WASHINGTON, September 9 (RIA Novosti) – As the United States and Russia lock horns over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the former Cold War foes are still wrestling with the remnants of their own massive chemical stockpiles that they have been working to eliminate for two decades.
“They are terribly expensive to maintain and provide good security for,” Paul Walker, a former US Congressional staffer and nonproliferation expert who has inspected US and Russian chemical weapons storage facilities, told RIA Novosti on Monday.
Both the United States and Russia still possess thousands of tons of chemical weapons that they are in the process of destroying, a process that has proven more expensive and technically difficult than officials originally envisioned.
The United States has destroyed 90 percent of its declared Cold War-era stockpiles, though it still has some 2,600 tons (2,359 metric tons) of deadly mustard agent at a Colorado storage facility and 523 tons (474 metric tons) of blister and nerve agents at a Kentucky facility that the Pentagon says are slated for destruction by 2019 and 2023.
Russia, meanwhile, has destroyed more than 76 percent of the some 40,000 metric tons of chemical agents it says it inherited from the Soviet military and is on pace for total elimination by 2016, Valery Kapashin, head of Russia’s federal department for storing and destroying chemical weapons, told reporters in Moscow on Monday, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.
Kapashin’s comments came as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed on Monday that Syria’s chemical weapons be placed under international control in order to prevent a possible US military strike on Syrian targets in response to an apparent Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus that Washington claims was carried out by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Lavrov’s proposal came shortly after US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in London that Assad could stop a US attack by turning over “every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.”
US President Barack Obama and his administration are pushing for military action against Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack, while Russia has repeatedly rejected outside interference in the Syrian civil war without approval from the UN Security Council, where Moscow has veto power.
Officials in both Washington and Moscow have condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But Russia has said it is not convinced Assad is responsible for their use and has suggested Syrian rebel forces could have used chemical weapons to frame the Assad government in order to generate foreign military support for their revolt.
The United States and Russia continue to hold by far the largest stated stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world, and unlike Syria, both are signatories to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws production of these agents and mandates their elimination by member states.
Moscow and Washington amassed significant reserves of chemical and biological weapons during the Cold War, but in the late 1970s “both recognized that they had very little military utility and that they didn’t want to use them anymore,” said Walker, director of environmental security and sustainability with Green Cross, an environmental organization founded by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
“They were unpredictable, old and leaky,” said Walker, who was part of the first US delegation to visit a Russian chemical weapons storage facility in 1994, four years after the United States began unilaterally destroying its own stockpiles.
The fall of the Soviet Union and ensuing political and economic chaos in Russia impeded Moscow’s efforts to deal with its own stockpiles. But Russia subsequently secured assistance from the West and opened its first destruction facility in the Saratov region in 2002.
Both countries have found that the elimination of these stockpiles is “very complicated and very dangerous” from a technological standpoint, Walker said, and neither met the 2012 deadline to complete the destruction of their reserves.
Disposing of chemical weapons is not cheap, either.
“Just to give you an idea, the US has already spent $25 billion to $26 billion to destroy 90 percent of their stockpiles, and they plan to spend $6 billion to $7 billion more,” Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said in July.
The cost for the US program has been “much higher than anyone had ever projected,” Walker said.
Miguel Monteverde, a spokesman for the US Army’s Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, which is tasked with destroying some of the US stockpiles, told The Anniston Star that the design of the weapons made them problematic to destroy by either incinerating or neutralizing them using other chemical agents.
“They were never designed to be disassembled,” the Alabama newspaper cited Monteverde as saying Sunday. “It was always thought, at the time of their manufacture, that they were designed to be used.”