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Russia Moves Slow on Computer Bug

September 15, 1998

MOSCOW (AP) _ Russia has the world’s second largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and perhaps a dozen decaying nuclear reactors. No one appears to know what will happen when the clocks on aging Soviet-era computers that control them click over from 1999 to 2000.

Despite the possible dangers, Russia has been dragging its feet in confronting the so-called millennium bug.

``Compared with other countries, I must say we are behind,″ said Alexander Krupnov, chairman of Russia’s Central Telecommunications Commission, which has just been assigned to work on the computer problem that many countries began tackling several years ago.

Even Krupnov isn’t quite sure how much of a danger Russia faces, or where it’s going to get the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to fix critical systems.

Consumed by pressing day-to-day problems and grappling with economic crisis, Russia’s government has paid scant attention to potential failures in computers and embedded circuits that could now be fewer than 500 days away.

The millennium bug threatens all computer software and chips that, to save programming space, use just the last two digits to designate a year. When 2000 arrives, many computers won’t know if it’s 2000 or 1900, which could cause them to go haywire.

Analysts say Russia’s most vulnerable systems are in its aging nuclear plants and defense systems. Information about those computers is secret, and predictions about whether failures can be expected are varied and probably unreliable.

One thing is clear. The people who oversee these sectors don’t seem concerned.

A Defense Ministry spokesman, who refused to give his name, said he knew about the millennium bug. As for the ministry’s efforts, he gave a Soviet-style response: ``We’re working on it, but I can’t give you the details.″

In June, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre told a congressional hearing in Washington that he was concerned Russia had no program for determining whether its ``fragile″ nuclear missile early warning system might be crippled by the bug.

Igor Sergeyev, Russia’s defense minister, was asked about the issue during a news conference in August. His answer was nothing short of confusing.

``This problem mostly affects sectors where they use conventional computer technologies. There is no such danger, since in the Strategic Missile Forces we use special technologies,″ he said, without offering details.

An errant missile launch against the United States brought on by a computer clock failure would be highly improbable because Russia’s nuclear weapons can’t be unleashed by machines alone. But computer snags could gum up related systems, such as radar and telecommunications networks, said Ron Piasecki, an American consultant who has worked extensively with the U.S. government on the millennium bug.

Warning systems at nuclear power plants could also be affected, Piasecki said. Yet that possibility doesn’t seem to bother Russian nuclear officials.

``We’re taking measures, but we’re going to deal with the problem when we get to the year 2000,″ said Vladislav Petrov, a spokesman for Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry.

Despite such nonchalance, increased pressure from the West is beginning to show results.

In July, the Central Telecommunications Commission released guidelines to help government departments prepare. And then-Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko discussed it during a visit by Vice President Al Gore in July.

Still, for a country with so many sensitive computer systems, Russia has no systematic plan of attack. The commission’s checklist, for example, primarily helps government agencies understand how vulnerable they are. It doesn’t tell them what to do about it.

Russian businesses also seem to be moving slowly.

In a survey of 50 Russian companies by the international consulting firm Coopers and Lybrand, only a third said they were even aware of the problem.

Some Russians believe the nation’s financial and banking systems are better off than those in the West because the Russian computers are more up-to-date than many of those running Western exchanges.

As a whole, Russia’s economic woes mean it hasn’t had the cash to become as technology-dependent as some Western countries.

``Businessmen don’t know about it,″ said Alexander Grek, a columnist for Expert magazine, who says hardly any Russian journalists have written about it. ``But the problem is much less serious here than for Western countries because Russia is not as strongly computerized.″

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