On October 10, Russia announced that it will not be renewing the Nunn-Lugar Act in June 2013. Russian withdrawal from the 1991 Nunn-Lugar agreement does not necessarily signify an end to the agreement, nor to US-Russian cooperation; it does, however, complicate diplomatic processes.
Nunn-Lugar, otherwise known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction(CTR) program, is an innovative, bi-partisan solution to the problem of “loose nukes” that was widespread following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s. The original agreement absolved the US of any liability while conducting work in Russia. If any accident were to occur in the process of dismantling Russian weapons, the US and its contractors would not, under any circumstances, be held responsible. In lieu of this and a strengthened Russian economy, a Russian insider now claims “the agreement is thoroughly discriminating. It fails to take into account the changes that took place in the world after its signing in the 1990s.”
At the Act’s inception, the former Soviet states were in disarray – financially and politically. They did not have the resources nor the organizational capacity to dismantle and safeguard weapons of mass destruction, especially for compliance with the July 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Cooperative Threat Reduction has been essential in ensuring that Russia holds up its end of the treaty. It was created to make sure dangerous materials, or weapons themselves, do not end up in the hands of terrorists. To date, CTR has deactivated 7,610 warheads and has removed all nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus (among other successes).
Despite Russia’s withdrawal, the Cooperative Threat Reduction program will still have opportunities to improve the security of nuclear, chemical and biological materials in other nations. In 2003, Congress passed the Nunn-Lugar Expansion Act; this gave the program the freedom to address proliferation problems outside of the former Soviet Union. The US can still utilize the program’s bureaucratic know-how to be an effective world steward and stop terrorist acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. Whether Congress will see the importance of this program when it does not include Russia, the nation with the “largest WMD repository in the world”, remains to be seen.
Russia’s rejection of the American proposal comes amidst its recent expulsion of US-led humanitarian aid group, USAID. This trend reflects the tense current relations between the US and Russia, due largely to conflicts about how to deal with Iran and Syria. However despite any diplomatic conflicts, nuclear security remains a large concern for the United States’ national security. We can only hope that for our sake, and for the world’s, that Russia will follow through with its claims to independently continue the programs associated with Nunn-Lugar and allocate the necessary funding.
“It is now impossible to overlook the “new” realities that look a lot like the old ones from the Cold War,” writes Jeffrey Lewis in his Foreign Policy article “Bar Nunn.” Relations between Russia and the US are certainly more strained than they have been in recent years; luckily, however, Nunn-Lugar has, for 21 years, made the world safer than it was during the Cold War. Though some outdated views from decades ago remain, a reinvigorated Cold War is extremely unlikely.
Our cooperation with Russia has taken a hit, but as William Tobey, of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, notes, there are still many ways the US and Russia can partner to reduce the dangers of weapons of mass destruction in the world. We cannot stop fighting for a safer world, no matter how challenging it is. Russia will never align with American world views 100%, but it is clear the security of weapons of mass destruction is in all of our best interests.