The United States and Bulgaria have struck a deal for the destruction, with U.S. financing, of Bulgaria's arsenal of Soviet-era ballistic missiles. The State Department hailed the security implications of the deal signed in Sofia, but says it does not assure Bulgaria membership in an expanded NATO.
The multi-million-dollar U.S.-Bulgarian project is not unlike those of the long-running Nunn-Lugar program, under which the United States has helped Russia dispose of hundreds of Soviet-era strategic weapons.
Under the agreement, the United States will pay for the scrapping of more than 100 medium and short-range SS-23, Scud and FROG missiles that have been warehoused in Bulgaria for many years, and which weapons experts believe posed a growing safety and environmental threat.
The most potent of the weapons involved are the SS-23s, a medium range missile, of which those held by Bulgaria are the last of the type known to exist.
At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher lauded Bulgaria for agreeing to scrap the weapons, which he said were a destabilizing factor in the region.
He called the agreement a significant step forward for Bulgaria in its strategic goal of joining Western security and economic structures. But under questioning, he said it does not necessarily assure Bulgaria membership in NATO when the alliance expands again later this year.
"It's obviously a worthwhile contribution to security in the area. But it's neither a requirement for, nor a guaranteed ticket for accession to NATO," he said. "I would say it generally strengthens its candidacy by showing concern about security in the region. But I made very clear that we've not made any determinations on any particular country as far as membership in NATO goes. NATO's heads of government make that decision collectively in November in Prague."
NATO, which added Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to its ranks in 1999, is expected to endorse what is described here as a "robust" expansion in November, though Bush administration officials have not been specific about which of the nine candidate countries they support.
The dismantling of the Bulgarian missiles is expected to be completed by November. State Department officials had no estimate of the eventual cost, saying that depends on a number of factors including the condition of the weapons, most of which are decades-old.