An expert's point of view on a current event.

Letting Go of ‘Loose Nukes’

Relax. It's okay if Russia wants to pay for its own security.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

The Kremlin's refusal to renew a U.S. program that has spent more than $10 billion since 1992 on security for Russia's nuclear and unconventional weapons has caused angst, hand-wringing and finger-pointing. Who'd have thought a foreign aid program could be so popular?

The Kremlin’s refusal to renew a U.S. program that has spent more than $10 billion since 1992 on security for Russia’s nuclear and unconventional weapons has caused angst, hand-wringing and finger-pointing. Who’d have thought a foreign aid program could be so popular?

In last week’s debate Mitt Romney called Russia "a geopolitical foe," echoing his campaign’s theme that the White House was coddling an intransigent Moscow. But shortly thereafter he criticized President Obama for the Kremlin’s refusal to accept any more money for Russia’s weapons security programs from U.S. taxpayers.

"Russia said they’re not going to follow Nunn-Lugar anymore," he said. "They’re back[ing] away from a nuclear proliferation treaty that we had with them. I look around the world, and I don’t see our influence growing around the world."

A New York Times editorial (though blaming Vladimir Putin, not Obama) warned that pulling the plug on Nunn-Lugar meant that "Russia’s unsecured weapons and materials remain a temptation for terrorists of all varieties."

But it’s likely Moscow would have stopped accepting Nunn-Lugar aid even if we’d been tougher on them. And it’s doubtful that Russia is about to become a candy store for jihadists in search of WMD.

Instead, it was probably inevitable that Russia one day would decide that, yeah, the world’s ninth richest nation should pay the freight for protecting its own nuclear arsenal. "At some point Russia has to do for itself what other states do for themselves, which is provide security for the weapons and material they chose themselves to produce," said Sharon Weiner, an associate professor at American University and an expert on U.S. counter-proliferation programs. "Russia needs to step up to the plate."

Russia’s image as a country in the grip of political turmoil and poverty is amazingly persistent in the United States. But visitors to Moscow find spiffy skyscrapers, billboards advertising Italian sports cars and private jets, and bureaucrats wearing Swiss watches worth tens of thousands of dollars.

After the ailing Soviet Union finally gave up the ghost in the waning days of 1991, Russia inherited its vast stores of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. And they were a mess. Western visitors to weapons depots and labs were shocked to find AWOL guards, broken fences and unlocked doors. Two million nerve gas shells were discovered sitting in rotting barns in a patch of forest in western Siberia.

Senate Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican Richard Lugar, in an act of bipartisanship that might be impossible today, pushed for creation of an emergency aid effort that grew into a multi-agency effort that is now generally called the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program.

The program has channeled about a half-a-billion dollars each year into efforts to beef up the safety and security of Russia’s unconventional arms. And in the early years, at least, it helped insure the grim downside of what Russian President Vladimir Putin has called "the greatest geo-political catastrophe" of the 20th century didn’t extend much beyond the U.S.S.R.’s former borders.

The United States helped remove all of the nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus and return them to Russia. U.S. taxpayers financed the demolition of thousands of Soviet weapons, including missiles, submarines, bombers, and of course city-shattering nuclear warheads. Most of the dismantled weapons were obsolete or surplus, but still could have made dangerous toys for desperate boys.

Americans even paid the salaries of some of the Soviet Union’s tens of thousands of weapons scientists, engineers and technicians impoverished by the economic crises of the early 1990s, to discourage them from working for rogue states.

The programs weren’t 100 percent successful. The CIA complained repeatedly to Russia that former weapons scientists were freelancing abroad. Vyacheslav Danilenko, who worked at one of the Soviet Union’s two premier nuclear weapons labs, is the "foreign expert" the International Atomic Energy Agency suspects of having spent several years in Iran in the late 1990s and early 2000s helping develop conventional explosive systems that could initiate a nuclear blast.

Small amounts of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium were diverted from former Soviet weapons and other nuclear facilities.

But Russian officials were saying by 2000 that Nunn-Lugar programs had accomplished their core mission. Russia’s economy was booming thanks to surging oil prices, and the Kremlin was busy restoring the power of Russia’s central government — in particular its security services. The White House, skeptical of Moscow’s new leadership, seemed poised to cancel the program and move on to other matters.

Then 9/11 happened, unleashing a wave of U.S. spending on counter-terror efforts and fresh support for Nunn-Lugar. Putin and other top Russian officials, meanwhile, tried to reassure the West that Russia’s nuclear facilities were safe. But Washington was determined to make certain the next 9/11-style attack didn’t feature a mushroom cloud. Which led to a situation where the U.S. was pressing a country to accept hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid that the recipients protested they didn’t need. (Of course, they didn’t protest too loudly. Who would?)

On one point, there is no dispute that the Russians were right. They didn’t need the money. The country recovered rapidly through the 2000s, paying off its debts and pouring hundreds of billions into a sovereign wealth fund. Today, Russia’s mineral riches have made it one of the world’s largest economies, and in recent years the country has waged a see-saw battle with Saudi Arabia for the title of the world’s leading oil producer.

Militarily, Russia is still regarded by the West as a pitiful helpless giant. And to a large extent it is, because it inherited the Soviet Union’s bloated, poorly equipped, and badly trained fighting forces. But the Kremlin launched a program of administrative military reforms a few years ago. And Putin has embarked on a 10-year, $775 billion buildup that will add thousands of modern weapons, including missiles, submarines, warplanes and tanks, to the country’s arsenal. (The $775 billion figure is roughly what the Pentagon spends in a single year, of course, but it’s a start.)

Many U.S. arms control advocates argue that Nunn-Lugar’s mission is still critical in Russia because Moscow is far too sanguine about nuclear security. And in truth Russian officials and experts don’t seem to worry about their nuclear security nearly as much as the United States does.

But maybe they know something the U.S. doesn’t.

Alexander Golts, a highly-respected, Moscow-based independent expert on the Russian military, told me in a conversation last year that his country’s nuclear weapons and weapons-grade materials were "more or less safe" from theft or diversion. "I never read any criticism on how Russia keeps its nuclear materials, nuclear weapons and so forth. I don’t think it’s a basic problem."

Writing about the end of Nunn-Lugar in the Moscow Times on Oct. 23, Golts said the effort prevented "a global catastrophe" in the 1990s. But he dismissed fears that ending Nunn-Lugar could have disastrous consequences today. "While it is true that basic security guidelines are often ignored with respect to conventional weapons [in Russia], this cannot be said for nuclear and chemical weapons," he wrote.

There were occasional reports of the theft of Russian nuclear warheads in the 1990s, but those fears turned out to be unfounded. "Reports of Russian ‘loose nukes’ appear to have been greatly exaggerated," former CIA officer Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, now at Harvard, wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2010.

U.S. arms control experts have long worried about the emergence of an organized black market in Russian enriched uranium and plutonium, which terror groups might use to cobble together an improvised nuclear device.

"Undetected smuggling of weapons-usable nuclear material has likely occurred, and we are concerned about the total amount of material that could have been diverted or stolen in the last 15 years," a 2006 report by the National Intelligence Council warned. According to a 2008 study by researchers Lyudmila Zaitseva and Rob McCusker, a total of about 38 kilograms (84 pounds) of weapons-usable material — mostly enriched uranium — is either known or suspected of having been diverted from Russia’s nuclear centers.

That’s a worrisome number, and probably doesn’t reflect all of the missing materials.

But about 100 pounds of highly-enriched uranium would be needed to build a single crude nuclear weapon, the kind terrorists could make. And the total was seized in small amounts, mostly sub-kilogram size shipments, from small-time hustlers in sting operations carried out over almost two decades.

Many of these seizures occurred in Georgia. A 2010 study by Alexander Kupatadze in the Nonproliferation Review concluded that in Georgia those caught with nuclear materials tended to be amateurs and opportunists who grabbed a small amount of material and passed it along, rather than professional smugglers or terrorists with an established pipeline into a nuclear facility. "Based on current evidence, it appears that traditional and professional organized crime groups are rarely involved in the smuggling of radioactive materials," he wrote.

U.S. nuclear experts like Matthew Bunn of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government have questioned whether in the absence of U.S. aid Russia would spend the money needed to guarantee its warheads, plutonium and uranium are safe. "They should be paying for it themselves," Bunn said in an interview last year. "But we’re in a situation where they don’t see it yet as as high a priority as we see it."

That may be because they see the problem from a different angle.

American University’s Weiner says that Russia understands the importance of nuclear security but approaches it differently than the U.S. does. "The U.S. has different standards on nuclear security than the Russians do," Weiner said. "They’re not better or worse, they’re just different." In a 2002 report to Congress, the National Intelligence Council said Russia’s nuclear security was geared toward preventing outside attacks, while the United States was more concerned about the "pre-eminent" threat posed by insiders with sinister aims. "The U.S. thinks it has to work vigilantly to deal with these [insider] threats," Weiner says. "Russia thinks it certainly has to do some things, but isn’t as obsessed."

The Nunn-Lugar announcement came a few weeks after Moscow said it would cancel all United States Agency for International Development programs, which provided funding for democracy-building, health, human rights, and development. The United States has spent almost $3 billion on USAID efforts in Russia since the early 1990s. Partly, the move may reflect tensions over Syria and Russia’s conviction that the West has encouraged the emergence in the last year of an active opposition movement.

But Russia has been gradually turning the screws on various foreign aid programs for years, including nonproliferation programs. Last year then-President Dmitry Medvedev announced that Russia would phase out the International Science and Technology Center in Moscow by 2015. The center, run under the Nunn-Lugar umbrella, has channeled $1 billion into salaries and grants to scientists working in Russia’s weapons complexes since the early 1990s. As they have with the broader Nunn-Lugar effort, Russian officials called the ISTC a relic of the bad old days of the 1990s. "The mission has been accomplished," Russia’s U.S. ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, told The Associated Press at the time. "It is a little bit outdated." The center may also be another window on Russia’s weapons program the Kremlin would prefer closed.

Weiner and many other U.S. experts said Nunn-Lugar cooperation helped build confidence between the two former Cold War rivals by granting access to otherwise closed weapons sites and facilities. But Russia’s security services have long been suspicious of these programs for precisely the same reason.

U.S. experts say the dialogue between Americans and Russians was another major benefit of Nunn-Lugar — even when the two sides spent a lot of time arguing over U.S. insistence on accountability in spending its aid dollars. "We’ll miss beating each other up," Weiner said. "It reduces the tension."

If Russian and U.S. scientists and officials can no longer meet to talk about joint arms control efforts, she said, they should try to find other issues to explore. "Let’s talk about climate change, let’s talk about HIV research, let’s talk about a common problem that’s one step removed from the national security sphere," she said.

Douglas Birch is a former foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and the Baltimore Sun who has written extensively on technology and public policy.

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