Russia's political and economic instability makes all the more imperative a reduction in its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Unfortunately, that's an expensive proposition for a government that can't pay its debts.
Dismantling weapons of mass destruction is as complicated as building them. With nuclear explosives, for example, there's the problem of what to do with all the plutonium and enriched uranium removed from the warheads.
It's in the interest of the US to do what it can to help Russia and other former Soviet republics meet their obligations under START I, START II, and the Chemical Weapons Convention. The good news is that an effective aid program is already in place. The bad news is that it is seriously underfunded, and the Russians risk falling further behind.
The Nunn-Lugar program - named for it principal sponsors, ex-Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana - has built an impressive track record. American companies such as Raytheon and Bechtel work with the US Departments of Defense, Energy, and State, and with host governments, to dismantle weapons of mass destruction in accordance with arms-control treaties.
At a cost of about $400 million a year, the seven-year-old program has destroyed 4,838 warheads. The International Science and Technology Center, supported by the US, European Union, Japan, and several others, pays stipends to 17,000 ex-Soviet weapons scientists and engineers who've switched to peaceful work.
Senators Lugar and Nunn have just completed a tour of weapons sites in the ex-Soviet republics. Their findings are disquieting: The heads of 13 Russian biological-weapons institutes told their visitors Moscow has financially abandoned them. Lugar says Russia can't pay for its increasing arms-control obligations without assistance.
The issue gains new urgency as the Russian Duma may be finally ready to ratify START II. That would open the door to more nuclear-arms cuts - especially given the Pentagon's reported desire for further reductions to save precious dollars needed elsewhere.
It won't be cheap. But the dangers of insecure arms stocks, rusting nuclear-equipped planes and submarines, and unpaid weapons scientists ought to be clear to everyone. Congress and the Clinton administration must come up with more funds for the task.