Russia's defence ministry on Friday reportedly said it will cease cooperating with the US on preparations for possible year 2000 computer problems -- apparently in a show of protest over NATO's military intervention in Kosovo, Yugoslavia.
Government officials in Russia and the US would not confirm the reports, published last week by a variety of media outlets.
The two countries have been developing a proposal to station officials at each other's nuclear facilities during the months before and after January 1, with the goal of preventing any false alarms if a software problem in an early warning system indicates that a nuclear strike has been launched. The countries are also involved in a joint effort to make computers year 2000-compliant at several Soviet-designed nuclear power plants located throughout Eastern Europe.
In a statement Friday, the chairman of a government committee examining the year 2000 issue called Russia's reported action, "a short sighted and dangerous thing to do".
"It doesn't mean something bad is going to happen. But it means that our chances of preventing something bad from happening just went down," said Senator Robert Bennett, the Utah Republican who is chairman of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem.
The year 2000 problem is occurring because older software code was written with a two-digit date field that might interpret the "00" in 2000 as "1900" and therefore could fail to make correct calculations.
US officials have frequently cited concerns regarding lack of preparedness in Russia, as well as worries that the computer problem will trigger a false alarm indicating a nuclear attack is underway. The Senate committee, along with several other US government offices contacted this week including the Pentagon and the State Department, said they haven't received any official notification of Russia's actions. A spokesman at the National Security Council declined to comment.
An official with Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs also could not confirm or deny that his country had changed its cooperation plans with the US, but did say that he found the situation highly unlikely.
"I haven't seen a declaration that our government has the intention of interrupting our cooperation in this domain," said the official, who asked not to be named.
"I think that the development of year-2000 cooperation may (ultimately) depend on the situation with the Kosovo crisis, but for the moment any disruption of our cooperation in this area would not be constructive," the official added.
US officials also said Western involvement in Kosovo could contribute to problems in the countries joint efforts to prepare for 2000.
"We have to tread lightly because of US-Russian differences over Kosovo, but when the dust settles we'll do our best to resume the Y2K effort," a spokesman with the Senate's year 2000 committee said.
In related news, the US's Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it will begin an inspection next Thursday of the US's 103 operating nuclear power plants to ensure the facilities won't run into year 2000-related problems on January 1 and beyond.