WASHINGTON– For the past 16 years, the United States has worked with leadership in Eurasian countries to reduce the numbers of weapons of mass destruction left behind in former Soviet-bloc states after the Iron Curtain fell, an achievement made possible in part by America’s cadre of skilled foreign linguists, the director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency said in an interview here.

“It takes a very special person, in my mind, who can speak Russian, who’s willing to live in Kazakhstan for two years and who’s willing to build rapport with the community to make the ‘cooperative’ part of ‘cooperative threat reduction’ work,” James Tegnelia said.

Since 1992, the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, also called the Nunn-Lugar Program after the two U.S. senators behind the initiative, drastically cut the number of leftover weapons, dismantling more than 2,000 intercontinental missiles, eliminating 1,000 missile launchers and deactivating 7,000 nuclear warheads in former Soviet Union states.

U.S. Sens. Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar launched the program amid rising fears that rogue regimes or terrorists sought the remaining stockpiles.

“Maintaining an effective set of threat-reduction activities in former Soviet Union states remains a priority for the United States,” according to the DTRA Web site. “These activities are designed to address the proliferation threat stemming from large quantities of Soviet-legacy [weapons of mass destruction] and missile-related expertise and materials remaining in [former Soviet Union] states.”

Top graduates from an intensive Russian language and culture course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., may qualify for employment at DTRA. These practitioners work with their Russian counterparts in overseeing weapons facilities inspections. They act as interpreters and escorts, and often provide useful insights into the lay of the land, Tegnelia said.

“These people not only speak the language, they understand the culture, and they’re expected to have read Russian novels and understand something about the Russian history, and know when you’re making a social mistake to not cause those kind of problems,” he said. “It’s one thing to get a computer to translate your language, but it’s another thing to know that you’re saying the right thing and that you’re not being culturally insensitive.”

Under the Nunn-Lugar rubric, the United States and Russia together compelled Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to eliminate all nuclear weapons from their territories, and in all, the program has disabled more nuclear weapons than exist in the combined arsenals of the United Kingdom, France and China.

Tegnelia credited the language institute for maintaining its high level of Russian proficiency, even as the number of missile silos, warheads and nuclear bombers in those countries has gone down.

“It would have been very easy to let that atrophy,” he said. “But they maintain it; my sense is we’re going to need it. They’ve been a very steady hand at the wheel.”

The DTRA director said the agency has considered the necessity of expanding programs like the accelerated Russian language training to include other parts of the world, such as Central Asia and sections of U.S. Central Command’s area of operations.

Tegnelia said the linguists fulfilling these vital on-site rolls often are young, intrepid, recent post-baccalaureate graduates.

“They’ve lived in the culture they’ve tried to learn,” he said. “They come back with some real-world experience. They can live in different cultures, they speak different languages, they have a background that not a lot of people have. And oh, by the way, there’s not a lot you’re going to do in Siberia in the middle of winter, so you end up with some money to pay off your student loans. It’s a win-win.”

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