David HoffmanBrain Drain

This is a photo I took on February 14, 1992 at one of the two Soviet nuclear weapons laboratories, the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Technical Physics, in a closed city known then as Chelyabinsk-70, and now renamed Snezhinsk. Seated in front of the dusty blackboard is visiting U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, listening to nuclear weapons scientists describe their serious economic plight less than two months after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Standing on the right is Yevgeny Avrorin, the scientific director of the laboratory then. He described for Baker the “difficult, trying situation” the nuclear lab faced as government subsidies dwindled. The scientists wanted productive and challenging work. “We have no shortage of ideas,” Avrorin said, presenting Baker with a long list of commercial products they could make if they had Western investors: artificial diamonds, fiber optics, food irradiation, nuclear medicine. But they had no investors, and no way to reach any.

I was there that day as a correspondent for The Washington Post, covering Baker’s trip. It was one of those moments that is hard to forget—Baker slipping into the snow-covered once-secret lab compound, ringed by barbed wire fences, to be greeted by hundreds of workers with their faces pressed against the windows for a glimpse of the American secretary of state. This wasn’t the Evil Empire anymore.

On February 17, in the Kremlin in Moscow, Baker met with President Yeltsin and they announced formation of the International Science and Technology Center to help Soviet weapons scientists shift to civilian projects and keep them from spreading their knowledge around the world. The ISTC, which opened its doors in 1994, has allocated $836 million over the years for this purpose. The United States, European Union, Japan, Canada, Norway, Finland, Sweden, South Korea, and businesses have contributed the money. There is a parallel, sister organization based in Ukraine.

Today, the program is endangered.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree August 11 to pull Russia out of the ISTC within six months. The order was issued without explanation. If the decree is implemented, the ISTC will probably be forced to close its doors, since Russia is the host. The ISTC has said it is studying the situation.

There’s no question that Russia, flush with oil revenues, is a different country than it was when the ISTC was founded in 1992, and it may no longer need, nor want, a helping hand from abroad. The Medvedev order may be an effort to throw off what seems to Russian to be an anachronism, a humiliating reminder of those early years when the country hit rock bottom.

But the decision also raises some questions about nonproliferation and the end of the Cold War. At the time the ISTC was founded, a big worry was that Russian weapons scientists would slip through the porous borders and take their knowledge elsewhere. Has that danger abated? With the rise of instant digital global communications networks, should we worry about a different kind of proliferation? Would it be just as easy to share weapons knowledge using email? Has the ISTC become out-moded?

If Russia no longer wants to host such a program, is it the place of outsiders to object? If Russia now has the resources, will it spend the money on science, or elsewhere?

If Moscow shutters the ISTC, what happens to the work that has been done in the other former Soviet republics, particularly those in Central Asia and the Caucasus, where the proliferation risks may be more urgent?

For many scientists, it worked

Over the years, the ISTC touched a good chunk of the weapons scientists set adrift after the Soviet collapse. Glenn E. Schweitzer, the first executive director of the ISTC, wrote later in his book Moscow DMZ that there were about 60,000 core specialists who developed and designed weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems who were of interest to the program. That was in the early 1990s. Among them, about 30,000 were in aerospace, 20,000 in the nuclear field, and 10,000 in chemical and biological weapons, he said. And about half of them came from institutes around Moscow.

According to the ISTC’s latest annual report, from the first grants in 1994 until 2009, the program gave grants to 73,152 scientists. The overwhelming majority were in Russia, but the grants also reached Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. No doubt, many scientists and engineers received only limited funds. It wasn’t enough for full employment for all. No one knows for sure how many might have sold their skills to Iran or North Korea. But the data suggests that at least part of Schweitzer’s core benefitted from the grants and turned their skills away from weapons and toward civilian projects.

Over the years, I’ve heard inspiring stories from weapons scientists who participated. One example, which I relate in The Dead Hand, is Victor Vyshinsky, a specialist in fluid dynamics who worked at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute in Moscow, carrying out wind-tunnel tests on cruise missiles. Vyshinsky was eager to make it in the new Russian economy. His team knew how to test a cruise missile in a wind tunnel, so they came up with an idea to dry timber. No luck. Then they proposed to use their mathematical models to predict the course of overflowing rivers. Again, a dead end. Vyshinsky turned to the ISTC, and his group of experts put together a proposal to study vortex wakes caused by airplanes at civilian airports, a project with widespread application that the science center supported.

The mission accomplished?

After the ISTC governing board met in December, 2009, the board issued a statement which said that the center was founded “at a critical moment for the scientific communities of the Russian Federation and the other countries of the former Soviet Union.” Then, the statement added, “Since that time, these communities have regained much of their potential.”

In other words, the struggling scientists are no longer struggling. According to my sources, there was a serious discussion about this in the board meeting. The Russians pressed hard for a statement like this, suggesting that the ISTC mission was accomplished. They want out from under this program.

And once it was issued, they may have taken that as a cue to pull the plug.

One reason this issue is so difficult is that the evidence of proliferation is hard to obtain. While the ISTC knows how many scientists were helped, it does not know how many were not helped. The actual extent of “brain drain” involving weapons scientists and engineers from Russia and the other former Soviet republics is simply elusive.

Certainly, there is evidence Russian engineers helped the missile programs in Iran in earlier years. But what is the situation today? The rise of the Russian security services under Vladimir Putin’s rule has meant tighter restrictions at the scientific institutes than prevailed in the 1990s. But is that enough to assume proliferation is no longer a risk?

If we don’t know the full scope of the problem, then it is doubly difficult to judge whether it is time to close the doors.

Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of State Clinton on August 31, asking some pointed questions about what comes next. He inquired about how the administration will remain engaged with the scientists, and whether it has a Plan B. He also asked how the Medvedev decision fits in with the administration’s “reset” of relations with Russia. Lugar wants the administration to be more pro-active on the issue.

Avrorin, the nuclear lab director who spoke to Baker in 1992, said in a recent interview with Rossiskaya Gazeta, a government newspaper, that the ISTC “has indisputably benefited Russian science.” He urged the government not to abandon it.


  1. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    We’re almost twenty years on. Russia has changed. Part of that change is that it wants to move on from the desperate days of the nineties. Unfortunately, the ISTC is part of that; its mission is quite clear in that respect.

    Some sense of US condescension toward Russia is implicit in the ISTC’s mission. That could be overlooked when Russia had less money, but now it begins to pinch.

    The wisest strategy for the countries sponsoring the ISTC might have been a gradual transition to a different model, one in which Russia and the other states play larger roles. But that didn’t happen.

    Looking at this simply from a viewpoint of proliferation danger seen from the west isn’t enough. Russia is taking its self-respect back, and evidently sees the proliferation danger as acceptable small relative to that.

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