Struggle between big powers spells hostile future: report

Munich Security Conference (MSC) chairman Wolfgang Ischinger presents the Munich Security Report for 2019 in Berlin, Germany, February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

BERLIN (Reuters) – A new age of competition between major global powers like China, the United States and Russia leaves the world facing an unpredictable and more hostile future, the hosts of a major security conference said on Monday.

Entitled “The Great Puzzle: Who Will Pick Up the Pieces?”, their report aims to set the agenda for leaders at the Munich Security Conference annual meeting from Thursday.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is due to attend the event in the Bavarian capital, which comes after Washington said earlier this month it would suspend compliance with a landmark nuclear missile pact with Russia.

“Given the prevailing strategic outlooks in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow, expectations of a new era of great power competition are seeming to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy,” the report read.

“If everyone prepares for a hostile world, its arrival is almost preordained … The post-Cold War period and the general optimism associated with it has come to an end.

“But it is unclear what kind of new order will emerge … and whether the transition period will be peaceful.”

Conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to Washington, urged policymakers from mid-sized powers including the European Union to do more to preserve a liberal international order.

In a newspaper interview, Ischinger suggested France’s nuclear arsenal should serve the purpose of shielding the whole of the EU and not just France. This would mean EU countries would have to share the cost of maintaining France’s nuclear weapons, he told the Funke group of newspapers.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who addresses the conference on Saturday, is using her last term to focus on a foreign policy aimed at defending and refreshing multilateralism.

But the report said Berlin and Paris needed to work together more effectively to boost the capacity of the “ill-prepared” EU to deal with heightened great power competition.

“With domestic contexts in both capitals unlikely to become less complicated, the coming year will show whether the tandem can work out its differences or whether another window of opportunity has been missed,” the report read.

Running through other mid-sized powers, the report turned to Britain and said “Brexit proceedings will continue to inflict wounds on both sides of the Channel for years to come.”

Looking further east, it said: “Those counting on Japan to anchor security in East Asia may yet have to temper their expectations.”

(Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

For Putin, economic and political reality dampen any appetite for arms race

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – With his ratings down and state funds needed to hedge against new Western sanctions and raise living standards, Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot afford to get sucked into a costly nuclear arms race with the United States.

Alleging Russian violations, Washington said this month it was suspending its obligations under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and starting the process of quitting it, untying its hands to develop new missiles.

That raises the prospect of a new arms race between Washington and Moscow, which denies flouting the treaty. Putin responded by saying Russia would mirror the U.S. moves by suspending its own obligations and quitting the pact.

But Putin, who has sometimes used bellicose rhetoric to talk up Russia’s standoff with the West and to rally Russians round the flag, did not up the ante.

He did not announce new missile deployments, said money for new systems must come from existing budget funds and declared that Moscow would not deploy new land-based missiles in Europe or elsewhere unless Washington did so first.

“…We must not and will not let ourselves be drawn into an expensive arms race,” Putin told Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

His statement was borne of necessity.

Harsh economic and political realities and memories of how the cost of the Cold War arms race contributed to the Soviet Union’s demise means Putin’s options are limited, a situation that may curb his appetite for expensive escalation in future.

“We need to keep in mind that the question of an arms race that could cut us into pieces is entirely realistic,” Sergei Dubinin, former governor of Russia’s central bank, told Russia’s RBC TV channel before Washington announced its exit.

He said the United States was trying to repeat its successful Cold War strategy of pushing Moscow into an arms race it could not afford and that Russia would be ill-advised to try to attain parity and needed a smart response instead.

Memories of empty supermarket shelves in the run-up to the 1991 Soviet collapse still haunt many older Russians as the then Soviet Union directed huge cash flows to the military-industrial complex to try to keep up with the United States while neglecting the consumer economy.

“They (the Americans) recall that the Soviet Union collapsed in part because it tried to keep up with the United States when it came to who produced more missiles, nuclear submarines and tanks,” Viktor Litovkin, a military expert, told the Russian army’s Zvezda TV channel.

“They are trying to do the same thing today.”

COUNTING THE COSTS

With the INF treaty suspended, Washington and Moscow have said they will develop previously prohibited short- and intermediate-range land-based missiles, with Russia saying it wants them ready by 2021.

Shoigu told Putin the money to develop two new land-based missile launchers would come from this year’s budget by reallocating existing funds.

Russia does not disclose the full extent of its military and national security spending, but says it will account for around 30 percent of its 18-trillion-rouble ($273-billion) budget this year.

Oil revenues mean Russia is not short of money. Its budget surplus this year is projected to be 1.932 trillion rubles ($29.3 billion) or 1.8 percent of gross domestic product. Russia’s foreign exchange reserves stand at $478 billion, the fifth largest in the world.

But the money is already allocated in a way dictated by Moscow’s difficult geopolitical situation and by Putin’s own increasingly tricky domestic political landscape. Reallocating the money would be painful.

Moscow is hoarding cash to try to give itself a $200-billion buffer against new Western sanctions and is embarking on a multi-billion dollar spending push to try to overhaul the country’s creaky infrastructure and raise living standards.

With signs of rising discontent over years of falling real incomes, rising prices, an increase in value-added tax and an unpopular plan to raise the pension age, Putin is under pressure to deliver.

Igor Nikolaev, director of auditor FBK’s Strategic Analysis Institute, said Putin might have to take money from other parts of the budget to fund a new arms race which would force him to scale back social spending plans or dip into the national wealth fund to top up the budget.

If a burgeoning arms race intensified, such a scenario would become more likely and Putin would be reluctant to spend more on defense in the current political climate, he said.

“It would not be desirable, especially as we know what’s happening with real incomes and that there are problems with his rating,” said Nikolaev. “Cutting spending on national projects would receive a mixed reaction.”

Though re-elected last year until 2024, and therefore not under immediate political pressure, Putin’s trust rating has fallen to a 13-year low. A poll this month showed the number of Russians who believe their country is going in the wrong direction hit its highest level since 2006.

Putin’s symmetrical response to Washington, which involves developing new missiles, has already angered some Russians.

“Are new arms a source of joy?” wrote blogger Vladimir Akimov, saying the money would be better spent on lifting people out of poverty. “Why not begin by repairing the roads and knocking down the wooden shacks (that people live in) across the country.”

(Additional reporting by Andrey Ostroukh, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

U.S. has offered to hold arms control talks with Russia -official

FILE PHOTO: National flags of Russia and the U.S. fly at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has offered to hold talks on arm control issues with Russia on the sidelines of a United Nations meeting in Beijing next week, a senior State Department official said on Thursday.

Under Secretary of State Andrea Thompson told reporters the talks almost certainly would include a dispute over a Cold War-era treaty limiting intermediate-range missiles.

Washington has pledged to withdraw from the pact because of what it charges is the deployment by Moscow of a new cruise missile that violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty).

Moscow has denied that the missile in question, the Novator 9M729 (called the SSC-8 by NATO), violates the agreement, which bars either side from stationing short- and intermediate-range, land-based missiles in Europe.

Moscow says the missile’s range keeps it outside of the treaty and has accused the United States of inventing a false pretext to leave an accord it wants to exit anyway to develop its own new missiles.

Thompson said the United States has presented Russia with a proposal for a “verifiable” test of the missile’s range but Moscow has not embraced the plan.

Unless the Russians come back into compliance with the INF Treaty, the United States will make good on its decision to suspend its compliance with the pact at the end of a 60-day period on Feb. 2, Thompson said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Writing by Makini Brice; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Former President George H.W. Bush remembered for role in Cold War, Iraq

A flag is draped over the gate to the neighborhood of the home of former President George H.W. Bush, a day after he passed away in Houston, Texas, U.S. December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Gary McWilliams

By Gary McWilliams and Bill Trott

HOUSTON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Tributes to former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who died at the age of 94, poured in from around the world on Saturday as global leaders honored him for his role in helping to end the Cold War and reduce the threat of nuclear annihilation.

FILE PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) picks up the formal endorsement of former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush in Houston March 29, 2012. REUTERS/Donna Carson/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) picks up the formal endorsement of former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush in Houston March 29, 2012. REUTERS/Donna Carson/File Photo

Bush, the 41st U.S. president who served in the office from 1989 to 1993, also routed President Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army in the 1991 Gulf War but lost his chance for a second term in the White House after breaking a no-new-

taxes pledge.

“Many of my memories are linked to him,” said Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, with whom Bush signed a strategic arms reduction treaty that scaled back the two countries’ nuclear arsenals.

“We happened to work together in years of great changes. It was a dramatic time demanding huge responsibility from everyone,” Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Gorbachev as saying.

Bush, who also served for eight years as U.S. vice president during Ronald Reagan’s two-term presidency and earlier as head of the CIA, died on Friday night at his home in Houston. His death was announced by his longtime spokesman Jim McGrath.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President George H.W. Bush laughs while attending the annual White House Correspondents Association Awards dinner in Washington May 21, 1988. REUTERS/Stelios Varias/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President George H.W. Bush laughs while attending the annual White House Correspondents Association Awards dinner in Washington May 21, 1988. REUTERS/Stelios Varias/File Photo

Speaking in Buenos Aires, U.S. President Donald Trump called Bush “a high-quality man.”

“He was a very fine man. I met him on numerous occasions. He was just a high-quality man who truly loved his family,” Trump told reporters at a G20 summit in Buenos Aires. “He was a terrific guy and he’ll be missed. He led a full life, and a very exemplary life, too.”

The White House said a state funeral will be held on Wednesday at the National Cathedral in Washington. Trump, who plans to attend the funeral with first lady Melania Trump, also designated Wednesday as a national day of mourning and ordered the lowering of the American flag for 30 days.

Former U.S. presidents lauded Bush. “His administration was marked by grace, civility and social conscience,” Jimmy Carter, a Bush predecessor and now the oldest living former president at 94, said in a statement.

Barack Obama described Bush as “a patriot and humble servant” while Bill Clinton, who defeated Bush in the 1992 presidential election, recalled his “great long life of service, love and friendship.”

FILE PHOTO: George H. W. Bush, in uniform as a Naval Aviator Cadet, is pictured in this early 1943 handout photo obtained by Reuters November 30, 2012. George Bush Presidential Library and Museum/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: George H. W. Bush, in uniform as a Naval Aviator Cadet, is pictured in this early 1943 handout photo obtained by Reuters November 30, 2012. George Bush Presidential Library and Museum/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Bush, a U.S. naval aviator during World War Two, was the father of former President George W. Bush, who served two terms in the White House in the 2000s, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who unsuccessfully sought the 2016 Republican nomination for president. Like his sons, he was a Republican.

After falling short of his party’s presidential nomination in 1980, Bush ran for the presidency again in 1988 and defeated Massachusetts Democrat Michael Dukakis, winning 40 of the 50 U.S. states.

His death came seven months after that of his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush, to whom he was married for 73 years. He was admitted to a Houston hospital with a blood infection that led to sepsis a day after her funeral in April.

“The entire Bush family is deeply grateful for 41’s life and love, for the compassion of those who have cared and prayed for Dad, and for the condolences of our friends and fellow citizens,” George W. Bush said in a statement.

Trump said he spoke on Saturday to George W. Bush and Jeb Bush about their father’s death.

At a gate outside the Houston neighborhood where the Bushes lived, residents on Saturday created a makeshift memorial by laying flowers before a U.S. flag.

“They weren’t just the president and former first lady, they were part of the neighborhood,” said Ellen Prelle, who added a poinsettia and remembered the former first couple as involved and caring.

At the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, German Chancellor Angela Merkel recalled visiting him in the White House. “He was the father or one of the fathers of German reunification and we will never forget that,” she said.

Bush served as president during the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

“His ethos of public service was the guiding thread of his life and an example to us all,” said British Prime Minister Theresa May. “In navigating a peaceful end to the Cold War, he made the world a safer place for generations to come.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Bush “faithfully served his country all his life – with a gun in his hand during the war years and in high government roles in peacetime,” according to Russian state news agency TASS.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President George H. W. Bush waves goodbye to U.S. Marines and members of the British 7th Armoured Brigade as they conclude a Thanksgiving Day visit with troops in the Saudi desert November 22, 1990. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President George H. W. Bush waves goodbye to U.S. Marines and members of the British 7th Armoured Brigade as they conclude a Thanksgiving Day visit with troops in the Saudi desert November 22, 1990. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

EXTENSIVE POLITICAL RESUME

George Herbert Walker Bush, a Connecticut Yankee who came to Texas to be an oilman, died as the patriarch of a Republican political dynasty. He and George W. Bush were only the second father and son to hold the office of president, after John Adams (1797-1801) and John Quincy Adams (1825-1829).

His second son, Jeb, undertook his own campaign for the presidency in 2015 before dropping out. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, was a U.S. senator from Connecticut.

Trump signed an order closing the federal government on Wednesday in a show of respect for Bush. The New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq will also be closed on Wednesday in his honor.

Bush’s body will arrive at the U.S. Capitol on Monday and lie in state through Wednesday morning. The public will be able to line up to view Bush’s casket continuously from Monday evening until Wednesday morning.

Trump said the presidential plane will be flown to Houston to bring Bush’s body to Washington after Trump returns from Argentina. Bush’s body will be returned to Houston on Wednesday and a service will be held on Thursday at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church there.

Bush’s casket will then travel by train from nearby Spring, Texas to College Station. He will be buried on Thursday on the grounds of his presidential library at Texas A&M University, the school said. He will be buried in a family plot next to his late wife.

Bush had first sought the presidency in 1980, campaigning on experience gathered as a U.S. congressman from Texas, envoy to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, United Nations ambassador and chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Reagan, the former actor and California governor, vanquished Bush in the Republican primaries but chose him as his running mate, hoping Bush’s reputation as a moderate would balance his own hard, conservative image.

The high points of Bush’s presidency included the end of the Cold War, which brought the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its hold on former Eastern Bloc countries.

“He was the only one of the world leaders at the time (who) did so much to overcome communism and help Poland,” said Lech Walesa, the former head of Poland’s Solidarity trade union who led protests and strikes that shook communist rule in the 1980s.

“He will remain in hearts and memory forever,” Walesa said on Twitter.

Bush won a decisive victory in ousting Saddam’s Iraqi army from Kuwait, bringing him popularity at home, and made progress on Middle East peace. But Bush’s foreign affairs victories were overshadowed by a stagnant economy at home. He broke his “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes and lost his 1992 re-election bid to Clinton, a Democrat.

Bush, who was born on June 12, 1924, in Milton, Massachusetts, grew up wealthy, attending elite schools but putting off college so he could enlist in the Navy at 18. He flew 58 missions off aircraft carriers in World War Two and survived being shot down over the Pacific Ocean.

After returning from the war, he married Barbara Pierce, with whom he would have six children. After he graduated from Yale University on an accelerated schedule, the Bushes headed to the oil fields of West Texas.

It was there that Bush became involved in politics, first losing a U.S. Senate race in 1964 before winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1966.

After two terms and another failed Senate bid in 1970, he was appointed by President Richard Nixon as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In 1974, President Gerald Ford made him an envoy to China and later director of the CIA.

Bush did not endorse fellow Republican Trump, the eventual winner of the 2016 presidential election who attacked both Jeb and George W. Bush during his campaign. He did not publicly say whom he voted for in the election, but a source told CNN he went for Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Bush did send Trump a letter in January 2017 saying he would not be able to attend his inauguration because of health concerns but wishing him the best.

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams in Houston; Bill Trott, David Morgan, David Shepardson and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Roberta Rampton in Buenos Aires; Mark Heinrich in London; Andrew Osborn in Moscow; and Marcin Goclowski in Warsaw; Editing by Alistair Bell, Jonathan Oatis and Will Dunham)

Former President George H.W. Bush dead at 94

FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush speaks at the World Leadership Summit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates November 21, 2006. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

(Reuters) – Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who presided over the end of the Cold War and routed Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army, died on Friday at the age of 94, a family spokesman said.

Bush, the 41st president of the United States, lived longer than any of his predecessors. His death at 10:10 p.m. Central time was announced in a statement issued by longtime spokesman Jim McGrath. No further details about the circumstances of his death were immediately available.

He was the father of former President George W. Bush, who served two terms in the White House from 2001 through 2008, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who unsuccessfully sought the 2016 Republican nomination for president.

The elder Bush, a Republican like his sons, also served as vice president for eight years during Ronald Reagan’s two terms as president, before being elected to the White House himself.

He defeated former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, in the 1988 presidential campaign, and lost his 1992 re-election bid to Democrat Bill Clinton.

Bush’s death came seven months after that of his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush, to whom he was married for 73 years.

The former president, who served as a U.S. naval aviator during World War Two, had attended his wife’s funeral in Houston in a wheelchair and wore a pair of colorful socks festooned with books, in honor of his late wife’s commitment to literacy.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Robert Birsel and Tom Hogue)

Putin says Russia will retaliate if U.S. quits nuclear missile treaty: agencies

Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with top officials of the Russian Defence Ministry in Sochi, Russia November 19, 2018. Picture taken November 19, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday the Kremlin would retaliate if the United States withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, Russian news agencies reported.

Putin discussed possible Russian retaliation with top Russian Defence Ministry officials and added that the Kremlin was ready to discuss the INF treaty with Washington.

The Cold War-era treaty, which rid Europe of land-based nuclear missiles, has come into question against a backdrop of renewed tensions between the West and Russia, most notably over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and role in eastern Ukraine.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has accused Russia of non-compliance with the 31-year-old missile accord and warned it will pull out of the deal as a result. The Kremlin denies violating the pact.

NATO and Russian envoy addressed the dispute during rare talks on Oct. 31, with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urging Moscow to make quick changes to comply in full with the treaty. He said Russia’s development of the land-based, intermediate-range SSC-8 cruise missile posed “a serious risk to strategic stability”.

European leaders worry any collapse of the INF treaty could lead to a new, destabilizing arms race.

(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Russia, U.S. clash over INF arms treaty at United Nations

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Ronald Reagan (R) and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty at the White House, Washington, on December 8 1987. REUTERS/Stringer

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Russia failed on Friday to get the U.N. General Assembly to consider calling on Washington and Moscow to preserve and strengthen an arms control treaty that helped end the Cold War and warned that if the United States quits the pact it could raise the issue in the U.N. Security Council.

President Donald Trump said on Oct. 20 that Washington planned to quit the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty which Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, and Ronald Reagan had signed in 1987. It eliminated all short- and intermediate-range land-based nuclear and conventional missiles held by both states in Europe.

Washington has cited Russia’s alleged violation of the treaty as its reason for leaving it, a charge Moscow denies. Russia, in turn, accuses Washington of breaking the pact.

Russia had proposed a draft resolution in the 193-member General Assembly’s disarmament committee but missed the Oct. 18 submission deadline. On Friday, it called for a vote on whether the committee should be allowed to consider the draft, but lost with only 31 votes in favor, 55 against and 54 abstentions.

“In a year, if the U.S. withdraws from the treaty and begins an uncontrolled build-up of weapons, nuclear-capable weapons, we will be confronting a completely different reality,” Andrei Belousov, deputy director of Russia’s Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control, told the committee.

He questioned whether the United States was preparing for a war, asking: “Why is it then … do they want to leave the treaty? Why do they want to build up their nuclear capability?”

Belousov said if the United States follows through on its threat to withdraw, then Russia could raise the issue in the 15-member Security Council. However, such a move would not lead to any action as both countries have veto powers in the council.

U.S. Disarmament Ambassador Robert Wood told the committee Washington had spent some five years trying to engage Moscow on the issue of compliance and that Russia had “denied having produced or tested a ground-launch cruise missile.”

“It’s only recently that they admitted to having produced a ground-launch cruise missile but then maintained that it did not violate the range limits of the treaty,” he said.

“The U.S. has been extremely patient with Russia and our hope is that Russia will do the right thing and destroy that ground-launch cruise missile,” Wood said.

European members of NATO urged the United States on Thursday to try to bring Russia back into compliance with the treaty rather than quit it, diplomats said, seeking to avoid a split in the alliance that Moscow could exploit.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by James Dalgleish)

As winter comes, NATO kicks off largest maneuvers since Cold War

FILE PHOTO: U.S., German, Spanish and Polish troops of the NATO enhanced Forward Presence battle goups with their tanks get ready for the Iron Tomahawk exercise in Adazi, Latvia October 23, 2018. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

By Terje Solsvik

OSLO (Reuters) – Military forces from 31 countries began NATO’s largest exercise in decades, stretching from the Baltic Sea to Iceland, on Thursday, practicing military maneuvers close to Russia, which itself held a huge military drill last month.

As temperatures fell below freezing across training grounds in central Norway, giving a taste of what it means to defend NATO’s vast northern flank, some 50,000 troops, 250 aircraft and 10,000 tanks, trucks and other land-based vehicles were ready.

“Forces are in position, they are integrating and starting combat enhancement training for major battlefield operations over the next two weeks,” Colonel Eystein Kvarving at Norway’s Joint Headquarters told Reuters.

Dubbed Trident Juncture, the exercise is by far the biggest in Norway since the early 1980s, a sign that the alliance wants to sharpen its defenses after years of cost cuts and far-flung combat missions.

Increasingly concerned about Russia since it annexed Crimea in 2014, Norway has sought to double the number of U.S. Marines receiving training on its soil every year, a move criticized by Moscow.

Russia last month held its biggest maneuvers since 1981, called Vostok-2018 (East-2018), mobilizing 300,000 troops in a show of force close to China’s border which included joint drills with the Chinese and Mongolian armies.

NATO’s war games were originally meant to involve 35,000 troops, but the number grew in recent months and included the late addition of an aircraft carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman with some 6,000 personnel.

NATO fears Russia’s military build-up in the region could ultimately restrict naval forces’ ability to navigate freely, and on Oct. 19 the Truman became the first American aircraft carrier to enter the Arctic Circle since before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Although a solid majority of Norwegians support membership of NATO, whose secretary general is former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, some parties on the left would prefer that the country quit the alliance and form some type of military cooperation arrangement with its Nordic neighbors.

“The effect of this activity will increase the tension between Norway and Russia,” Socialist member of parliament Torgeir Knag Fylkesnes said of the exercise, adding that the presence of an aircraft carrier caused particular concern.

“You have to be quite hawkish to view this as something that brings peace in any way,” he told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Lefteris Karagiannopoulos; Editing by Gwladys Fouche; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

America’s dangerous nuclear headache: old plutonium with nowhere to go

The U.S. Energy Department's Savannah River Site, with the unfinished building which was meant to make plutonium safe but now may not be finished until 2048, is seen in this aerial image, taken near Aiken, South Carolina, U. S. January 31, 2018. High Flyer © 2018/Handout via REUTERS

By Scot J. Paltrow

AMARILLO, Texas (Reuters) – In a sprawling plant near Amarillo, Texas, rows of workers perform by hand one of the most dangerous jobs in American industry. Contract workers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pantex facility gingerly remove the plutonium cores from retired nuclear warheads.

Although many safety rules are in place, a slip of the hand could mean disaster.

In Energy Department facilities around the country, there are 54 metric tons of surplus plutonium. Pantex, the plant near Amarillo, holds so much plutonium that it has exceeded the 20,000 cores, called “pits,” regulations allow it to hold in its temporary storage facility. There are enough cores there to cause thousands of megatons of nuclear explosions. More are added each day.

The delicate, potentially deadly dismantling of nuclear warheads at Pantex, while little noticed, has grown increasingly urgent to keep the United States from exceeding a limit of 1,550 warheads permitted under a 2010 treaty with Russia. The United States wants to dismantle older warheads so that it can substitute some of them with newer, more lethal weapons. Russia, too, is building new, dangerous weapons.

The United States has a vast amount of deadly plutonium, which terrorists would love to get their hands on. Under another agreement, Washington and Moscow each are required to render unusable for weapons 34 metric tons of plutonium. The purpose is twofold: keep the material out of the hands of bad guys, and eliminate the possibility of the two countries themselves using it again for weapons. An Energy Department website says the two countries combined have 68 metric tons designated for destruction – enough to make 17,000 nuclear weapons. But the United States has no permanent plan for what to do with its share.

Plutonium must be made permanently inaccessible because it has a radioactive half-life of 24,000 years.

“A MUCH MORE DANGEROUS SITUATION”

Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group based in Washington, says solving the problem of plutonium storage is urgent. In an increasingly unstable world, with terrorism, heightened international tensions and non-nuclear countries coveting the bomb, he says, the risk is that this metal of mass annihilation will be used again. William Potter, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told Reuters: “We are in a much more dangerous situation today than we were in the Cold War.”

Washington has not even begun to take the steps needed to acquire additional space for burying plutonium more than 2,000 feet below ground – the depth considered safe. Much of America’s plutonium currently is stored in a building at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina – like Pantex, an Energy Department site. Savannah River used to house a reactor. Local opponents of the storage, such as Tom Clements, director of SRS Watch, contend the facility was never built for holding plutonium and say there is a risk of leakage and accidents in which large amounts of radioactivity are released.

The Energy Department has a small experimental storage site underground in New Mexico. The department controls the radioactive materials – plutonium, uranium and tritium – used in America’s nuclear weapons and in the reactors of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. In a Senate hearing in June 2017, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the Energy Department has been in talks with New Mexico officials to enlarge the site. Environmental groups there have strongly opposed expansion.

Under an agreement with Russia, the United States was to convert 34 metric tons of plutonium into fuel for civilian reactors that generate electricity. The fuel is known as MOX, for “mixed oxide fuel.” Plutonium and uranium are converted into chemical compounds called oxides, and mixed together in fuel rods for civilian nuclear power plants. The two metals are converted into oxides because these can’t cause nuclear explosions. But the U.S. effort has run into severe delays and cost overruns.

The alternative method is known as dilute-and-dispose. It involves blending plutonium with an inert material and storing it in casks. The casks, however, are projected to last only 50 years before beginning to leak, and so would need to be buried permanently deep underground.

THE MOX MESS

President Donald Trump has sided with the Energy Department in wanting to kill the MOX project because of the extreme cost overruns and delays. The Energy Department, beginning in the Obama administration, favored closing down the MOX project for the same reason, but Congress overruled it. The federal budget adopted in February, however, specifies a means for ending the project, if a study shows that dilute-and-dispose would be at least 50 percent cheaper than making MOX.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, the part of the Energy Department that oversees the nuclear sites and materials, favors switching to the dilute-and-dispose method. In recent testimony before a House of Representatives subcommittee, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the new NNSA administrator, said that method would “cost billions less” than completing the MOX plant.

Plutonium is a versatile nuclear bomb material. Terrorists would need only 11 kilograms or less to make a bomb, Lyman says.

Its ordinarily limited radioactivity makes plutonium safe for terrorists or other thieves to transport with little risk of radiation injury. It goes undetected by most sensors. It radiates alpha particles, relatively large on an atomic scale, which means the thin glass of a test tube, the leather of a briefcase, or even air or skin stop them. The danger from handling small amounts is inhaling plutonium dust. In that case, the dust spreads from the lungs throughout the body, causing multiple kinds of cancer.

The federal government now has no solution in sight to dispose of the plutonium permanently. Its one effort to make it unusable for bombs has turned into what the White House and Energy Department say is a costly failure. The MOX project, at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina, has been kept on life support by Congress thanks to the influence of South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and other lawmakers. The MOX plant employs about 2,000 people in Graham’s state.

Graham and other Congressional backers say MOX is the best way to keep plutonium out of the hands of terrorists. They note too that the pact with Russia requires the United States to use MOX as the method for disposal.

A spokeswoman for Graham declined to comment on his behalf but sent a link to a YouTube video of a Senate hearing in March. In the hearing, Graham, referring to steps already taken to limit work on the MOX plant, said: “What I think we’ve done is ended the biggest non-proliferation program in the world, and I’m going to try and fix that.”

Today’s plutonium glut mainly is a legacy of the Cold War. The quantities now seem surreal. By 1967 the U.S. nuclear arsenal reached its apex, with 37,000 warheads. The Soviet Union’s peak came in the 1970s, with approximately 45,000. These were enough to destroy life on Earth thousands of times over.

A RADIOACTIVE PEACE DIVIDEND

Amid the terror and aggressiveness then of government and military leaders on both sides, little or no thought was given what to do with the warheads should the risk of mass annihilation ebb.

Daniel Ellsberg, best known for leaking in 1971 the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam war, in the early 1960s was an adviser to the Air Force and White House on nuclear policy. He recently published a book detailing and criticizing the nuclear policy debates and decisions of that era. In a phone interview, he said disposal of weapons was never considered at the time.

“I don’t think one person gave one moment of thought to that,” Ellsberg said. “No one thought that the Cold War would end.”

Treaties that dramatically reduced U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals were signed soon after the Soviet Union fell. It was then that the magnitude of the problem – disposing of the surplus plutonium – dawned on the two countries.

Scientists proffered ideas, nearly all involving making the plutonium forbiddingly dangerous for malefactors to transport and burying it deep underground.

Instead, under a 2000 treaty, the United States agreed to transform the 34 metric tons of plutonium into MOX, unusable for bombs. Russia agreed to destroy the same quantity using a special type of reactor. But the United States had never before built a MOX plant. No U.S. civilian reactor had ever used MOX as fuel.

This misplaced optimism led to one of the costliest snafus ever in U.S. government construction. Work began in 2007 to build a MOX plant that was to be operational by November 2016. The Energy Department now estimates that, if allowed to proceed, it will not be finished until 2048. In 2007 the Energy Department said the total cost would be $4.8 billion. Now it estimates the cost at more than $17 billion.

Building of the plant began when detailed designs were between 20 percent and 40 percent complete. But once initial construction finished, the contractor, under instructions from the Energy Department, breezed ahead without architectural plans.

Reports from the Union of Concerned Scientists said rooms were built for laboratories and offices where none were needed. Ventilation ducts and electrical wiring were in the wrong places. Plumbing was a maze of misplaced pipes. The contractor later had to rip out much of its work and start over.

The contractor is a consortium of companies I Areva MOX Services. It includes CB&I (formerly Chicago Bridge and Iron), based in the Netherlands, and Areva, which specializes in nuclear-related and alternative power projects, majority owned by the French government.

GIVING IT AWAY

In an e-mailed statement to Reuters, the consortium said it expects to finish the facility. It said “the project is over 70 percent physically complete.”

But Gordon-Hagerty, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s new chief, testified in March before a House Appropriations Subcommittee that it is “nowhere near” 50% complete. Government Accountability Office reports criticized the Energy Department for awarding a “cost plus” contract, which guarantees a profit regardless of how much work is done.

In an emailed response to questions for this article, Lindsey Geisler, a spokesperson for the NNSA, said that in 2011, after the contract had been awarded, “NNSA recognized the need to institute project management reforms.” She said the NNSA established a new office to better oversee contracting and acquisition, and that practices have improved significantly.

Echoing other critics, Frank von Hippel, a Princeton University professor who researches nuclear arms control and policymaking, said weak oversight continues. “The problem at DOE is that the quality of managers, with some exceptions, is quite low,” he said. “Contractors just milk them for money.”

An Energy Department panel reported in 2016 that there is no US market for MOX. To use MOX fuel rods, civilian power plants would have to modify their reactors, requiring lengthy relicensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The report said the best the Energy Department could hope for was to give the stuff away.

(Edited by Michael Williams)

Daughter of poisoned Russian spy declines embassy help: statement

An undated photograph shows Yulia Skripal, daughter of former Russian Spy Sergei Skripal, taken from Yulia Skripal's Facebook account in London, Britain, April 6, 2018. Yulia Skripal/Facebook via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) – Yulia Skripal, who was poisoned in Britain last month along with her father, a former Russian spy, said on Wednesday she did not wish to take up the offer of services from the Russian Embassy in London.

In a statement issued on her behalf by British police, Skripal said her father, Sergei, remained seriously ill and she was still suffering from the effects of nerve gas used against them in an attack that led to one of the biggest crises in Britain’s relations with Moscow since the Cold War.

“I have access to friends and family, and I have been made aware of my specific contacts at the Russian Embassy who have kindly offered me their assistance in any way they can,” Yulia Skripal said.

“At the moment I do not wish to avail myself of their services, but, if I change my mind I know how to contact them.”

The Russian Embassy in London has previously said it had not been granted consular access to the 33 year-old woman.

Following Yulia Skripal’s statement, the embassy said: “We continue to insist on a meeting with Yulia and Sergei Skripal. The situation around them looks more and more like a forceful detention or imprisonment.”

Yulia Skripal was discharged from a hospital in the English city of Salisbury on Monday, where, she said, she was treated ” with obvious clinical expertise and with such kindness”.

Skripal said she was not yet strong enough to give a media interview and she said comments made by her cousin to Russian media were not her’s nor those of her father.

“I thank my cousin Viktoria for her concern for us, but ask that she does not visit me or try to contact me for the time being,” the statement quoted her as saying.

The Skripals were in a critical condition for weeks after the March 4 attack before their health improved.

Sergei Skripal, who was recruited by Britain’s MI6, was arrested for treason in Moscow in 2004. He ended up in Britain after being swapped in 2010 for Russian spies caught in the United States.

Britain accused Russia of being behind the nerve agent attack and Western governments including the United States expelled more than 100 Russian diplomats. Russia has denied any involvement in the poisoning and retaliated in kind.

(Writing by William Schomberg; Editing by Angus MacSwan)