Ask an Expert: Senator Richard Lugar on Cooperative Threat Reduction

Senator Richard Lugar represented the state of Indiana from 1977-2013. Along with Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), he authored the legislation that established the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program in 1991. He currently serves as the president of The Lugar Center, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Nukes of Hazard: What motivated you to propose the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program?

Senator Lugar: Essentially my interest in Cooperative Threat Reduction began with the Geneva Switzerland Negotiations in 1986. On that occasion, President Reagan thought that it was possible to begin negotiating an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union. He suggested that the Senate send over a bipartisan delegation. I was one of the senators that was invited to go, as was Senator Sam Nunn (Sam) of Georgia. We visited the Russian consulate when we were in Geneva, and we had a series of meetings with Russians over the next five years. As we got to know each other better and there was more trust involved, we learned of internal difficulties within the USSR.

In 1991 we had moved silently past 40 years of mutually assured destruction. What the Russians were telling us was that there could be an accident.

[On the impending disintegration of the Soviet Union]

It appeared to us that one of the real dangers of dissolution at that time was that the USSR had been in control of all of the nuclear weapons, testing devices, as well as chemical and rumored bio. In the event that the Soviet Union dissolved and the various states became independent, it would become a much more complex problem of negotiation with many countries [Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus]. And furthermore, it was not at all clear that they would be of the same mind as the Soviet Union. They might not want negotiations.

[On personal relationships with Russian counterparts]

Another reason, though a much more informal one, why Sam and I got involved was that some of the Russians that we had met with in 1986 came to Washington when Congress had come back from August recess (in 1991) and we sat around this table that you and I are sitting around today. At that meeting the Russians said that the United States could be facing a lot of potential trouble. When we asked what that meant they told us that a good number of military personnel were deserting the posts that guarded nuclear weapons aimed at us. They were not getting paid because the USSR had run out of money, and there were some allegations that they might take nuclear fuel off base and try to sell it to support their families.

So long as you have really large amounts (of nuclear material) stored in various places, the potential for some intrusion is always there. 

So we had lived through 40 years of mutually assured destruction: the horrible fact that the former USSR and U.S. had nuclear weapons aimed at each other’s military installations and at each other’s cities, and that in the event that a weapon was fired, the horror of that destruction would be unimaginable. In 1991 we had moved silently past 40 years of mutually assured destruction. What the Russians were telling us was that there could be an accident. The facilities were not well guarded, and somebody that was not involved in the chain of command could fire a weapon at the U.S. So I asked what they wanted from us, and they said they were going to need a lot of money, and they were going to need technicians to assist in taking down these missiles.

So this was not the total impetus for Sam and for me to draft the legislation, but it offered a significant motivation. Together we drafted legislation that passed in the final days of the congressional session in 1991. A large majority of the Senate passed it and it passed by voice vote in the house.

Nukes of Hazard: How has the relationship between the U.S. and Russia changed since 1991?

Senator Lugar: Today, of course, we have Russians who do not want to work with us on nuclear and chemical arms control. The span of the Nunn-Lugar Act really ran out about June 2013. I went over to Russia in summer 2012 to visit the foreign office. They were amenable to try and think of how the timeline might be extended, but over at the war office they were not interested. They really wanted the U.S. to wrap things up and move on, and there was a lack of appreciation for our work together. It was really not a good scene. It seems that the last attempt that we made to bring about nuclear reductions was the passage of the New START treaty in 2011. Since then there has not really been interest or sense of cooperation on the part of Russia or the United States.

Nukes of Hazard: The Cooperative Threat Reduction Program was controversial when you and Sam Nunn proposed it in 1991. Similarly, proposals to cooperate with Russia generate pushback today. What would you say to a colleague who believes that the United States should not cooperate with Russia on nuclear security and non-proliferation?

They believed that not a dime of American taxpayer dollars should go to solve Russia’s problems. But it was our problem too, and the majority has always seen it that way.

Senator Lugar: Well, I have always felt, leading back to Sam Nunn and I meeting with Russians in 1986 in Geneva, that there are statesmen in Russia who really want to think through further cooperative threat reduction. The governments of Russia and the United States take a relatively firm stance, but there are statesmen in these countries who think we ought to be talking and thinking about cooperative efforts. Some of these conversations have occurred with the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), founded by [Senator] Sam Nunn. I have served on that board since the beginning. Russians are members of the board at NTI. We usually have two sizable board meetings a year, and we see these Russians face to face. They indicate that they are interested in arms control, that they wish there could be more dialogue and someday there may be.

Right now not all Americans would want to be engaged with this. The nuclear deal with Iran demonstrated how strongly people feel when it comes to any sort of negotiation with some country that is hostile to us. At the beginning when the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program was proposed, some argued “not a dime for the Russians.” They believed that not a dime of American taxpayer dollars should go to solve Russia’s problems. But it was our problem too, and the majority has always seen it that way.

Nukes of Hazard: How can we make nuclear security and non-proliferation a bipartisan focus during a time that some describe as hyper-partisan?

Senator Lugar: Cooperative Threat Reduction would require leadership in both parties, and that doesn’t happen automatically. In the constituencies of the House and Senate there may be many Americans who are mistrustful of the Russians and don’t believe that the United States should give money to issues that they believe Russians should take responsibility for. It is a difficult proposition, as it was in 1991. It takes very strong advocacy by some members who try to explain their view of how the world works. On certain things we really have to work together to make a bilateral consensus.