Russia Joins Proliferation Security Initiative

Wade Boese

In an anniversary gift to the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), Russia on May 31 joined the effort to intercept deadly weapons shipments worldwide on its one-year mark.

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, a chief architect of PSI, hailed Russia’s move that day as a “major development.” He said Russian participation had been something Washington “has been working on almost since the beginning.”

Russia had remained cool to U.S. courtship out of concern that interdicting cargo in transit did not square with universally accepted laws protecting global commerce and safe passage through international waters and airspace.

To be sure, Moscow’s unease has not disappeared. In a June 1 statement, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserted, “We presume that activity under this initiative should not and will not create any obstacles to the lawful economic, scientific and technological cooperation of states.”

Still, the statement described PSI as a “potentially useful mechanism in the struggle against the threat of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] proliferation.”

Russia became the 15th country to join the initiative, which in recent months has seen its mandate broadened to include preventing arms shipments from even getting underway. Following a March PSI meeting, Portugal issued a statement that participants agreed “to not only interdict shipments of WMD, their delivery systems and related materials, but to cooperate in preventing WMD proliferation facilitators (i.e., individuals, companies, and other entities) from engaging in this deadly trade.”

Another 60-some governments have reportedly endorsed the initiative’s interdiction principles. And two states, Panama and Liberia, have signed agreements with the United States setting out expedited procedures for stopping and searching vessels flying their flags suspected of transporting missiles or nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. (See ACT, June 2004.)

Reflecting the administration’s general skepticism about legally binding instruments and multilateral organizations, U.S. officials have downplayed the importance of membership in the initiative, saying the key matter is a country’s willingness and readiness to stop arms shipments.

Nevertheless, Bolton appeared excited about Moscow’s participation. He said, “Russia is a great naval power and it has extensive land and airspace that can be used for commercial activities, which we hope and expect will now be closed to proliferators.”

Russia has ties to and is strategically located near the two countries that the United States is most concerned about developing and trafficking weapons of mass destruction: Iran and North Korea.

With the Kremlin now onboard, U.S. recruitment efforts for PSI will likely increasingly center on China. So far, Washington’s lobbying has not appeared to sway Beijing.

Yet, Bolton suggested that the reality may be somewhat different. “We have had some operational cooperation with China in interdiction activities,” the undersecretary stated.

Bolton and other U.S. officials generally imply that PSI is producing results but decline to provide specifics on the basis that speaking about successes could jeopardize ongoing or future operations. “Because so many of PSI’s activities rely on sensitive intelligence information, which we don’t comment on publicly, there’s much that we can’t talk about. I’d be delighted to talk about it, but we’re not going to,” Bolton told reporters.

The October 2003 seizure of centrifuge components bound for Libya has been the only revealed intercept. Bush administration officials contend the operation played a major role in persuading Libya to renounce its nuclear and chemical weapons programs, although some former U.S. government officials say that viewpoint wrongly downplays the importance of years of sanctions and diplomacy that preceded the interdiction. (See ACT, June 2004.)