Russia’s illegal invasion of Crimea requires a strong and forceful US response to support Ukraine and punish Moscow. But that fact that a meaningful response is required does not mean that we should deliberately score an own goal by taking actions that would be self-evidently counterproductive and detrimental to our security.
As former Secretary of State George Schultz and former Senator Sam Nunn wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “A key to ending the Cold War was the Reagan administration’s rejection of the concept of linkage, which said that bad behavior by Moscow in one sphere had to lead to a freeze of cooperation in all spheres.” “Although current circumstances make it difficult,” they noted, “we should not lose sight of areas of common interest where cooperation remains crucial to the security of Russia, Europe and the United States. This includes securing nuclear materials…and preventing catastrophic terrorism, as well as destroying Syrian chemical stockpiles and preventing nuclear proliferation by Iran and others.”
This is wise advice. But wisdom is a commodity in short supply on the GOP-led House Armed Services Committee, especially when it comes to nuclear policy. It should not be surprising, then, that the Republican leadership of the Committee is sponsoring legislation in response to the Crimea crisis that would imperil our security by stopping nuclear security cooperation with Russia.
Among the many not so brilliant ideas included in the legislation, which is titled “Forging Peace through Strength in Ukraine and the Transatlantic Alliance” and co-sponsored by Reps. Michael Turner, Buck McKeon, and Mike Rogers, is a provision that “Prohibits the contact, cooperation or transfer of technology between the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Russian Federation until the Secretary of Energy certifies the Russian military is no longer illegally occupying Crimea, no longer violating the INF treaty, and in compliance with the CFE treaty.”
Unless there is some disclaimer in the actual bill text that I have yet to see, this would bring to a halt NNSA’s nuclear security work in Russia, most of which is conducted under the auspices of the International Nuclear Materials Protection (IMPC) program. Examples of activities that the IMPC program plans to pursue in and with Russia in FY 2015 include consolidating of all category I/II fissile material into a new high security zone at a nuclear material site in Russia; completing a perimeter upgrade around two guarded areas with 13 buildings that store and process weapons-usable nuclear material in a large bulk processing facility; providing upgrades at three additional buildings in a large bulk processing facility; and completing upgrades to closed city perimeter entry points at the two primary weapons design facilities and one bulk processing facility in Russia.
As our friend Nick Roth has written, “although Russia has made tremendous progress in securing its nuclear weapons and materials, because of the size and far-flung locations of Russia’s stockpile, Russia still presents one of the most significant challenges to reducing the global risk of nuclear terrorism. Russia has the most highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium of any country and the most HEU research reactors in the world. There is also a significant risk of insiders stealing nuclear material from its nuclear facilities.”
It is true that in recent years Russia has become an increasingly difficult partner on nuclear security cooperation. Moscow’s refusal last year to renew the old Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) umbrella agreement has reduced the amount of work we can do in Russia (though much of NNSA’s work will continue). Funding for nuclear security work in Russia makes up a much smaller share of the Pentagon and NNSA’s nonproliferation budgets than it once did, as Moscow is appropriately footing more of the bill to secure materials and sustain improvements enabled by US assistance.
Meanwhile, NNSA has already decided to rescind its funding request for one nuclear security activity within the IMPC program and is apparently reviewing the merits of other programs as well.
Yet it’s important to remember that we don’t cooperate with Russia on nuclear security as a favor to Moscow. We do it because it is strongly in our national security interest. Our cooperation with Russia keeps Americans safe from the threat of nuclear terrorism and this cooperation should continue (and is continuing) despite the tensions in the larger US-Russia relationship. At a time of enhanced U.S.-Russia tensions now is hardly the time to reduce our on-site presence in the Russian nuclear sector. The cost for these programs is relatively low and the return on investment is extremely high. There is more work that remains to be done and it is critical that this work get done as quickly as possible.
Fortunately, there appear to be GOP leaders in the House who understand this. At an Energy and Water appropriations subcommittee hearing last week, Chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID) highlighted the importance of nuclear security cooperation despite our concerns about Moscow’s behavior in other areas:
REP. SIMPSON: — why I ask this question. You’re probably going to see amendments on the floor to take out all funding for all of those things that have the word “Russian” anywhere in them. How much funding in your budget is a request for projects that are in Russia that probably will face amendments and stuff? And I have been and I think this committee has been supportive of the work that’s going on there. We want to be able to answer the questions that are going to come up.
MS. HARRINGTON: Thank you, sir. We view the work that we do in Russia, which focuses on the security of both the material and facilities and, in some cases, the actual weapons that were once a threat to this country, as vital to U.S. national interests. So we hope that both we and the Russians would be able to continue with that kind of work.
As you know, in past geopolitical times of conflict, there have either been carve-outs or accommodations made to allow nonproliferation and threat-reduction programs to move forward.
That said, as you might imagine, internally within the government right now, there is intense scrutiny of everything that’s being done with Russia, you know, and real concern about the path that it has chosen to take. So we are in that process of reevaluating.
In terms of the 2015 budget, there’s — out of the 1.55 billion (dollars) there’s something around $100 million for programs that work with Russia. Of that, about 25 percent goes to our own laboratories to support the technical expertise to bring into projects. So out of the total budget amount, it’s not a particularly large percentage, but we still view it as being a very important element of our ability to engage both with sensitive materials and at sensitive facilities.
REP. SIMPSON: So the short answer I would give to people is this is actually in our own interest, not just Russian interest and the world’s interest.
MS. HARRINGTON: Correct. Right, that is why we are there. [emphasis mine.]