia’s once-and-future navy, and one of the greatest concentrations of nuclear weaponry on earth. And I still had no idea why Russia’s rigid security laws were being waived to give me a close-up look.

I’d had to wait fifty-three days for Russia’s federal security police to clear me into Zvezdochka, and I’d been about to give up when the senior official handling my request at the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy’s headquarters in Moscow told me I’d be let in without the usual police permission. I was more apprehensive than pleased, however; Zvezdochka is one of the most secretive naval facilities in the world, and I’d been warned that without official clearance, merely appearing at the gate would get me arrested. My handler at the Ministry, though, had been emphatic: there’d be no trouble with the spycatchers. “Officially, you haven’t got a security clearance,” he admitted as he sent me on my way. “But don’t worry, the director at Zvezdochka is a friend of mine. And he wants to see you immediately. He’ll have you picked up at the airport tomorrow evening.”

I needn’t have bothered booking a hotel room in Archangelsk. On the drive from the airport, Ivan Belyavtsev, head of Nuclear Facilities Elimination at Zvezdochka, told me I’d be staying in their guesthouse. The shipyard’s director would be meeting me for dinner as soon as we arrived. The fact that we’d be sitting down to eat at midnight seemed normal enough to Belyavtsev, who said he’d come to meet me straight from home, where he and his wife had been celebrating their wedding anniversary. The only thing missing upon my arrival, it seemed, was the proverbial fatted calf.

The enormous Canadian flag fluttering across the balcony of my room at the guesthouse should have been my first clue. But I didn’t begin to get the picture until sometime well into the early morning hours. After we’d done all the traditional toasts—to friendship, to sailors at sea, to women, and to peace— Nikolai Kalistratov, burly top boss to Zvezdochka’s 10,000 shipwrights, leaned across a table piled high with smoked fish, salads, pickled mushrooms, and other thirst-inducing zakouski, to refill my vodka glass and propose a third toast to Canada. “Am I the first Canadian to visit you here?” I asked him.

“No, you’re the second,” he replied. “The first was a guy from your government in Ottawa, and he’s coming back again next month. Those decommissioned nuclear submarines out there on the dock are a real risk to the world, you see. And we think Canada should help out by giving Zvezdochka contracts to cut them up.”

The guy from Ottawa who beat me to Zvezdochka is Troy Lulashnyk, an unassuming and youthful official whose career in the Department of Foreign Affairs took a dramatic turn after September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks had suddenly made Russia’s poorly secured wasteland of Soviet-era nuclear, chemical, and biological weaponry a key concern, so much so that at the G8 summit in Kananaskis, Alberta, in June 2002, the leaders of the industrialized world, at the urging of U.S. President George W. Bush, pledged $20 billion(U.S.) to help clean up Russia’s weapons of mass destruction. Lulashnyk was recruited as a director of the Global Partnership Program to help define Canada’s contribution to the effort. A little more than a year after the September 11 attacks, and without so much as a debate in Parliament, Bush’s proposal had mushroomed into a massively ambitious Canadian commitment to help dismantle Soviet weaponry. In Moscow that November, Foreign Minister Bill Graham committed Canada to spending a billion dollars over the next decade on Russian cleanup projects to be chosen by Ottawa.

According to Lulashnyk, that pledge is one of the largest foreign aid commitments ever made in Ottawa. “It’s huge for Canada,” Lulashnyk told me in September. Although he speaks no Russian or Ukrainian, the program has taken him to Russia repeatedly over the last year to appraise possible contractors like Zvezdochka, and to scout out prospects for Canadian engineering firms. “We’re totally committed to helping the Russians,” he said. “The only question now is when and where.”

Canada shares more of the Arctic Ocean with Russia than with any other country, so it appears sensible to make it a top priority to help Russia dismantle the seventy ancient nuclear submarines now rusting near Murmansk and Archangelsk, with reactors and plutonium-laden spent fuel on board. “I consider the submarines a clear and present danger to Canada,” Graham told me at a breakfast meeting in Moscow the morning after he announced Canada’s billion-dollar commitment. “If radiation gets loose it’s going to end up in Canada, because it’s right across the Arctic Ocean from where we are. It’s drifting there now.” Graham’s point is solid: over the last half century, the Canadian Arctic has become increasingly contaminated by Russian atomic tests, radioactive dumping, and nuclear mishaps. Canadian officials also believe the submarines could be tempting to terrorists seeking nuclear materials.

In St. Petersburg last May, Prime Minister Chrétien committed Canada’s first $32-million instalment to an international fund dedicated to securing and storing spent fuel from submarines in Russia’s northern ports. Over the next decade, Lulashnyk told me, Canadian contributions to Russian submarine cleanup—in places like Zvezdochka, and other Russian government facilities competing for contracts from G8 nations—are slated to expand dramatically. “We have to get a good conception of how the Russian shipyards are working,” he explained. He also noted that Ottawa was well aware of the corruption scandals that have bedevilled other countries’ efforts to secure Russian nuclear materials and that it plans to control carefully how its money is spent in Russia. “Zvezdochka is well outfitted, thanks to U.S. and Norwegian investments,” Lulashnyk said. “They’re very proud of their facility and they’re eager for more Western investment. It’s good news for us.”

The morning after my arrival at Zvezdochka, I found myself standing in the driving rain on the deck of a barge with Oleg Frolov, Zvezdochka’s chief engineer, watching a group of workers ripping apart the carcass of a creature resembling a massive prehistoric whale that appeared to have died a disturbingly violent death many millenia ago. This was one of two 1960s-era, Viktor-class nuclear submarines being dismantled with a $15 million grant from Norway, Frolov said.

At the precise moment of my arrival, a giant crane built with U.S. funds was lifting the lid off a shaft leading down to the sub’s nuclear reactor. Workers with acetylene torches were poised to cut out the deck plates directly above the reactor in order to clear a path for the robotic removal of the ship’s long-ago spent nuclear fuel. After that, the ship would be towed to a specially built drydock cradle, where the reactor would be removed for longterm storage. The rest of the ship would be sliced into forty-tonne hunks of scrap metal ready for shipment by rail to steelyards in central Russia. The workers—who I was told earn about $1.40 an hour—were in a hurry to get the job done fast, Frolov said, because both ships were leaking badly. “If they lose buoyancy and sink with the reactors and fuel still aboard, we’ll have a real mess on our hands.”

Those words came back to me the next day when news broke that another retired Soviet nuclear submarine had sunk at sea, with a reactor and fuel aboard, only a few hundred kilometres from Zvezdochka, drowning nine sailors.

While the Canadian involvement in Russian nuclear submarine clean—up goes back no further than the Kananaskis summit, American interest in Zvezdochka stretches back a decade, to the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union. U.S. advisers began arriving to sign contracts to dismantle the former superpower’s fleet of intercontinental missile-equipped submarines—a class of warships built during the Cold War to serve as under—sea missile platforms capable of delivering the ultimate Soviet nuclear knockout even after a Third World War had been won or lost on land. Under a $461 million(U.S.) Cooperative Threat Reduction program started in 1996, the U.S. Department of Defense has paid for the demolition of twenty-five such submarines. Another twenty-three are scheduled for dismantlement by 2012. But that’s as far as American largesse goes: U.S. money, at the insistence of Congress, can only be used to dismantle submarines capable of directly threatening the U.S. with intercontinental missiles.

To understand why Congress insists on limiting the way its threat reduction funds are used, there’s no better place to look than Sevmash, Russia’s largest submarine shipyard, which I had seen from the airplane, directly across the Dvina river from Zvezdochka. While standing on the barge talking to chief engineer Frolov, I could easily make out Sevmash’s massive fabrication sheds and slipways on the far bank of the river. There, tied up at the wharves, a long line of service-ready cruisers, submarines, and an aircraft carrier offered ample evidence that the Russian navy has sufficient funds to keep the yard’s 30,000 workers busy.

It is here that the Russian navy is building a new nuclear submarine fleet. In Washington, where suspicion of the former Cold War enemy still runs deep in conservative political circles, awareness that the Russian navy can afford to maintain and build new nuclear-capable submarines and surface ships keeps a sharp brake on financial assistance for efforts to clean up retired ships, regardless of the temptation they present to terrorists, or the risk they pose to the environment. The worry is that American aid for Russian submarine cleanup efforts liberates Russian government funds for the construction of new submarines that could one day be used against the U.S.

Places like Zvezdochka, Sevmash, and a score of other major Russian nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons centres remain almost as closed to outsiders now as during the Soviet period. But, as my visit attested, getting a clear picture of what’s going on inside them is easier than it was in Cold War days. Over the last year, especially, a wealth of information about Russian military budgets and military plans has become available. As if to further inflame the skeptics in Washington, the information all points to a major rearmament program centring on a nuclear weapons revival, and particularly on a new nuclear submarine fleet. Last year, thanks to the efforts of a group of tenacious liberals from the Yabloko party in the Russian parliament, the Kremlin was forced, for the first time in Russian history, to disclose its defence budget for the year ahead.

In October, 2002, Alexei Kudrin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, revealed that the 2003 defence budget is $10.9 billion(U.S.), with weapons budgets totalling $3.45 billion(U.S.). Based on his insider’s knowledge of previous years’ budgets, General Andrei Nikolayev, the head of the parliament’s defence committee, revealed that since 1999, Russia’s defence budget has doubled in real terms. Nikolayev said spending on weapons development and procurement, which currently gets a third of the defence budget, is slated to rise to sixty percent in future years, largely thanks to recent Russian government budget surpluses. These are based on a massive surge in oil revenues and on economic growth currently running at 6.6 percent. Vladislav Putilin, deputy minister for trade and economic development, said the defence spending increases were all part of Russian president Putin’s “National Security Concept,” introduced in 2000, which emphasizes Russia’s need to have nuclear forces that are capable of inflicting damage on “any aggressor state or coalition of states under any circumstance.” That’s a concept fully in keeping with Russia’s 1993 renunciation of Soviet promises against first use of nuclear weapons.

Trying to get more detailed information on Russian weapons development budgets, however, remains tough. As Pavel Felgenhauer, a former military officer turned Moscow defence analyst, says, “The actual number, specification, and price per unit of weapons to be procured is a state secret. The nature of military R&D programs, the number of such programs financed by the government, and any specifics regarding how much money is allocated to each project, are also closely guarded state secrets.”

Among the many in Congress who worry that U.S. aid frees up Russian rearmament funds, the most persuasive critic is Curt Weldon, a tough-talking, Republican congress-man from Pennsylvania. After the Bush administration took office, Weldon played a major role on the House Armed Services Committee, persuading the Bush administration to freeze “threat reduction” funding in late 2001, while demanding greater candour from the Russians about their rearmament programs. The White House complied, allowing the funds to flow again only in August 2002, and then only under a Presidential waiver that can be revokedat any time. According to many observers, the waiver was granted because the U.S. hoped to gain Kremlin support for the war on Iraq.

In Weldon’s view, Russia and America are on the brink of a new Cold War, and American aid is helping to subsidize Russian rearmament, as well as the war in Chechnya, which is estimated to cost $750 million a year. Speaking to top Russian nuclear weapons designers and officials at a conference arranged by the Washington-based Center for Defense Information at the Moscow Hyatt in December 2002, Weldon gave his stock speech on the topic. He began with a blistering salvo against the Clinton administration for having refused to insist on greater transparency and honesty from Moscow in return for threat reduction aid, and he wound up with a denunciation of Russia and America’s failure to commit to arms reductions. “What I saw during the nineties made me sick,” Weldon told the Russian weapons scientists, “Many of us in Congress have no confidence in the arms control process.”

Later, many of the scientists told me they’d been deeply offended by Weldon’s remarks. It was American nuclear rearmament, along with its increasingly belligerent foreign policies, they said, that had made a Russian response necessary.

There’s no lack of evidence to suggest American aid has already freed up money for Russian rearmament. At the meeting of nuclear weapons designers where Curt Weldon spoke in Moscow last December, I had lunch with several top scientists from Sarov, the ultra-secret research centre north of Moscow where most of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons were designed. They were bullish about their research budgets. “Young people are attracted into the research programs now. The Russian government stabilized funding, and it’s now increasing,” Alexander Chernyshev, deputy head of research at Sarov, told me.

To get a second opinion on this assertion, one need look no further than the Russian government’s own news agency, RIA Novosti. As numerous reports from RIA attested over the last year, when it comes to nuclear rearmament, the Russian military is back in the money. It is lavishly favoured by a government that has managed to tuck $10 billion into a rainy day “stabilization fund” slated to reach $17 billion by 2005 while posting budget surpluses in the $3.75-billion range annually since 2001, building up $80 billion in gold and currency reserves, and slashing foreign debt.

Seen as a whole, one can see why the U.S. Congress is worried about the many elements of Russia’s new nuclear ambitions. Here’s a partial to-do list from the Kremlin: for the airforce, modernization of all fifteen of its Tup-olev-160 bombers, capable of carrying a dozen 200-kiloton nuclear-tipped
cruise missiles on inter-continental missions; for space command, resumption of work on the Soviet missile defence systems abandoned after the Anti-Ballistic Missile (abm) Treaty was signed in 1972; for the land forces, reversal of a decision in the 1990s to scrap the rail-based nuclear arsenal; for nuclear weapons research, a further development of tactical nuclear weapons, and continuation of nuclear stock-pile-related experiments, 132 of which Russia has conducted since ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in April, 2000.

To keep the nuclear forces at hair-trigger readiness, Moscow’s new Cold Warriors—President Putin and the thousands of KGBofficials he has recruited into key positions—repeatedly conducted nuclear war games last year with Russian air, sea, and ground forces, simultaneously launching mock nuclear attacks on targets across Russia, and at sea against simulated U.S. and U.K. targets. Then, early this year, Fleet Admiral Vladimir Kuroedov, commander of the Russian Navy, told the military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda that the navy was restructuring to emphasize new nuclear submarines, adding to the ten new submarines launched between 1992 and 1997, and the one additional intercontinental, missile-capable nuclear submarine recommissioned after repairs were completed in 2002. This announcement followed word from Admiral Viktor Kravchenko, chief of the navy’s General Headquarters, of long-range plans to maintain a fleet of twelve intercontinental missile-carrying nuclear submarines, less than the twenty-six still in service, but only two fewer than the U.S. heavy missile submarine fleet.

Meanwhile, Russia’s work on a new generation of conventionally armed nuclear submarines has reportedly accelerated, with the first ship due to enter service in 2007. Igor Kudrik, a Russian naval analyst with Norway’s Bellona Foundation, says funding for the first of these ships is fully committed, and that work on others of its class will begin in 2010. Last year, work on a new submarine-launchable intercontinental missile also got under way at Moscow’s Institute of Thermo-Equipment (mit), where Soviet-era Pioneer, Topol, and Topol-M missiles were designed. In 2001, the navy ordered forty new sea-launchable ballistic missiles, the first new order in a decade.

One also has to remember the international dimensions of Russia’s nuclear renaissance. In 2002, world-wide shipments from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s principal weapons exporter, jumped twenty-seven percent, to $4.7 billion. And, as if to prod U.S.-supported Pakistan into retaliatory action, Russia is talking to India about leasing them Tu-22 nuclear attack bombers, and Akula nuclear submarines, and about selling them ballistic missiles.

At the end of my tour at Zvezdocka, Oleg Frolov launched into a long dockside
presentation on why Canada should commit funds, not just for submarine dismantlement, but also to the scrapping of the Kirov, a gigantic nuclear attack cruiser mothballed there. When he was done, I asked him if there wasn’t something discordant about Russia asking Canada for aid to dismantle its decommissioned nuclear fleet on one bank of the Dvina River while Russia is lavishing its own money on the construction of a new fleet on the other bank? Frolov seemed somewhat taken aback, as if he considered the question impertinent. But his answer was ready enough: “Back in the Cold War days, they were turning out four nuclear submarines a year over there,” he said, gesturing across the river to Sevmash. “What they’re doing these days just doesn’t even compare.”

That’s pretty much the same answer as the one I got from Canadian foreign minister Bill Graham in Moscow last fall. “Of course we’d prefer it if they spent the money on healthcare,” Graham admitted when I pressed him about Canadian aid in the face of Russian military expansion. But I could be sure, he added, that Ottawa was weighing the pros and cons of its new venture in Russian realpolitik.

Troy Lulashnyk at the Department of Foreign Affairs sees Canada’s new largesse toward the Kremlin in much the same terms. When I called him in Ottawa in mid-September, after he’d returned from his second visit to Zvezdochka, he said the government had carefully weighed the security implications of financing a cleanup of Russia’s nuclear timebombs against those of not acting at all. “You can say we can’t give aid because those dollars free up dollars for nefarious purposes, but that’s just the nature of the beast. Giving them the money gives us great credibility and leverage,” he explained. His point was that Russian leaders would be more receptive to Canadian pressure to demilitarize if we paid their bills. When I reminded him of the intense skepticism in the U.S. regarding this argument, known in diplomatic circles as the “constructive engagement” thesis, he quickly reached for another reply. “Those submarines have been there for a long time waiting to be cleaned up,” he told me. “Russia has demonstrated they don’t have the money for it.”

For 2004, the Kremlin is projecting a budget surplus of $3.75 billion, a figure in keeping with similar annual surpluses since 2001. Much of it has been stashed in President Putin’s multi-billion dollar “stabilization fund.” Yet Russian calls for foreign assistance have not abated. In mid-September, Natalya Kalinina, a senior aide to Russian prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, suggested in a speech before 300 delegates to an international non-proliferation conference in Moscow that Canada’s billion-dollar commitment should be doubled. Days later, President Putin decided to refurbish dozens of intercontinental missiles, while warning that Russia considered NATO a threat.

I recently asked Anatoly Diakov, head of the Arms Control Center at the Moscow Institute of Technology, and one of Russia’s top defense policy analysts, if the Kremlin’s ongoing budget bonanza, and its drive to rearm on land, at sea and in the heavens, should be raising suspicion about its calls for massive aid from Canada and other foreign nations. Diakov is a thoughtful man, and he gave me his reply in several parts. First, he acknowledged that the buildup was a worry for international nuclear stability. But, he continued, given recent U.S. belligerence in Russian areas of influence, first in Kosovo, then in Central Asia, now in Iraq, it’s no surprise Kremlin hawks are getting their way these days. Is it advisable for foreign donors like Canada to send threat reduction assistance to Russia under these circumstances? Diakov couldn’t resist a chuckle while he mused a moment further. “That’s not a question for Russians,” he said at last. “That’s a question for the foreign donors.”

This appeared in the November/December 2003 issue.

Paul Webster
Paul Webster has reported from Russia on nuclear-weapons issues.