West to fund decommissioning of nuclear stockpile from Soviet era


President Vladimir Putin emerged as the biggest winner at the G8 summit yesterday when the leading Western industrial powers agreed to spend $20 billion over the next 10 years on decommissioning weapons of mass destruction in the territories of the former Soviet Union.

After his success in getting Russia accepted as a full member of the "rich men's club" on Wednesday, Mr Putin was given promises of financial aid to help Moscow to deal with the 30,000 nuclear weapons and the stocks of enriched uranium and plutonium which it inherited when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991.

The plan was strongly backed by the Bush administration, which is putting up half the money, but it was also supported by Europe and Japan as part of the G8's attempt to curb global terrorism.

G8 sources said that Western military commanders were worried that leaky security at Russian atomic sites made them vulnerable to attacks by al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

Mr Putin was reported to be delighted with the deal, which is seen by the Kremlin as recognition of Russia's economic recovery and its growing political importance.

Moscow's growing confidence was illustrated when Mr Putin's spokesman strongly condemned President Bush's call for Mr Yasser Arafat to be removed as President of the Palestinian Authority, saying that the G8 would have to "work with the leadership in place".

Announcing that Russia would host its summit for the first time in 2006, a statement issued by the G8 said: "The world is changing. Russia has demonstrated its potential to play a full and meaningful role in addressing the global problems that we face."

The Italian Prime Minister, Mr Silvio Berlusconi, commented: "The question of arsenals that could fall into the hands of evil-minded states interests all mankind."

Last year, a US task force said that the insecure Russian nuclear weapons, materials and scientific knowledge were "the most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States".

Experts have suggested that the G8 plan may focus on decommissioning some of the older Soviet-era nuclear power stations and on the building of a mixed-oxide plant which would convert weapons-grade plutonium into a fuel suitable for use in civilian nuclear reactors.

American officials said that the US had agreed to provide half of the $20 billion provided that its summit partners found the other half.

Negotiations dragged on throughout Wednesday night and yesterday morning, but sources said that there was no dispute about the size of the fund, only about technical aspects of spending the money and running the programme.