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Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
U.S. Reviewing, Not Halting, Russia Work

Daniel Horner

Although the U.S. Energy Department is conducting a review of all its “Russian-related activities” in response to Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, it has not suspended nuclear cooperation with Russia, the U.S. embassy in Moscow said last month in a press release.

According to the release, the Energy Department and its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), whose responsibilities include nuclear security and nonproliferation work in Russia, “remain absolutely committed to their global nuclear security mission and responsibilities” and see “[c]ooperation with Russia [as] an essential element” of a worldwide effort to prevent nuclear terrorism.

The April 10 embassy release appeared to be in response to reports in Russian media a few days earlier saying the joint nuclear work had been suspended. Prior to the reports, the Energy Department had announced it was conducting the review.

The Defense Department also has been heavily involved in the two-decade-long effort to dismantle or destroy Russian nonconventional weapons and secure proliferation-sensitive materials. The effort originated in the Pentagon with the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, often known by the names of the two senators who sponsored the 1991 legislation creating it, Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).

In an April 18 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Pentagon spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said the Defense Department was “carefully evaluating” its CTR activities in the region.

Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and other actions indicating that Moscow may be poised to seize control of additional parts of Ukraine have spurred questions in the U.S. Congress about the wisdom of various forms of U.S. cooperation with Russia. But so far, it appears the only casualty from the nuclear security cooperation effort is the NNSA commitment to provide Russia with the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System.

That system, which some observers have described as resembling an advanced version of “laser tag,” is used in force-on-force drills. In Russia, it has been used to train the guard forces protecting civilian and military nuclear materials. But a group of 18 House Republicans, led by Reps. Jim Bridenstine (Okla.) and Michael Turner (Ohio), cited its military uses by the U.S. armed forces to argue that providing the system to Russia under the current circumstances is a “mistake.” Acting NNSA Administrator Bruce Held agreed that the United States should stop providing Russia with the laser system.

Much of the U.S.-Russian nuclear security work has restarted only recently, after a hiatus of nearly a year. The so-called CTR umbrella agreement, which provided the legal underpinnings for the work, expired last June and was replaced with an accord that scales back the cooperation in some areas. (See ACT, July/August 2013.)

Key elements of the transition to the new agreement, such as the renegotiation of contracts and arrangements for U.S. access to Russian facilities, took many months to resolve. In early April, Global Security Newswire quoted Anne Harrington, NNSA deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, as saying the work had just recently resumed.

That meant work restarted in the midst of the Ukraine crisis. By at least some measures, the crisis does not appear to have curtailed the effort. In an April 28 interview, Matthew Bunn, a nonproliferation official in the Clinton administration who is now with Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said NNSA delegations have made at least two major visits to Moscow in recent weeks to pursue work under existing contracts.

Bunn, who is a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors, noted that U.S.-Russian security cooperation continued during the Georgian-Russian war in 2008.

Similarly, the Ukraine crisis and the “poisonous” atmosphere it has created should not be allowed to disrupt nuclear security cooperation, he said. Although the security situation in Russia has improved greatly since the mid-1990s, the U.S. government needs to continue to “protect the large taxpayer investment” represented by those improvements and work to “fix the problems that still exist.” At the same time, the United States should be encouraging Russia to allocate funds and put regulations in place for those purposes, he said.