U.S.-Russia Tensions Jeopardize Effort to Lock Down Loose Nukes

Obama’s sparring with Putin is hampering the push to prevent nuclear terrorism — and even raising the risk of an accidental nuclear confrontation.

A Russian Yars RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile system drives during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin presides over a huge Victory Day parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Soviet win over Nazi Germany, amid a Western boycott of the festivities over the Ukraine crisis. AFP PHOTO / POOL / HOST PHOTO AGENCY RIA NOVOSTI        (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A Russian Yars RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile system drives during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin presides over a huge Victory Day parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Soviet win over Nazi Germany, amid a Western boycott of the festivities over the Ukraine crisis. AFP PHOTO / POOL / HOST PHOTO AGENCY RIA NOVOSTI (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

When President Barack Obama hosts leaders from dozens of countries at a summit in Washington on Thursday to discuss nuclear security, the nation with the world’s biggest atomic arsenal — Russia — will not be at the table.

Russia’s boycott of the Nuclear Security Summit reflects a widening rift between Moscow and Washington that has undermined the U.S.-led effort to lock down radiological material, effectively destroyed prospects for arms control between the two powers, and even raised the risk of a potential nuclear confrontation not seen since the Cold War.

Russia has an indispensable role to play in any effort to prevent nuclear terrorism because it has a vast amount of nuclear material on its territory — by far the most of any country in the world. And U.S.-Russian collaboration has formed the cornerstone of groundbreaking efforts over the past two decades to secure weapons stockpiles across the former Soviet Union and prevent the theft of material that could be used to make atomic bombs or more crude “dirty bombs.”

That cooperation has come to an end, much to the alarm of many U.S. officials. The Defense Department is concerned by the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction and trafficking of radiological material, “particularly as we are no longer able to ensure that nuclear material is being controlled at the source in Russia,” Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza said in an email.

Moscow’s absence at the summit illustrates how the discord caused by its incursion into Ukraine has spilled over into the arena of nuclear arms and security. Russia’s willingness to work with the West started to decline in recent years as Moscow’s disagreements with Washington escalated over issues like U.S. plans for a missile defense shield. In 2013, Russia pulled out of a 1990s-era U.S. program called the Nunn-Lugar Act that helped track and secure tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.

Under the former program, the United States had provided detection devices, security equipment, and training to help the Russians keep tabs on its radiological material. And the effort helped sustain a useful communication channel for American and Russian scientists. Now that cooperation has been abandoned, even as the threat of terrorists getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction has grown.

The Islamic State extremists who launched the deadly March 22 attacks in Brussels that killed 32 people are suspected of planning to target the country’s nuclear reactors as well as employees there, and Belgian authorities have come under criticism over reports of lax security at the sites.

Given the threat posed by the Islamic State, the nuclear summit hosted by Washington — the fourth since Obama took office — will focus on how countries can work “to prevent the world’s most dangerous networks from obtaining the world’s most dangerous weapons,” the U.S. president wrote in an op-ed published Wednesday in the Washington Post. But Obama’s commentary made no mention of Russia’s decision to skip the summit or cancel its cooperation on security efforts.

The Russian withdrawal from the U.S. effort to counter nuclear terrorism is “a disappointment,” William Courtney told Foreign Policy, the former U.S. ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan. “The Russians not participating doesn’t derail it, but it hinders it.”

Moscow has halted all U.S. access to so-called “closed cities” that house a significant amount of Russia’s weapons-grade material, preventing American experts from certifying whether security measures are sufficient.

“The concern is not that Russia doesn’t take its nuclear materials seriously,” Kingston Reif, the director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Washington-based Arms Control Association, told FP. “The concern is that it raises questions about Russia’s willingness to strengthen nuclear security and improve the architecture in place.”

Russia has insisted it does not need American assistance to keep its nuclear material safe. But the country’s growing economic woes, including plans for a 5 percent cut in the defense budget, have raised fears that funding for security and monitoring at nuclear sites could suffer, experts said.

William Tobey, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said that “Russia’s nuclear security is not what it should be.”

“The Russians try to preserve personnel amid budget constraints, and while they have kept nuclear inspectors, the inspectors are very limited in their travel budget now,” Tobey told FP. “So they can’t go out and inspect the facilities they are in charge of regulating like before.”

Apart from the standstill on nuclear security initiatives, Russia and the United States have hit a dead end on arms control talks, marking the first time in decades that the two sides have no agenda and no negotiations underway on a new deal to reduce their vast nuclear stockpiles.

In combative rhetoric that harked back to the Soviet era, Moscow also has made frequent references to Russia’s nuclear arsenal. In March 2015, Russia’s ambassador in Copenhagen said Danish warships would be “targets for Russian nuclear missiles” if they installed advanced radar equipment. Russia has said the Iskander missiles it has placed in its territory of Kaliningrad are dual-use, meaning they could carry nuclear warheads.

NATO and U.S. officials say Russia is blurring the line between conventional and nuclear war. In a speech to the Munich Security Conference in February, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia’s threats and exercises of its nuclear forces were “aimed at intimidating its neighbors,” while U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said at a November 2015 forum that “Moscow’s nuclear saber-rattling raises questions about Russian leaders’ commitments to strategic stability.”

Against the backdrop of an escalating war of words, the prospects for communication designed to reduce the risk of a conflict between Moscow and Washington have steadily dimmed. In the wake of Russia’s armed intervention in Ukraine in 2014, Washington suspended military-to-military relations with Moscow and imposed travel bans on some officials. Moscow has responded with its own travel bans.

Some arms control advocates and former senior U.S. officials and lawmakers, including former Sen. Sam Nunn, have questioned the Obama administration’s decision to introduce travel bans on some Russian officials, saying any step that reduces the chance for dialogue is a mistake.

“Common sense would seem to tell us that it is counterproductive for both the U.S. and Russia to have sanctions on individuals and policymakers who need to talk to each other to protect the security of the citizens they represent,” Nunn said in a speech in Moscow in February.

Despite the suspension in military relations, communication between the two armed forces on essential missions related to nuclear weapons continues, Pentagon officials told FP. But the accumulative effect of the acrimony has created the worst climate between the two countries since the Cold War.

Encroachments by Russian nuclear-capable bombers near NATO countries in the Baltics and sorties into Swedish and Finnish airspace, along with Russian military exercises that simulate the use of tactical nuclear weapons, have sent alarm bells ringing in Europe. In response, Russian officials have accused NATO and the United States of behaving recklessly, citing the deployment of more U.S. tanks and personnel to NATO states bordering Russia and the use of B-2 bombers in drills close to the Russian border.

“There is no goodwill on either side,” Alexey Arbatov, the chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s nonproliferation program and a former member of the Russian State Duma, told FP.

“Our militaries have stopped communicating, and they are losing understanding of each other,” said Arbatov. “There is growing mistrust and exaggeration of the other’s capabilities and intentions on both sides.”

Nunn, the former Georgia senator, was one of the architects of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, also known as the Nunn-Lugar Act, which was launched amid warming ties between Moscow and Washington after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Designed to address fears over nuclear weapons or material falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue governments, the joint U.S.-Russian program provided improved security and detection at Russian facilities. The program also helped secure nuclear weapons from former Soviet territories such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine by bringing the armaments back to Russia and dismantling them. Both countries also agreed to drastically cut their weapons stockpiles and took steps to reduce the risk of losing control over nuclear arms or accidental launches.

By the early 2000s, cooperation had started to slow down. In 2002, the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a hallmark of Cold War nuclear arms control. There was a rare burst of optimism in 2010 when Washington and Moscow signed the New START Treaty, which further reduced U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Still, the countries retain enormous numbers of the world’s most dangerous weapons: As of January 2015, Russia and the United States had more than 7,000 nuclear warheads each, about 90 percent of world stocks, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. And those numbers may not go down anytime soon. Russia has made it clear that removing U.S. missile defense weaponry from Europe is a precondition for any talks on a new arms control treaty. The Obama administration has said that is out of the question.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan