Russia’s conflict with Georgia in August caused a serious rift in U.S.-Russian relations but does not appear to have harmed the two countries’ cooperation on improving the security of nuclear materials and weapons in Russia, according to administration officials and members of Congress.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Sept. 17, Thomas D’Agostino, administrator of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), discussed the administration’s views on the effect of the recent conflict on nonproliferation programs in Russia.
D’Agostino said, “I think that the Russians and the [United States] both recognize the value of these programs and that…despite the recent activities that have gone on, we have a commitment that we are going to follow through on, working with Russia on nonproliferation and that it is way too important for the world to pause the activity. That’s a consensus view within this administration.”
In the aftermath of the Georgia conflict, Congress has also indicated that it will not change its threat reduction funding priorities because of the war. The Defense Authorization Act authorized $434.1 million for the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, an increase of $20 million from the administration request.
The two authors of the act that created the CTR and related nonproliferation programs, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), have both expressed confidence that the programs will continue for now despite any political differences the two nations have, but also contended that there are inherent risks in such a strained relationship.
Lugar cited specific examples of recent progress during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sept. 9. Lugar said that, “during August, the month of contention in Georgia, 10 intercontinental ballistic missiles were destroyed in Russia and four shipments of nuclear weapons were sent to safe and secure storage. It’s a fairly modest outcome, but nevertheless the program sort of rumbles on.”
At the same hearing, William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs and a former ambassador to Russia, echoed D’Agostino’s and Lugar’s comments. “On some critically important issues, like combating nuclear terrorism and nonproliferation, we have a hard-headed interest in working with Russia,” Burns said. He added that the United States was committed to working with Russia on dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, finding a follow-on to START, and continuing to secure hazardous weapons and materials in the former Soviet Union.
The CTR and other nonproliferation programs were created by the 1992 Nunn-Lugar legislation with the goal of securing weapons stockpiles in the former Soviet Union, but many diplomats, lawmakers, and outside experts have called for its realignment after more than 15 years of existence. A stronger Russian economy has given the government more money to pay for its own security, and the increasingly global nature of nuclear commerce and proliferation threats are often cited as reasons for a re-examination of priorities.
In some ways, the programs are a victim of their own success as many projects have been completed or are rapidly coming to an end. In a Sept. 9 press release, the NNSA reported that it had completed upgrades at more than 85 percent of the Russian nuclear warhead sites of concern and is on schedule to finish the job by the end of 2008.
In his remarks, D’Agostino noted that the NNSA has shifted from physical security to focus on sustainability and to develop cost-sharing programs more in line with present economic realities. The NNSA press release notes that the agency has reached agreement with Russia on “principles to sustain security upgrades after 2012,” when the Russians take full control of the security project.
D’Agostino also mentioned at the Sept. 17 meeting that the NNSA had submitted a draft agreement to the Russians on the disposition of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium by each nation and was anticipating a response, despite the recent conflict. Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman and Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency Director Sergei Kiriyenko made a joint statement Nov. 19, 2007, endorsing a plan to downgrade the plutonium at Russian plants. But the statement has yet to be turned into an amendment to the 2000 agreement, which currently covers the plutonium disposition effort. (See ACT, December 2007.)
U.S. and international programs to secure or eliminate unconventional weapons and materials are also beginning to branch out to countries outside of the former Soviet Union. On July 8, heads of government at the annual Group of Eight (G-8) meeting released a statement affirming the evolution of their Global Partnership against the Proliferation of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction and supporting an expanded international focus. (See ACT, September 2008.) Countries pledged $20 billion over 10 years for nonproliferation activities at the 2002 G-8 summit, and thus far most of the funding has gone to supporting work in the former Soviet Union.
U.S.-based programs are also shifting their focus incrementally. The NNSA reported that it had helped to end Libya’s nuclear weapons program by removing 1.8 metric tons of uranium hexafluoride and 500 metric tons of centrifuge components and other related materials. Another program finds work for and supports former weapons scientists from Iraq and Libya, while a third provides radiation detection devices and training for guards at international border crossings worldwide.
Nonetheless, some outside experts complain that not enough is being done. A report recently issued by the Partnership for a Secure America, a group co-chaired by former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) and former Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) gives the U.S. government a grade of C+ on cooperative nonproliferation and counterproliferation and a D in terms of ensuring the long-term sustainability of U.S. programs. Key recommendations include creating an adviser with direct access to the president who would help develop a comprehensive plan to address nonproliferation issues worldwide.
In August 2007, President George W. Bush signed legislation establishing the Office of the United States Coordinator for WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, but he has not named anyone to fill the position. (See ACT, September 2007.)