Boost Phase

U.S.-Russian nuclear arms cooperation is not dead, it just needs a good kick in the pants.


Last week, alarm bells rang as the first headlines ran about Moscow’s "bombshell" decision not to renew the 1992 Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Agreement underpinning efforts to improve nuclear security. Perhaps it was the context of chilling relations with Putin’s Russia, including the crackdown on nongovernmental organizations and the eviction of the U.S. Agency for International Development, that evoked such angst. The claim that U.S.-Russian nuclear security cooperation is dead, however, is greatly exaggerated.

The CTR Agreement was conceived and implemented in a very different time. The Soviet Union had disintegrated and Russia was financially supine. U.S. assistance was necessary to keep body and soul together for Russian nuclear weapons scientists, and to remove the temptation for them to sell their knowledge and wares to other nations or terrorists. In the absence of Soviet oppression, the Russian nuclear archipelago was a security nightmare, with fallen fences, crumbling buildings, poor procedures, and a demoralized (and all too often drunken) guard force. Championed by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, and signed by President George H. W. Bush, the Cooperative Threat Reduction legislation created programs to detect, secure, and dispose of dangerous nuclear material in Russia and the former Soviet Union, as well as to facilitate the destruction of missiles and chemical weapons.

Today, Russia is more prosperous and its nuclear weapons, materials, and facilities are much more secure. Work under the Bratislava Initiative, agreed to by Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in 2005, essentially completed physical security upgrades at nuclear weapons facilities in Russia. Fissile material production reactors at Seversk and Zheleznogorsk were shut down and replaced with coal-fired plants. Hundreds of Russian ports, airports, and border crossings are now equipped with nuclear detection equipment. Over 400 metric tons of Russian highly enriched uranium has been down-blended to fuel reactors that now provide 10 percent of American electricity. Nuclear weapons in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus have been removed to Russia, and the former Soviet nuclear test site at Degelen Mountain in Kazakhstan has been secured from scavengers. Moscow and Washington, among others, should be proud of these signal achievements.

That Moscow would now seek a different agreement, based on equality, is not surprising, nor should it be alarming. The current CTR agreement will expire next year, but that does not mean that cooperation must or will end. Indeed, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said last week, "We are interested in an equal, normal, mutually beneficial cooperation in the these subjects, including in cooperation in third countries, and we would like to have completed projects implemented in Russia in the framework of the so-called Global Partnership on weapons of mass destruction."

The recent debacle at the U.S. Y-12 highly enriched uranium site shows that no country can be complacent about its nuclear security systems. Russia and the United States have a shared interest in ensuring that the best possible nuclear security measures are implemented worldwide.

In Russia, more work remains to be done, including: sustaining the security improvements already in place with maintenance, training, and replacement of worn equipment, some of which is now almost 20 years old; implementing independent regulatory oversight of nuclear security; consolidating or closing dozens of redundant facilities holding weapons-grade nuclear material so that they can be more easily and economically protected; and disposing of some 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium and additional highly enriched uranium.

Together, the United States and Russia can address these problems, but they can also work improve security practices in third countries. They have established a de facto nuclear security standard through their actions to improve Russian facilities. And they could work to codify and describe this empirical knowledge to form guidelines to advise other nations. This joint project could be offered as a commitment for the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit and implemented through the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which Russia and the United States co-founded in 2006. The World Institute for Nuclear Security might also be a means to share their best practices. They might also work to address the dangers of nuclear terrorism detailed in a Joint Threat Assessment by Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Russian Academy of Science’s U.S.A. Canada Institute.

The United States and Russia have a rich agenda for future work to improve collective nuclear security. And both nations appear still to have the will to advance that agenda. Nunn-Lugar doesn’t mark the end of these efforts, merely the end of a stage. Now, both nations need to complete a more modern agreement to govern their efforts. Such an agreement is in the interest and within the capabilities of both sides. It cannot be completed until after the U.S. elections, but both American political parties have strongly backed cooperative threat reduction. So next year, American and Russian negotiators should get on with it.

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