Is the West Rearming Russia?

Ottawa and the G-8 might be financing a new nuclear storehouse
Minutes before the battered Tupolev touched down in Archangelsk, Russia’s gateway to the Arctic Ocean, the plane banked sharply. The late August rainclouds thinned long enough to give me a twilight view down across the White Sea toward a row of decrepit decommissioned Soviet-era nuclear submarines tied alongside the giant drydocks at Zvezdochka, one of Russia’s biggest nuclear submarine repair bases. In the distance, across the Dvina river, I could see conning towers nestled like mysterious obelisks amongst the slipways of the Sevmash shipyard, where the Russian navy is building a fleet of brand-new nuclear submarines. There, a thousand metres below, was the secretive heart of Russia’s once-and-future navy, and one of the greatest concentrations of nuclear weaponry on earth. And I still had no idea why Russia’s rigid security laws were being waived to give me a close-up look.

I’d had to wait fifty-three days for Russia’s federal security police to clear me into Zvezdochka, and I’d been about to give up when the senior official handling my request at the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy’s headquarters in Moscow told me I’d be let in without the usual police permission. I was more apprehensive than pleased, however; Zvezdochka is one of the most secretive naval facilities in the world, and I’d been warned that without official clearance, merely appearing at the gate would get me arrested. My handler at the Ministry, though, had been emphatic: there’d be no trouble with the spycatchers. “Officially, you haven’t got a security clearance,” he admitted as he sent me on my way. “But don’t worry, the director at Zvezdochka is a friend of mine. And he wants to see you immediately. He’ll have you picked up at the airport tomorrow evening.”

I needn’t have bothered booking a hotel room in Archangelsk. On the drive from the airport, Ivan Belyavtsev, head of Nuclear Facilities Elimination at Zvezdochka, told me I’d be staying in their guesthouse. The shipyard’s director would be meeting me for dinner as soon as we arrived. The fact that we’d be sitting down to eat at midnight seemed normal enough to Belyavtsev, who said he’d come to meet me straight from home, where he and his wife had been celebrating their wedding anniversary. The only thing missing upon my arrival, it seemed, was the proverbial fatted calf.

The enormous Canadian flag fluttering across the balcony of my room at the guesthouse should have been my first clue. But I didn’t begin to get the picture until sometime well into the early morning hours. After we’d done all the traditional toasts––to friendship, to sailors at sea, to women, and to peace––Nikolai Kalistratov, burly top boss to Zvezdochka’s 10,000 shipwrights, leaned across a table piled high with smoked fish, salads, pickled mushrooms, and other thirst-inducing zakouski, to refill my vodka glass and propose a third toast to Canada. “Am I the first Canadian to visit you here?” I asked him.

“No, you’re the second,” he replied. “The first was a guy from your government in Ottawa, and he’s coming back again next month. Those decommissioned nuclear submarines out there on the dock are a real risk to the world, you see. And we think Canada should help out by giving Zvezdochka contracts to cut them up.”

The guy from Ottawa who beat me to Zvezdochka is Troy Lulashnyk, an unassuming and youthful official whose career in the Department of Foreign Affairs took a dramatic turn after September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks had suddenly made Russia’s poorly secured wasteland of Soviet-era nuclear, chemical, and biological weaponry a key concern, so much so that at the G8 summit in Kananaskis, Alberta, in June 2002, the leaders of the industrialized world, at the urging of U.S. President George W. Bush, pledged $20 billion(U.S.) to help clean up Russia’s weapons of mass destruction. Lulashnyk was recruited as a director of the Global Partnership Program to help define Canada’s contribution to the effort. A little more than a year after the September 11 attacks, and without so much as a debate in Parliament, Bush’s proposal had mushroomed into a massively ambitious Canadian commitment to help dismantle Soviet weaponry. In Moscow that November, Foreign Minister Bill Graham committed Canada to spending a billion dollars over the next decade on Russian cleanup projects to be chosen by Ottawa.

According to Lulashnyk, that pledge is one of the largest foreign aid commitments ever made in Ottawa. “It’s huge for Canada,” Lulashnyk told me in September. Although he speaks no Russian or Ukrainian, the program has taken him to Russia repeatedly over the last year to appraise possible contractors like Zvezdochka, and to scout out prospects for Canadian engineering firms. “We’re totally committed to helping the Russians,” he said. “The only question now is when and where.”

Canada shares more of the Arctic Ocean with Russia than with any other country, so it appears sensible to make it a top priority to help Russia dismantle the seventy ancient nuclear submarines now rusting near Murmansk and Archangelsk, with reactors and plutonium-laden spent fuel on board. “I consider the submarines a clear and present danger to Canada,” Graham told me at a breakfast meeting in Moscow the morning after he announced Canada’s billion-dollar commitment. “If radiation gets loose it’s going to end up in Canada, because it’s right across the Arctic Ocean from where we are. It’s drifting there now.” Graham’s point is solid: over the last half century, the Canadian Arctic has become increasingly contaminated by Russian atomic tests, radioactive dumping, and nuclear mishaps. Canadian officials also believe the sub-marines could be tempting to terrorists seeking nuclear materials.

In St. Petersburg last May, Prime Minister Chrétien committed Canada’s first $32-million instalment to an international fund dedicated to securing and storing spent fuel from submarines in Russia’s northern ports. Over the next decade, Lulashnyk told me, Canadian contributions to Russian submarine cleanup—in places like Zvezdochka, and other Russian government facilities competing for contracts from G8 nations—are slated to expand dramatically. “We have to get a good conception of how the Russian shipyards are working,” he explained. He also noted that Ottawa was well aware of the corruption scandals that have bedevilled other countries’ efforts to secure Russian nuclear materials and that it plans to control carefully how its money is spent in Russia. “Zvezdochka is well outfitted, thanks to U.S. and Norwegian investments,” Lulashnyk said. “They’re very proud of their facility and they’re eager for more Western investment. It’s good news for us.”

The morning after my arrival at Zvezdochka, I found myself standing in the driving rain on the deck of a barge with Oleg Frolov, Zvezdochka’s chief engineer, watching a group of workers ripping apart the carcass of a creature resembling a massive prehistoric whale that appeared to have died a disturbingly violent death many millenia ago. This was one of two 1960s-era, Viktor-class nuclear submarines being dismantled with a $15 million grant from Norway, Frolov said.

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