The recent tension between Russia and the United States could increase the risk of a nuclear attack, but not in the way you are thinking.
For the last 20 years, the United States and Russia have cooperated over nuclear security in efforts to secure the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons and materials from terrorist groups and rogue states. Programs like the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and Megatons to Megawatts were designed to bolster security procedures, down blend highly enriched uranium for peaceful use and storage, and dismantle nuclear warheads that might otherwise have fallen into the hands of terrorists or rogue states. But now, the partnership between Russia and the United States on nuclear security is in trouble.
Reestablishing this relationship is critical to preserving global nuclear security, as Russia and the United States have the world’s largest nuclear stockpiles. Matthew Bunn, a Harvard professor at the Kennedy School who supervised a classified government study on protecting nuclear materials in Russia, explains in the New York Times that this is a critical moment in nuclear security. “There is a real danger that 20 years of U.S.-Russian cooperation to secure nuclear material will simply stop at the end of this year, and some of the gains we have made could slip away,” he said.
Angela Canterbury, the Executive Director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, expressed similar urgency on the issue: “Failing to reduce and secure nuclear weapons and materials puts all of us at risk. This is not a time for the U.S. and Russia to abandon their responsibilities to their citizens and the world.”
While tensions over Russian expansion in Ukraine have certainly fueled the discontinuation of nuclear security cooperation, it has not been the only factor. Russia has long been frustrated by the “teacher-student” nature of the cooperation, and hope to project more independence by managing their nuclear security unilaterally. This has led some experts to believe a new American approach is required, one that reaches out to the Russian nuclear community as true partners. Dr. Matt Bunn again told NYT readers, “The United States needs to be actively proposing more fully equal approaches to put Russia in a position of a co-leader on nuclear security, not a state that needs help.”
The Obama administration has made strides towards salvaging the relationship. In September, Rose Gottemoeller, the senior arms control official at the State Department, led an American delegation to Moscow to address concerns of potential arms control violations. These efforts, however, so far have done little to alleviate the impasse.
Lt. Gen. Robert Gard (U.S., ret.), Chair of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation’s board, and Nick Roth, a research associate at the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, describe what is needed for progress on the issue in an article earlier this year, “It will require leaders from both countries to transcend geopolitical posturing and prioritize the threat of nuclear terrorism. Moreover, it demands a new approach that makes bilateral cooperation an equal partnership.”
There are plenty of examples of continued cooperation on nuclear security, in spite of other political tensions, including the cooperation between Reagan and Gorbachev. If there was ever an issue that ought to push two rivals to cooperate, preventing nuclear terrorism has to be it.