Following a strong reaction in Congress to reports of impending budget cuts to nuclear threat reduction efforts in Russia, President George W. Bush announced March 29 that his administration was conducting a "full review" of the programs. The assessment will be conducted by senior National Security Council officials and is expected to last six to eight weeks, according to an administration official.
The United States funds numerous programs, managed by several departments, to help Russia dismantle its nuclear weapons and secure its deteriorating nuclear weapons complex. Reports that the administration's budget proposal will suggest cuts for these programs first appeared in mid-March, based on government and private sources. The cuts are reportedly directed primarily at Energy Department non-proliferation efforts, with possible cuts to the Defense Department's Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative.
Administration officials declined to provide specifics, but one official indicated that programs deemed "ineffective" by the recently launched review could be significantly scaled back or killed.
The size of the cuts under consideration remains unclear. Various sources have indicated that the Department of Energy (DOE) cutbacks will involve a relatively small reduction from this year's budget. However, any cuts would be significant because funding for key threat reduction efforts had been expected to increase considerably next year, and some programs will apparently be hit hard. Multiple reports indicate that the budget for the Nuclear Cities Initiative, which is working to create employment opportunities, will be cut from its current level of about $27 million to around $7 million, effectively crippling the program.
After being asked about the reported pending cuts at an impromptu White House press conference, Bush responded by stating that "we're reviewing all programs," citing a desire to ensure funds were being spent "in an effective way." Bush also emphasized that "we fully intend to continue to cooperate with the Russians" and that such cooperation is "in our nation's best interest."
Office of Management and Budget spokesman Chris Ullman noted in a March 29 interview that the review will not factor into the administration's initial budget proposal, due to be released April 9. But Ullman emphasized that the budget process between the executive branch and Congress allows considerable flexibility should the review conclude that either additional funding or cutbacks are necessary.
Threat reduction efforts in Russia enjoy bipartisan congressional support, and reports of impending cuts sparked significant concern on Capitol Hill. At a March 28 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) called the reports "absolutely stunning," stating that he hoped "wiser heads would weigh in" to persuade the Bush administration to alter its apparent position. Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) expressed concern that the administration "intends to take an axe" to "key" threat reduction programs and said he supports a ten-fold increase in Energy Department threat reduction spending. Senators Joseph Biden (D-DE) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) also reiterated the call for substantial budget increases at the hearing.
A ten-fold increase in annual funding for DOE threat reduction efforts from about $300 million to $3 billion was advocated by a bipartisan panel report commissioned by the Energy Department and released in January. The report termed the deterioration of the Russian nuclear weapons complex "the greatest unmet national security threat to the United States." (See ACT, March 2001.)