In Siberia, the death knell of a complex holding a deadly stockpile

The following article, written by Clifford J. Levy, originally appeared in the New York Times on 26 May 2009.

MOSCOW — Soon after the Soviet Union’s collapse, an American inspection team arrived at a decrepit storage complex in Siberia. The front gate was guarded by a scrawny teenage soldier who had not been paid in months. Giant sheds seemed to hold little of value. Why else would their doors be secured only with rusty bicycle locks?

The reality was far more disturbing: the sheds contained two million artillery shells and warheads filled with nerve agents, extremely deadly substances, row after row, stacked like cordwood. Many were portable, and a single one detonated in a stadium or other crowded area could kill tens of thousands of people.
Today, the site has been transformed. The inspection in 1994 was a catalyst for a far-reaching American plan to destroy those chemical weapons, culminating in the formal opening scheduled for Friday of a facility nearby to carry out the work.
The new facility, built with $1 billion in American aid, represents a milestone in a longstanding partnership between the United States and Russia to safeguard and in many cases liquidate enormous quantities of chemical, nuclear and biological weapons manufactured by the Soviet Union.
This overall arrangement between the nations has often been troubled, and the project to eradicate the chemical weapons site in the Siberian city of Shchuchye, first proposed in 1996, has been repeatedly delayed. Some members of Congress sought to end financing, asserting that Russia should pay for the program itself, and the United States Defense Department’s oversight of the project was questioned by Congressional auditors.
For its part, Russia imposed unwieldy regulations on the project, and it was reluctant to use its own money. In general, the Kremlin under Vladimir V. Putin has grown much more secretive about these weapons sites, making it more difficult for American officials to verify how money is being spent.
Still, American and Russian officials are hailing the opening of the new facility at Shchuchye (pronounced SHOO-che), 1,000 miles east of Moscow and just east of the Ural Mountains. They said these chemical weapons were in some respects a far more potent terrorist threat than nuclear ones because they are much easier to steal and deploy.
The opening of the facility underscores how the United States and Russia have been able to hew to certain arms agreements even as overall relations soured during the Bush administration.
“This is one of the most historic steps forward ever in nonproliferation,” said Paul F. Walker, who took part in the 1994 inspection as a Congressional aide and is now a senior official at Global Green USA, an affiliate of an environmental organization begun by Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader.
“One of the most dangerous chemical weapons arsenals in the world is finally getting demilitarized,” Mr. Walker said. “And it’s been a long, long time.”
As the early inspection of Shchuchye demonstrated, Russia’s economic and political disarray in the early 1990s had severe consequences for its military infrastructure. American officials became alarmed that unconventional weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists.
In 1991, two senators, Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, and Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana, proposed a program to help the countries of the former Soviet Union secure and destroy those weapons.
However rocky, the relative success of the Nunn-Lugar program has been cited by some Obama administration officials as offering hope for negotiations on future treaties. Russian and American officials are now engaged in talks on a new version of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or Start, which expires in December.

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