The crisis in Ukraine probably has ruined prospects for another formal Russian-U.S. arms control agreement during the Obama administration’s second term. Even before the crisis over Crimea, Russian and U.S. negotiators differed sharply on their preferred outcomes for reducing their strategic nuclear forces further, eliminating or consolidating nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe, constraining national and theater strategic defenses, or renewing conventional arms limitations in Europe.
For countering nuclear weapons proliferation to states and to nonstate actors, the prospects are somewhat better, given mutual Russian and U.S. concerns in that area. The two countries continue to cooperate to constrain the nuclear weapons potential of Iran and North Korea, although even their combined influence in Tehran and Pyongyang is small. Given the historically pre-eminent roles of Russia and the United States in supplying global nuclear materials and technologies and their large stockpiles of nuclear materials and weapons, their nonproliferation collaboration is perhaps even more important for denying terrorists access to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), especially nuclear weapons.
Even after Moscow’s illegal actions in Ukraine, joint efforts to counter WMD proliferation continue. Russia and the United States are cooperating to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities, recently signed the protocol to the treaty that established a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Central Asia, collaborated at the nuclear security summit in The Hague this March, and are leading international efforts to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. This type of Russian-U.S. cooperation in spite of tensions is not new. For example, bilateral nonproliferation cooperation continued largely uninterrupted after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war led to the suspension of many other Russian-U.S. security programs.
Russian-U.S. efforts to counter WMD proliferation have changed form and focus over the past two decades. This transformation will need to continue. Last year, Russia and the United States declined to renew their Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) umbrella agreement, which provided a legal foundation for negotiating specific joint projects for eliminating or reducing WMD-related threats in Russia. Combined with bilateral tensions over Ukraine and other issues, the new post-CTR arrangement poses challenges. For example, it remains unclear whether the Russian government will prove willing and able to maintain all U.S.-funded security upgrades at Russian WMD sites. In addition, the inclination of the U.S. Congress to send money to Russia clearly has waned.
Yet, limited Russian-U.S. threat reduction collaboration should still yield net nonproliferation benefits to both parties. Moscow would need to refrain from further aggression and show a greater willingness to cooperate with Washington. Even under these conditions, future Russian-U.S. nonproliferation cooperation will likely involve a smaller number of projects with shorter timelines, a narrower focus, reduced U.S. funding, and more congressional waiver requirements. Yet, Russian-U.S. efforts of whatever scope can help manage WMD challenges that have become more complex and more global.
Building on Fundamentals
In November 1991, Congress passed the Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act, which was drafted by Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). The great insight of the Nunn-Lugar approach is that countries can enhance their mutual security by cooperating to eliminate mutual WMD threats.
The legislation aimed to address the collective global danger that the large WMD arsenals inherited by the former Soviet republics could become more vulnerable to accidental or unauthorized use with the demise of the Soviet Union’s strict WMD command-and-control complexes. The CTR process has primarily supported joint projects to eliminate, reduce, or store more securely nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons in the former Soviet Union as well as materials, components, technologies, sensitive information, and delivery systems for these weapons.
The CTR process has been one of the most successful examples of peacetime security collaboration between major military powers, let alone former global adversaries. Among their many achievements, the CTR programs helped eliminate all nuclear weapons and strategic delivery systems inherited by Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, as well as many of the former Soviet systems in Russia, after the breakup of the Soviet Union. They have strengthened the security and safety of Russian and other former Soviet nonconventional weapons and related material during storage and transportation. In addition, the CTR process has consolidated and improved monitoring of WMD agents, impeded the trafficking of nonconventional weapons and their components, and kept former Soviet weapons scientists off the streets of Tehran and Pyongyang. Furthermore, Russia and the United States have collaborated to return to Russia the spent highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel produced in Soviet-provided reactors and have supported programs to convert such reactors from using HEU to using low-enriched uranium (LEU), which is less proliferation prone.
Two decades after the CTR program’s launch, even its founders recognized that when the CTR umbrella agreement expired, the process needed a major overhaul, given the changing conditions in Russia and elsewhere. Thanks to the CTR program, most of Russia’s Soviet-era WMD assets have been eliminated or made more secure. In addition, the Russian government has increased its own capacity to control and defend these assets, due in part to a remarkable economic recovery since the late 1990s. This recovery, however, has reinforced the nationalist inclinations of Russia’s current political leaders to end foreign-funded programs in Russia because of objections to an outdated donor-recipient model that grates on Russian nationalists. Meanwhile, the U.S. budget situation has worsened, requiring the United States to reassess its threat reduction priorities.
The impact of these new conditions became clear in the fall of 2012, when Russia informed the United States that, unlike in 1999 and 2006, Moscow would not renew the CTR program’s umbrella agreement. This document provides the legal foundation required for various Russian and U.S. agencies to negotiate specific CTR projects in Russia. The agencies then hire various contractors to implement these projects. The Russians stated that the current CTR framework was “not consistent with our ideas about what forms and on what basis further cooperation should be built.” Months of behind-the-scenes discussions followed, during which many projects were delayed or halted as program managers awaited the results.
On June 14, 2013, immediately prior to the expiration of the 2006 accord, Moscow and Washington signed a new bilateral protocol that placed U.S. CTR projects in Russia within the 2003 Framework Agreement on a Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Programme in the Russian Federation (MNEPR). The MNEPR has facilitated cooperation between Russia and other countries, primarily EU members, on radioactive waste management, spent nuclear fuel security, and reactor safety in Russia. The U.S. Department of State said that Russian-U.S. projects under the new MNEPR protocol might include improving nuclear and radiological material security and customs control, consolidating nuclear materials, converting excess HEU into LEU and research reactors to operate with LEU instead of HEU, and completing dismantlement of decommissioned Soviet nuclear-powered submarines.
Over the last year, CTR projects have been legally executed under the provisions of the MNEPR protocol and the specific implementation agreements negotiated between the various Russian and U.S. government agencies. Some of the latter agreements are still being drafted, resulting in further delays in some projects, especially those of the Russian State Corporation for Atomic Energy (Rosatom). In December 2013, the U.S. Department of Energy and Rosatom agreed to broaden cooperation between U.S. and Russian nuclear research laboratories and renew the program to return to Russia the spent research reactor fuel that came from Russian-origin HEU. (A similar program returns U.S.-provided HEU to the United States.) They also signed memorandums under the MNEPR “to support bilateral cooperation in nuclear and radiological material security, reactor conversion, combating the illicit trafficking of nuclear and radiological material, and other areas.” Before the crisis in Ukraine, U.S. officials believed that the new CTR arrangement could provide a legal basis for extensive Russian-U.S. nuclear cooperation, and they were considering launching new projects toward this end. Since the annexation of Crimea, no new bilateral CTR initiatives have been launched.
The arrangement signed last summer is narrower than the Nunn-Lugar version in terms of permitting U.S. CTR activities in Russia. Under its terms, the United States can continue some existing work related to nuclear security, such as securing and eliminating radiological sources and spent reactor fuel, converting nuclear reactors to use LEU rather than HEU, and enhancing customs and border security against nuclear trafficking, but the Russian Ministry of Defense will now assume exclusive financial and other responsibility for carrying out previously joint efforts to dismantle or secure its remaining Soviet-era strategic missiles and bombers. In addition, the new arrangement does not authorize U.S. involvement in projects to secure or eliminate Russia’s former Soviet chemical and biological weapons complexes. Continuing the recent trend of decreasing the presence of the Defense and State departments inside Russia, now reinforced by the crisis in Ukraine, the U.S. Energy Department, in partnership with the Russian Ministry of Energy, will likely lead most future CTR-related projects in Russia, with a reduced presence on the ground of U.S. government personnel and contractors to execute the projects. These changes have aroused concern in some arms control circles that the new Russian-U.S. CTR agreement has been “watered down to the point of being nearly unrecognizable.”
In practice, the changes are less radical than they seem. Most of Russia’s former Soviet strategic forces have been eliminated while its nuclear arsenal is shifting to a post-Soviet force of Russian-made weapons. U.S. Defense Department personnel continue to inspect Russian nuclear forces in accordance with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and other bilateral and multilateral arms control treaties. Russia’s progress in chemical weapons demilitarization, like that of the United States, continues to lag far behind initial plans, but Russia now has eliminated almost three-fourths of its declared Soviet stocks. In earlier years, the CTR process played a significant role in focusing Russian-U.S. attention on the dangers of WMD proliferation and terrorism. Now, however, mechanisms such as the nuclear security summits, UN Security Council activities under Resolution 1540, and public awareness projects run by various nongovernmental organizations such as the Nuclear Threat Initiative sustain this focus.
The exclusion of Russian biological weapons from future CTR-like programs would be a more grievous blow but for the little progress in this area due to severe Russian government limitations on U.S. access to former Soviet biological weapons sites. The Russian government may be conducting sensitive biological weapons research at these locations, at least for defensive purposes, that it does not want to advertise. Russian sensitivity regarding biological weapons has been evident in recurring allegations that the United States has been collaborating with Georgia under the CTR framework to construct a biological weapons facility in Tbilisi. For now, the international nongovernmental community has greater potential for promoting Russian-U.S. dialogue and collaboration in furthering Russia’s domestic biological disarmament processes, given the absence of a legal foundation for bilateral government projects in this area.
Meanwhile, the new CTR approach addresses several issues, such as liability, access, and other asymmetries, that had been a matter of concern for Moscow throughout the program. Under previous CTR framework agreements, the Russian government assumed all responsibility for possible accidents involving U.S.-funded projects, even if non-Russian personnel were responsible. That is no longer the case. Furthermore, Russian worries that Washington will acquire its military secrets or proprietary civilian technologies through CTR exchanges should decline. Unlike their bilateral arms control agreements, the CTR framework did not give Russian personnel the same access to U.S. WMD elimination programs and facilities as U.S. personnel had in Russia because the Russian government did not pay for the U.S.-based activities. Under the Putin presidency, Russian officials have become more vocal in rejecting what they characterize as unequal practices forced on Russia when it was weak. This new nationalism was manifested in the September 2012 expulsion of the U.S. Agency for International Development from Russia, the subsequent shake-up in Russia’s state-controlled media, the display of Russian pride at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and most recently the annexation of Crimea. The new nationalism will likely remain an impediment to U.S. threat reduction activities inside Russia, but not necessarily for joint projects in other countries.
Challenges and Opportunities
Even before the end of the Nunn-Lugar program, the U.S. Congress had been reducing funding for threat reduction projects involving Russia while increasing those for projects involving other countries. In addition, lawmakers directed that the Russian government assume more responsibility for funding and administering U.S.-provided nuclear security upgrades. To advance this transition while maintaining CTR sustainability, U.S. program managers have been trying to enhance Russia’s capacity to manage these projects with reduced U.S. funding and on-site support. For example, they have been encouraging the use of Russian-made technologies, training Russians to administer more project elements, and urging Russians to raise their nuclear security standards. Despite these efforts, it remains unclear whether the Russian government will prove willing and able to maintain security upgrades at Russian WMD sites that previously were sustained by U.S. and other foreign financing.
In theory, the Russian government’s assumption of greater responsibility for securing and eliminating its WMD assets is appropriate because Russia’s WMD holdings have become more secure, Russia has more funds available to support the projects, and Russian politicians have become more nationalistic and less willing to constrain their behavior in return for Western aid. In practice, doubts remain that Russian partners will fully compensate for reduced U.S. funding and other support. Russian officials insist that Moscow now possesses the resources and capabilities to ensure the security of its WMD assets. Yet, the main concern is that Russian officials will treat the enterprise as a lower priority than their U.S. counterparts, resulting in funding shortfalls, a more lax nuclear security culture, inadequate training or regulations, and other security vulnerabilities. Ensuring a successful nationalization of the CTR programs inside Russia and addressing these remaining vulnerabilities will be an important goal for the international community in coming years.
This transition primarily involves the “first line of defense” projects in Russia. Under its Material Protection, Control, and Accounting program, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration has upgraded the security at almost all Russian nuclear research, storage, and manufacturing facilities. In contrast, neither the demise of the Nunn-Lugar program nor the crisis in Ukraine will affect the “second line of defense” projects established around Russia to prevent illegal trafficking in Russian WMD materials by enhancing the security of borders and maritime shipping routes. The United States has negotiated separate arrangements with each country hosting these projects.
By relying more on Russian contractors to execute threat reduction projects, the new post-CTR framework could increase the support and the capacity of the Russian private sector to engage in Russian-U.S. threat reduction activities in Russia and elsewhere. The extensive use of non-Russian contractors at CTR sites had reinforced Russian perceptions that they had received few financial benefits from the Nunn-Lugar program. If the Russian government now funds Russian contractors to do threat reduction work, the economic benefits to Russians might become more perceptible, and Russian firms’ capabilities to engage in threat reduction projects will be enhanced.
Even with the new CTR arrangement, Moscow and Washington can keep repatriating vulnerable HEU stocks to Russia or the United States, converting research reactors from HEU use to LEU use, and enhancing the capacity of new partners and regions to interdict WMD-related items in transit, perhaps through their joint membership in the Proliferation Security Initiative. Russia helpfully continues to require its partners to return any Russian-provided reactor fuel to Russia.
In addition, the new post-CTR framework could provide a foundation for continuing and expanding other joint Russian-U.S. threat reduction activities, especially efforts to reduce proliferation dangers in other countries. Such cooperation would build on the recent extension of the U.S. threat reduction projects to dozens of additional countries. Although Russian and U.S. officials sometimes disagree on how best to prevent third countries from pursuing WMD development, they concur on the general need to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons to states and to nonstate actors.
The annexation of Crimea has depressed U.S. congressional support for more financial assistance to Russia, but any funding reduction could, at least in theory, make more resources available for addressing other nonproliferation priorities and regions. In some cases, the diverging security relations, capabilities, and approaches of Russia and the United States could make it easier for them to complement as well as supplement each other’s nonproliferation work. For example, Beijing would probably more easily accept Russian rather than U.S. involvement in projects enhancing nuclear materials security in Vietnam. Russians can engage Iran and North Korea in discussions of nuclear materials security issues more easily than Western countries can. Conversely, Washington can promote nuclear materials security and other nonproliferation programs more effectively than Russia can in Israel, Georgia, Ukraine, and some eastern European countries suspicious of Moscow’s motives. Depending on their relations with Russia or the United States, some governments will feel more comfortable dealing with Moscow or Washington, allowing for a beneficial division of labor.
In cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other partners, Russia and the United States should remain open to conducting further emergency efforts to secure vulnerable WMD materials. Their past collaboration in removing HEU from Serbia, Kazakhstan, and other countries has been very productive. If successful, their current cooperation in destroying Syria’s chemical weapons could encourage renewed efforts to eliminate other WMD threats in the Middle East, perhaps beginning with a campaign to secure Egypt’s and Israel’s full membership in the Chemical Weapons Convention as a possible step toward a chemical-weapons-free zone in the Middle East.
The Syrian case demonstrates the value of having readily available capabilities to secure and eliminate previously inaccessible WMD assets. Syria presented a sudden WMD elimination opportunity that the United States successfully exploited in partnership with Russia. Although Moscow was acting to protect its Syrian client, Russian mediation was essential for securing the chemical weapons destruction agreement between Damascus and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, backed by the UN Security Council. Similar opportunities might occur with regime changes or national emergencies elsewhere, such as the demise of North Korea’s dysfunctional Communist dynasty or a threatened terrorist seizure of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Russian and U.S. experts see the potential for enhancing their mutual capabilities in nuclear forensics and other tools to counter WMD terrorism.
Toward this end, Russia and the United States can collaborate to identify and develop new technologies and processes to address novel nuclear, chemical and biological threats, which continue to become more global and complex. For diverse reasons, more countries are actively considering pursuing civilian nuclear power programs, which can be misused for making nuclear weapons. New technologies, such as laser enrichment, also pose new proliferation challenges, even as Russia and the United States join with other countries to develop more proliferation-resistant civil nuclear processes. In partnership with the IAEA and through such mechanisms as the newly implemented Russian-U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation agreement and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, Russia and the United States can strengthen the safety and security of civilian nuclear energy technologies. Their joint nonproliferation assistance could encompass the growing number of nuclear security centers of excellence, where they can exchange best practices through national and regional training programs. The chemical and biological industries are also becoming more international and complex, with many new types of dual-use products and technologies, raising the specter of novel WMD terrorism challenges to both countries and their allies.
If the nuclear security summits end in 2016 as planned, Moscow and Washington will need to collaborate to create an effective follow-on structure to ensure that the IAEA and other institutions can carry on important nuclear materials security work in the absence of regular summits of national leaders. Given this contingency, the United States and its allies should reconsider proposals to exclude Russia permanently from the Group of Eight industrialized countries (G-8). For many issues, that institution has lost its elevated status of the 1980s and 1990s, when it was seen as a kind of great-power directorate for managing the world economy. For example, the Group of 20 has assumed many of its economic functions. Yet, the G-8 has retained important nonproliferation functions, including providing critical management support for the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction With the scaling back of the CTR umbrella arrangement, the Global Partnership looks to be the most important multilateral threat reduction framework in coming years.
Opportunities exist for nongovernmental initiatives to help sustain the Russian-U.S. threat reduction partnership. For example, at modest cost, the Nuclear Threat Initiative or other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) could sponsor pairs of Russian and U.S. scientists, drawn from their national laboratories and universities, to conduct joint WMD proliferation training and educational awareness activities in other countries, impressing their audiences with their teamwork despite their national differences. They could help compensate for Russia’s withdrawal from the International Science and Technology Center by helping Russian experts travel to the center’s new home in Astana, Kazakhstan, and conduct joint activities with U.S. and other foreign scientists. These initiatives could help sustain working relationships between Russian and U.S. WMD scientists, which could take years to reconstruct if broken. Private corporations could helpfully support joint Russian-U.S. projects in the emerging domain of nuclear cybersecurity and recommend measures to make nuclear facilities less vulnerable to computer accidents or cyberattacks. It was precisely such NGO initiatives that launched the CTR concept and program three decades ago.
Russian-U.S. tensions regarding Ukraine, Syria, and the end of the original Nunn-Lugar program further reduce windows for bilateral security cooperation. Yet, Russia and the United States can cooperate on issues such as Afghanistan and Iran, and they are doing so. Further collaboration is required to address serious nonproliferation challenges relating to North Korea, nuclear materials security, and management of novel technological and geopolitical developments that will inevitably continue to challenge nonproliferation regimes in coming years.
Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. He would like to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for supporting his nonproliferation research and various U.S. and Russian experts for providing helpful information without attribution.
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