Belarus on Friday declared it would suspend an agreement to surrender all of its weapon-usable uranium in response to new economic penalties imposed by the United States, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported (see GSN, Dec. 1, 2010).
The bilateral agreement was unveiled last December while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with her Belarusian counterpart in Kazakhstan.
While Belarus was left with a number of nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Minsk swore it would not use them and the warheads were sent back to Russia in the 1990s.
Roughly 440 pounds of weapon-ready fissile material remained behind in the Eastern European nation, according to DPA. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies last year projected the nation retained between 375 and 815 pounds of highly enriched uranium, including no less than 90 pounds of material enriched to bomb-grade levels of around 90 percent.
The material by next year was to be sent to Russia for conversion to a more proliferation-resistant form of uranium, according to previous reports. The Obama administration pledged to "provide technical and financial assistance to support the completion of this effort as expeditiously as possible."
Instead, Minsk is "freezing" cooperation on the nuclear material divestment deal in retaliation for new U.S. trade sanctions, which the Belarusian government asserted were "unfounded ... and illegal," the nation's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"Belarus will as it has in the past provide physical security to these nuclear materials in full accordance with international standards,"Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savnik told Interfax.
The State Department earlier this month announced that four government-operated Belarusian firms were now prohibited from operating in the United States and encouraged other nations to similarly target the companies with sanctions. The department said the sanctions were a consequence of ongoing political repression in Belarus (Deutsche Presse-Agentur/Monsters and Critics, Aug. 19).