Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Nunn-Lugar Program’s Future Uncertain

Tom Z. Collina

In a potential setback for U.S.-Russian relations, Moscow said in October that it would not sign an agreement drafted by the United States to extend the two countries’ 20-year partnership to dismantle and secure Russian weapons, materials, and delivery systems left over from the Cold War.

The United States, however, hopes to extend the so-called umbrella agreement, which provides the underlying legal framework for the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program. The program is commonly known by the names of the authors of the 1991 legislation that established the effort, Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.).

If the program, widely viewed as one of the most successful initiatives to control excess Russian weapons of mass destruction, is not renewed, “Russia’s unsecured weapons and materials [would] remain a temptation for terrorists of all varieties to buy or steal for use in future attacks,” The New York Times editorialized Oct. 17.

In comments that many interpreted as an indication the deal was dead, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said Oct. 10 that “[t]he American side knows that we do not want another [Nunn-Lugar] extension,” according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

An Oct. 11 Times story characterized the prospects for a new deal as “bleak,” citing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s opposition to U.S. plans to deploy missile interceptors in eastern Europe and his decision to expel the U.S. Agency for International Development after two decades of work on Russian civil society and public health programs as examples of a growing anti-U.S. sentiment in Moscow.

Russian media said Moscow may not want to continue the agreement at all because it no longer needs Washington’s financial assistance to carry out the program and does not want to risk revealing sensitive information to the United States.

According to Western experts, Moscow’s sense of humiliation at being dependent on Washington to pay for securing its own weapons has always been an issue. “Russia did see the dangers after the Cold War, and many people rose to the challenge of doing something about it, but the pent-up sense of being dependent and wanting to end that seems to have finally come to the surface,” said David E. Hoffman, the author of a book on the Soviet nuclear and biological weapons programs and a former Washington Post bureau chief in Moscow, in an Oct. 18 e-mail to Arms Control Today.

Russia is apparently at least open to renegotiating the deal on terms that it views as more favorable. In a statement posted on its website Oct. 10, the Russian Foreign Ministry referred to the proposed extension agreement, saying, “Our American partners know that their proposal is at odds with our ideas about the forms and basis for building further cooperation in that area. To this end, we need a more modern legal framework.”

The Obama administration has said it believes that Moscow is open to a new deal, as has Lugar. The Indiana senator, who is leaving office, issued an Oct. 10 statement saying that when he was in Russia last August, officials did not indicate “they were intent on ending [the program], only amending it.” He said that Russian officials welcomed prospects for future work and that more retired Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) await dismantlement.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Oct. 11 that the United States and Russia can do “a lot of future work…together” on threat reduction and that the Russians “have told us that they want revisions to the previous agreement.”

The original Nunn-Lugar umbrella agreement was extended in 1999 and again in 2006, and the current agreement will expire next June. The Obama administration began discussions with Russia on extending the agreement last July, according to the State Department.

In August, after his trip to Russia, Lugar told reporters that the new U.S. draft agreement is virtually identical to the current one. At the time, Lugar predicted Moscow might have problems with the draft as it does not address the liability issues that Russian officials have raised in the past. Under the original agreement, the U.S. government and its contractors are shielded from virtually all liability for accidents that could occur under the program’s work with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in Russia. In 2006 the deal was reportedly on the verge of collapse due to Moscow’s concerns over liability.

Other U.S.-Russian nuclear accords, such as the Nuclear Cities Initiative, have lapsed amid disputes over liability issues.

Even if Russia is open in principle to a revised agreement, it is unclear what specific changes Russia would want and if they would be acceptable to the United States.

The CTR program was started soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, amid rising concerns that a cash-strapped Russia would not be able to control the vast Soviet weapons complex and that terrorists might buy or steal dangerous materials. The program allowed the United States to assist Russia in dismantling and destroying nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and delivery systems for such weapons and in enhancing the security of key sites.

The bipartisan program’s accomplishments include removing nuclear weapons from Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine; deactivating more than 7,600 strategic nuclear warheads; destroying more than 900 ICBMs; and improving security at two dozen nuclear weapons storage sites.

Without a new U.S.-Russian agreement, the cooperative work would end. Moscow could continue the effort on its own, but experts worry that Russian leaders will not give the program high priority compared to other budget demands, such as producing new weapons and countering U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe.

“The decision to move forward on this agreement is one for the Russians to make, but the implications and consequences of that choice are global,” Kenneth Luongo, an Energy Department official in the Clinton administration and a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors, said in an Oct. 11 e-mail to Arms Control Today. “If the agreement is terminated, then it sends one of the worst signals to the international community about the importance of cooperation to secure loose nukes” and other weapons of mass destruction, he said.