Politics, bureaucracy, and the proliferation of nuclear knowledge

By Sharon K. Weiner | December 7, 2011

In October of 1996, Vladimir Nechai committed suicide. His death was newsworthy, but not because of the means; suicide was not so unusual in Russia, largely due to the widespread financial deprivation in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nechai’s act was reported by the Western news media because of his position as director of one of the Soviet Union’s premier nuclear weapons research and design facilities. According to the note he left behind, Nechai took his own life partially out of shame. Much of the research at his institute had been suspended indefinitely for lack of funds, and the people who worked there had not been paid in five months. Even when salaries were delivered, they left people near poverty, with the average member of Nechai’s nuclear weapons workforce making about $30 a month.

The situation in other parts of the former Soviet nuclear weapons complex was no better. There were strikes in some facilities, with thousands of workers demanding back wages and higher pay. Some nuclear weapons scientists made the journey to Moscow to protest directly to the federal government. In other areas, institute directors reported critical shortages of medical supplies and other necessities. The Russian government was well aware of the grim conditions across the vast complex of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons facilities in the Soviet Union. But it had been struggling with even bigger economic and political problems and felt powerless to help these scientists.

The US government also knew of the financial problems in the states of the former Soviet Union and was particularly concerned about what was happening in the weapons facilities. Based on the assumption that a financially desperate weapons scientist is a proliferation risk, the US government engaged the departments of defense, energy, and state in trying to create alternative jobs for or provide temporary research contracts to former Soviet experts in weapons of mass destruction (WMD). By the time of Nechai’s death in 1996, these efforts were several years old.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the danger of the proliferation of WMD knowledge has been a persistent theme in US policy. Anecdotes have surfaced about former Soviet weapons experts helping Iran, Iraq, and North Korea with their nuclear programs. A Senate staffer claims to have obtained a flyer from China advertising “detailed files of hundreds of former Soviet Union experts in the field of rocket, missile, and nuclear weapons. These weapons experts are willing to work in a country which needs their skills and can offer reasonable pay.” Subsequent polls showed that many Russian WMD experts were willing to work on military programs for other countries, including North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

On September 11, 2001, the attacks on the United States brought fears of knowledge proliferation closer to home. The subsequent mailings of anthrax-tainted letters extended this anxiety about possible terrorist use of nuclear weapons to include biological attack. In the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush and John Kerry may have agreed on little else except the danger posed by nuclear proliferation: Both candidates claimed it was the primary security threat facing the United States. Four years later, this agreement still held for the 2008 Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls. Newly elected president Barack Obama declared in April 2009 that nuclear terrorism was “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security” and pledged that the United States would lead the way in securing all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. Candidates, politicians, and pundits from both parties shared another belief: One of the most likely sources of the materials and expertise needed to make WMD is the former Soviet Union.

From the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 through 2008, the United States spent more than $1.2 billion trying to discourage the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons expertise from Soviet successor states. Some of this money funded short-term research contracts intended to provide scientists with much-needed income while keeping them engaged in interesting work. Other funds went toward a longer-term solution: creating permanent non-weapons jobs or converting entire institutes to civilian occupations. In the process, this effort spawned a dialogue that led to unprecedented cooperation and a level of commitment that was and remains nothing short of extraordinary. As the Obama administration assumed office, there was every indication that these “knowledge nonproliferation” efforts — that is, programs aimed at fighting the proliferation of weapons expertise — would be sustained and probably expanded.

Given the importance of this agenda and the commitment of those involved, it comes as a surprise that these efforts enjoyed only mixed success. Although temporary salaries were provided for thousands of former Soviet WMD experts, few job-creation or conversion efforts succeeded. Moreover, despite continued concerns about proliferation, the pace and political impetus given to this effort lagged after the 1990s, and as the second Bush administration drew to a close, the United States was poised to end its cooperative nonproliferation work with Russia in favor of expanding such programs to countries beyond the former Soviet states. Yet much work remained undone.

I’ve researched the design, implementation, and evolution of four US programs, each aimed at countering the threat of proliferation of WMD expertise from the former Soviet Union by creating jobs for weapons workers. From their origins at the end of the Cold War, these programs continued through three different US presidential administrations, various changes in US-Russian relations, Russia’s partial and, as of 2008, likely temporary, economic recovery, and the advent of the Obama administration. I argue that these programs were pursued within three important narratives: one involves the state of the former Soviet WMD complex and how the threat of proliferation changed over time; another illustrates the often-contentious domestic political debate within the United States over how to respond to the collapse of the Soviet Union; and the third juxtaposes the institutional interests and dynamics of three different government departments with the common task they were given.

The result supports three broad conclusions. First, these US programs did not succeed at redirecting or converting significant parts of the former Soviet WMD complex, despite general and persistent agreement about its importance, unprecedented cooperation between the United States and Russia, and the tremendous personal and in many cases institutional dedication of parts of the US departments of defense, energy, and state. This commitment was duplicated within parts of the Russian WMD complex, where key individuals took a brave stance in favor of such cooperation and then did their best to challenge institutional, political, and cultural obstacles. If importance, hard work, and perseverance were the only criteria, these programs would have succeeded years ago.

The second conclusion is that despite poor overall results, the programs had two important successes. During critical periods, some former Soviet nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons scientists did have an income only or mostly due to US funding. During the early 1990s, when economic conditions in the former Soviet states were the most dismal, the United States provided WMD experts with salaries through short-term research contracts. For some institutes, this meant the difference between life and death. The other success is that these programs, and the larger Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) effort to which they are related, forced the United States to work more closely with the Soviet successor states, and especially Russia, than US political leaders would have chosen to do otherwise. This meant a closer relationship between former Cold War enemies, and one that has been extremely important to US national security, even though by 2002–2003 it had begun to show strong signs of fatigue and wear.

The third conclusion centers on why these programs did not accomplish more. Many experts attribute this deficiency to externally imposed constraints, such as insufficient budgets, a lack of high-level coordination within the US government, or uncooperative external actors — usually Russia. Although these impediments are real, they are insufficient to explain the failure. Instead, I place the blame on two enduring features of the US policy process: democracy and bureaucratic institutions.

In the case of WMD expertise from the former Soviet Union, democracy hindered US counterproliferation efforts because the debate over how to respond to the collapse of the Soviet Union was never resolved. In 1990, policymakers argued about whether helping Russia secure, downsize, or destroy its WMD assets was in the national security interest of the United States or more properly considered as charity to a former enemy. Although Congress officially came down on the side of “cooperative security” when it funded the Cooperative Threat Reduction program in 1991, each subsequent reauthorization of program authority or funding was subjected to complaints that such money helped Russia’s own weapons effort, was wasted, would be better spent at home, or some combination of all of these criticisms. Occasionally, critics succeeded in getting Congress to apply conditions to US spending. Usually, these conditions made it harder for programs to achieve the nonproliferation task they were given. Always, the threat of future conditions or funding restrictions was on the mind of program personnel, and it influenced how they defined goals, implemented programs, and learned from experience.

Although this unresolved debate influenced CTR overall, it was especially important to programs aimed at the proliferation of WMD expertise, because these were often considered the most peripheral — and therefore expendable — part of the threat-reduction agenda. In particular, my case studies show that two of the four knowledge-nonproliferation programs funded by the United States were significantly, and negatively, influenced by this disagreement over whether they were part of US defense spending or, instead, foreign aid. Part of this narrative about US domestic politics also includes the presidency. With the exception of a few years during Bill Clinton’s first term in office, knowledge-nonproliferation programs claimed little presidential attention. Under the administration of George W. Bush, they were at times subjected to not-so-benign neglect. Repeated calls for increased attention from the executive, or a designated “czar,” went unheeded. The result was ineffective advocacy with Congress and the public, a lack of inter-program coordination, and a dialogue with Russia that lacked, on the American side, the political clout to solve persistent problems.

Although the consequences of this US political context have been important, I believe that bureaucratic institutions, and especially their interests and cultures, have been the bigger problem. Even more strongly, I would argue that had Russia cooperated fully, Congress significantly increased spending, and the “security versus charity” debate been resolved — even then, the United States would still have lagged in its efforts to create alternative jobs for Soviet WMD experts.

This is because each of the three bureaucracies that were given this task defined it, implemented solutions, and measured success in ways that satisfied their own needs, rather than the requirements for creating jobs for former Soviet WMD experts. For very different reasons, the departments of defense, energy, and state all became victim to the same pathology: They let institutional interests replace US national security needs. Such substitution should come as no surprise. The literature on national security, the policy process, and most specific policy areas is replete with illustrations of the power of institutional interest. But in the US fight to stem the proliferation of WMD knowledge from the former Soviet Union, the power of institutional interests meant that the United States government was its own worst enemy.

Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from Our Own Worst Enemy? Institutional Interests and the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Expertise by Sharon Weiner. Used by arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.

Together, we make the world safer.

The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.

Get alerts about this thread
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Receive Email