SIXTEEN months ago, US officials spoke optimistically about the chances of imposing order on the former Soviet Union's nuclear establishment. Boris Yeltsin was firmly entrenched in power; the withdrawal of tactical weapons from the republics was going well; there was a plan to keep scientists employed in Moscow and Kiev, and Russia looked set to become master of the fallen empire's nuclear complex.
Now, President Yeltsin is fighting for political survival, Ukraine is still not committed to disarmament and an dollars 800m (pounds 560m) US programme to help Russia employ scientists and dismantle its nuclear arsenal has slowed to a crawl, hampered by US bureaucracy, Russian paranoia, corruption and the failure of experts from each side to understand the way the other side works.
The US Congress has authorised more than half of the dollars 800m but only about dollars 25m has been spent. Construction of an underground bunker to store dismantled warheads is under way, but even that has suffered from squabbling between the Russians and Americans. Most of the programmes for dismantling the world's largest nuclear arsenal and keeping arms experts from looking for work in countries like Iraq remain on the drawing board.
'The biggest problem has been Russian inefficiency and lack of direction. They never got plans together in such a way as to convince people in the US to release the money,' said Colonel Andrew Duncan of the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
The Russians have no experience in constructing US-style government balance sheets - a prerequisite for the Americans to make sure money is not being wasted - but experts in Moscow have been trying without success to crack the mysteries of the US defence procurement system. 'There are indications that the Russians did not know who to deal with,' said Jack Mendelsohn, the deputy director of Arms Control Association in Washington.
The whole exercise has been complicated by the US Congress, which did not authorise any new money but ordered the Pentagon to take funds from existing programmes, setting off bureaucratic in-fighting for control. The Russians, suspicious of Western motives, have been cagey about how many of the former Soviet Union's estimated 30,000 nuclear weapons are involved. 'There is a fair amount of blame all around,' said David Kay, director of the Uranium Institute in London.
According to Mr Kay, the best example of what can go wrong in terms of the effectiveness of Western assistance and Russian intransigence are illustrated by the fate of the International Science and Technology Centres in Moscow and Kiev. Designed to staunch any flow of former Soviet nuclear scientists to 'suspect regimes', the centres have been allocated millions of dollars by the US, the European Community and Japan, but they cannot touch any of it: hardliners in Russia's congress, convinced the West wants to steal military secrets, will not authorise their operation.
Many Russian scientists are also suspicious, believing that the West is trying to buy the best Soviet scientific talent at bargain-basement prices. Peter Dragadze, the head of a Russian marketing agency, said attempts by US companies to hire Russian researchers for as little as dollars 25 per month 'were thought to be not only offensive but also impractical'.
Meanwhile, said Mr Kay, the centres, which despite the setbacks are moving slowly ahead, appear to have slipped off the US political agenda.