WASHINGTON -- Russia has indicated it intends to withdraw from an international organization established to halt the spread of the nation's WMD expertise, a move that could force the program's main hub to close before the end of this year (see GSN, June 19, 2009).
The International Science and Technology Center opened in Moscow in 1994. It began as a program to prevent WMD proliferation by giving weapons scientists in Russia and other former Soviet states grants to redirect their know-how toward peaceful activities, including basic research and commercialization of new inventions.
The center now includes branch offices in Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
However, last August Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree announcing his government intended to withdraw from the international organization sometime in the future. The formal decision, which would detail the logistics of that withdrawal, including future financial support, has yet to be made.
Under the terms of the agreement that established the center, the main facility in Moscow would have at most six months left to operate once Russia issues a formal withdrawal declaration.
"Officially no reason has been given to us why but it's clear that various circles within the Russian government are of the opinion that the mission of the ISTC is completed as far as Russia is concerned," Adriaan van der Meer, the center's executive director, said in a recent telephone interview from Moscow.
He estimated that 76,000 scientists have been assisted by the international organization, which is primarily funded by Canada, the United States, the European Union, Japan, Norway and South Korea. The Moscow-based facility alone boasts a 172-person staff, 134 of whom are Russian, he said.
In 2010 the center awarded grants worth $25.5 million to more than 11,000 scientists and experts in all participating states, Van der Meer told Global Security Newswire. There are still 448 continuing projects, including 342 in Russia.
To date the United States has invested roughly $1 billion to fund scientific efforts projects through the center.
So far in 2011 the center successfully completed projects in Russia valued at $96 million, according to a State Department official. However, roughly $33 million remains invested in ongoing projects; if Russia withdrew from the center prior to their completion, those funds "would be at risk," said the official, who requested anonymity because no final decision has been made by the Kremlin.
The Russian Embassy in Washington and the country's ISTC representative at Rosatom, the state-run energy agency, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Van der Meer said Moscow decided it would withdraw from the organization primarily because it believes the risk of knowledge proliferation from within its borders has subsided since the early 1990s -- when the Soviet Union broke up and left thousands of scientists wondering if they still had paying jobs. Nations such as Iran and North Korea sought to exploit that situation by attempting to recruit those scientists for their weapons efforts, according to Brian Finlay, a senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.
"We were all in a mass panic that these individuals, highly trained folks, were going to bleed out of the institutes and potentially go to what we then called rogue states and even terrorist organizations," he said.
Many of the scientists and technicians associated with Cold War weapons programs have retired or passed away in the last two decades, Van der Meer noted.
"Russia is of the opinion that there is no proliferation risk anymore. That it is 100 percent in line with international and nonproliferation polices and therefore the risk of such a brain drain is nil to very little," he said.
The ISTC chief said that the center's international partners saw this development coming three years ago. They began to undertake initiatives to transform the facility into a more general scientific and international cooperation organization that would increasingly address "dual-use" issues in order to keep it operationally viable.
The center's six-state governing board, which includes Russia, even produced an interim report of suggestions "but we have been a bit overtaken by the developments of August," according to Van der Meer.
"To be frank, now with this withdrawal, the modalities of withdrawal are in the front of the mind of the funding parties because they would like to see that their financial interests are sufficiently protected and that's what we're trying to do," he said.
"We tried to argue the ISTC could be transformed. [The Russians] eventually concluded that was too hard," the State Department official noted.
The center's essential problem is that it offered nonproliferation benefits but little beyond that, Finlay said. "By and large it was research for the sake of research." As a result, research did not lead to new jobs for individuals and therefore did not achieve significant support, from the Russian government, he told GSN last week in a telephone interview.
Another nonproliferation expert rejected any claim that the center's work in the former Soviet Union is finished.
"I think by definition this mission is not done. Russia maintains pretty significant capabilities that could be directed towards proliferation of WMD," said Matthew Rojansky, deputy director for the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It's hard to define a more ongoing mission than that. That's not something that just ends."
"You still have former weapons scientists, you have people being trained to be weapons scientists now and there needs to be some sort of insurance policy in place that these folks are not going to go and sell their expertise to Iran," he said during a telephone interview last week.
The State Department official emphasized that Washington would continue to cooperate with Russia on nonproliferation efforts both within the country and around the globe.
"They have enormous capabilities and we need to make sure that we're working very closely with Russia to prevent the proliferation of [unconventional weapons], so we're working very hard ... to find a new basis of partnership," the Foggy Bottom official said in telephone interview last month.
Moscow has not indicated it wants to suspend cooperation with Washington in preventing the spread of unconventional weapons and their materials, the official added.
The Path Ahead
Since Moscow announced its intention to leave the center, a number of diplomatic steps have been taken to map out the issues surrounding Russia's eventual withdrawal, according to Van der Meer, including informal consultations with Kremlin officials on a plan that would see the 342 ongoing projects in the organization's pipeline through to completion.
"What was signed into contracts, the kind of research which was already under way under the privileges of the ISTC agreement, needs to take shape and needs to be completed," he said. "My feeling is that there is a willingness on the Russian side to adhere to this point, which is very important from a legal and financial standpoint but also from a scientific point of view."
Van der Meer noted that projects usually take three to five years to complete, which means the Moscow center would remain open until 2015. Russia has not yet agreed with the proposal.
The nonproliferation experts were not sure if that approach would work.
"What's the upshot for these projects?" Finlay asked. "Taking nothing away from the scientific value they may be generating, we're going to fund a portion of the individuals' time to sit in their institutes in Russia to finish a collaborative project and then what?"
Shuttering the Russian site could mean some worthwhile research would not be conducted but would not undermine U.S. national security, he argued.
"Anything that keeps the doors open is a good compromise," according to Rojansky. "It's the 'do no harm' philosophy. Even if you accept the premise that Russia has matured to a point where this work is not proactively necessary anymore, if you take away support that's already been promised or already been given then you're going to create problems."
That could include scientists and technicians pursuing other assistance, a scenario the center was established to prevent, he said.
Other complications arising from the possible shuttering the Moscow center would involve dealing with the facility's nearly 54,000 pieces of equipment and the fate of its half-dozen branch offices, according to Van der Meer.
Last year the organization's governing board made a commitment to continue operations in the former satellite countries; however, discussions are ongoing as to what that would involve, he said.
"This center can help to sustain the various scientific communities in countries, some of whom are still in need of support," said Van der Meer. "It's absolutely necessary that they stay open in order to maintain and expand the research communities in those countries."
The organization might move its headquarter operations to one of the former satellite country locations or possibly join with its sister organization, the Science and Technology Center in Ukraine, he added.
The State Department official expressed optimism that scientific redirection work in the former Soviet Union states would continue unhindered.
"We continue to want to have a nonproliferation, science and technology relationship with those states," the official said. "And what they said is they love the ISTC. They think it's a great institution."
He noted that the discussions had been held in "broad brush" in part because member states are still waiting on the details of the Russian decision.
Finlay predicted the branch offices would remain active because the scientific based in those countries, such as Armenia and Tajikistan, are "not as well advanced." Furthermore, "they see an enduring value in collaborative projects with Western countries."
For his part, Van der Meer said he would like to begin discussions on establishing a new international organization in 2015. The new body would have a wider membership and focus on global issues, such as the nuclear power renaissance and antiviral medicines, while at the same time continuing scientist engagement and commercialization of funded research, he told GSN.
"Science surpasses all kinds of borders and that can only be done on the international scale," according to Van der Meer.
The ISTC chief admitted that funding any new organization would be difficult due to the continuing global trend toward fiscal belt-tightening. He warned, though, that it would ultimately prove more expensive to co-fund projects on a bilateral basis, rather than a multilateral one such as the center.
Finlay said that any new organization must evolve beyond the center's mandate to show that the research that receives grant money leads to more commercial benefits.
"My guess is there will be no great tear shed if the ISTC closes, though maybe there should be," he said.