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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 20, November 1997

Controversy Over Russia Supercomputer Purchase

On 27 October, the New York Times reported that Russia had purchased 16 supercomputers from a US company, IBM, even though the US Government had refused to grant a license for their export. The Times article reported that the destination of the computers was a weapons laboratory in the 'closed city' of Arzamas-16. The article further stated that the matter was now under investigation by a federal grand jury. The report was corroborated by State Department spokesperson James Rubin (27 October): "There's no question that the Russians have computers, and we believe they are computers that they specifically requested a license for that we turned down. And we believe they are at locations precisely where we did not want them to be. And that is why we consider this a very serious matter." Rubin elaborated:

"In 1996, US companies sought Department of Commerce licenses to export high-performance computers to...weapons labs in Russia. The application said the computers were [to be used] in ground water modelling and simulation... We did not approve these requests because of the risk of diversion to nuclear weapons programmes at these facilities... Assisting Russia to maintain the reliability of its nuclear weapons is contrary to US policy."

According to Rubin, failure to resolve the dispute could have serious consequences: "Russian refusal to cooperate in finding a mutual acceptable solution would jeopardize US-Russian cooperation and would result in tightening US export controls vis-a-vis Russia." Rubin said that Russia might be permitted to keep the computers if it could be shown that their use was non-military. "That, he said, "would be a horse of a different colour."

On 27 October, Russian Atomic Energy Ministry (MinAtom) spokesperson Georgy Kaurov observed: "The equipment was bought through the usual channels without breaching any US export controls... The Ministry is fed up of having to comment on this because there is really nothing to talk about..." Kaurov added pointedly: "[The] Americans aren't ready for normal cooperation with Russia in conditions set by the nuclear test ban treaty..." Responding to this suggestion, Rubin remarked (27 October): "[A]t no time during the negotiations on the comprehensive test ban or subsequently did we ever make a statement that could be fairly construed as indicating a US commitment to provide access to these kind of computers... What we did do is make clear to the Russians that we were prepared to engage in extensive scientific exchange and that we were prepared to have those exchanges be at the unclassified level."

A spokesperson for IBM, Fred McNeese, said (27 October) that the company was cooperating with US investigations and had tried to recall the computers. When the "overseas reseller refused to cooperate," McNeese said, "we terminated our relationship."

Reports: Report - IBM probed for Russia sales, Associated Press, 27 October; Computer sale to Russia questioned, Associated Press, 27 October; US probing Russian purchase of supercomputers, Reuters, 27 October; State Department briefing, 27 October; Russia - computer buy not illegal, Associated Press, 28 October; Russia insists secret computers legal, United Press International, 28 October; Moscow says it bought US supercomputers legally, Reuters, 29 October.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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