U.S. officials say they are close to signing an agreement with the Russian government to complete the building of a major chemical weapons destruction facility that has been plagued by construction delays.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities April 11, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Benkert stated that construction of the facility at Shchuch’ye “is now about 50 percent complete. We expect to amend the agreements and add the final contracts and funding to complete this project very soon.”
Shchuch’ye is a complex containing one-seventh of Russia’s roughly 40,000-metric-ton chemical weapons arsenal. The munitions stored there include some of the most dangerous chemical weapons—nerve agents such as sarin, soman, and Russian VX—housed in 1.9 million artillery shells and 600 rocket and missile warheads. (See ACT, July/August 2001.)
Former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), an architect of U.S. programs to contain such dangers, described the stockpile in testimony at the April 11 hearing as “enough chemical weapons in that facility to kill everybody on the face of the earth three or four times over if it was disseminated in an efficient way. Of course, [it] wouldn’t be. Chemicals aren’t. But that shows you the magnitude.”
Nunn also said that when he recently visited the site, he saw open holes in the roof and that the buildings were slowly sinking into the wet ground and urged U.S. officials to complete an agreement and move forward.
Nonetheless, Benkert did not set any clear timeline for finishing the negotiations nor did he mention any dates for completing a project that has consistently encountered setbacks.
He also did not explain how completion of the project would be funded. Since Congress authorized the project in 1992, costs have risen from an initial estimate of $750 million to more than $1 billion. Although some money Congress has already appropriated has not yet been spent on the project, the Bush administration did not request additional funding for the project in its fiscal year 2008 budget request. Outside experts have expressed skepticism that Russia will be willing to foot the bill for any gap in funding.
U.S. funding for the destruction of Russian chemical weapons has always been contentious. In 1993, Congress mandated that Russia meet a series of conditions before the money was released, including accounting for their entire chemical weapons stockpiles and destroying all its nerve agents at Shchuch’ye. As Russia was unable or unwilling to meet some of these conditions, Congress eliminated funding in 2000 and 2001 and held it back for nine months in 2002 until lawmakers granted President George W. Bush the authority to waive the restrictions on national security grounds.
In 2006, Congress gave the president permanent authority to waive the restrictions. Despite this breakthrough, problems persist both with U.S. funding and on the Russian side of the partnership, according to a U.S. official familiar with the program.
In particular, the effort at Shchuch’ye has recently run into a number of problems that have slowed progress, including funding limitations, a lack of skilled labor, delays by the Russian government, and concern about subcontractors bidding for the project.
Problems with the Russian subcontractor bids made to the Parsons Corp., which was designated by the Department of Defense to manage the project, have become a significant obstacle. The bids all were much higher than estimated and would have left the project well over the budget set by Congress.
“Over the past year, there were significant problems ensuring that final contract awards could be accomplished transparently for prices that had a reasonable relation to the work proposed to be accomplished,” Benkert said.
But he added, “After detailed negotiations, we are now poised to sign an agreement with Russia, which will allow us to pull the Shchuch’ye project across the goal line within the U.S. budget. If that budget turns out to be insufficient, we expect to have Russia’s commitment to fund whatever is necessary to complete the project.”
The new agreement that Benkert said was near completion would insert the Russian government into the process to accept subcontractor bids and more directly control the process, according to congressional sources. An apparent stumbling block to closing the deal, however, is a U.S. desire to maintain oversight and inspection over the project after the job of subcontracting has been handed over to Russia.
At the hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) posed just such a question, asking Benkert, “Has [the Defense Department] pared back the scope of its work on systemization of this facility and the training of the Russian operators as a result of this development?” Benkert replied that the Defense Department had worked to incorporate continued U.S. oversight into the agreement and that it will be “watching this very carefully as it progresses to make sure that, in fact, the work does what it’s supposed to do.”
Moscow’s original plan was to bring the facility online by 2006, but that deadline was extended to 2009 after discussions with the U.S. government. That deadline is now likely to slip further.
The facilities at Shchuch’ye and other sites have been established to meet Russia’s commitments under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Under that pact, Russia is supposed to destroy its entire Soviet-era 40,000-metric-ton arsenal by 2012, but it is widely anticipated that it will not meet that deadline. (See ACT, January/February 2005.)
In addition to the United States, other countries also have invested money and material in the project. Contributors include Canada, which has committed up to $25 million for the construction of a local railway; France, which has committed more than $6 million; and other countries, which have committed millions more through direct work on the project or through the G-8 Global Partnership.The United States remains by far the largest foreign source of funding for the project, so its support remains critical. Congress in the coming months will have a chance to weigh in on this, including the lack of funds for Shchuch’ye, when it takes up fiscal year 2008 defense appropriations and authorization legislation.