Thanks to disputes over Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere, the United States and Russia — the two countries that hold the vast majority of worldwide fissile material — have ceased nearly all cooperation that could thwart a nuclear terror attack.
Such a scenario is not farfetched. There is documented evidence that al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have pursued weapons-grade nuclear materials, and smugglers have been caught attempting to distribute them to the wrong hands. Just 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium could fuel a crude, 15-kiloton nuclear weapon. If al-Qaeda had detonated such a device in lower Manhattan instead of flying airplanes into towers, the toll in history’s deadliest terror attack would have been not 3,000 souls but forty times as many.
The current U.S.-Russia relationship is plagued by big and difficult issues. They include, but are not limited to, Russia’s violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election, annexation of Crimea, attempts to undermine the government of Ukraine, and military actions in Syria.
Despite these differences, there are still some areas of cooperation between the two countries. For example, NASA pays the Russian space program to give American astronauts a ride to the International Space Station while the U.S. develops its next-generation space capabilities. The countries are also working together to enforce the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal.
Thwarting nuclear terrorism should be added to the list. The risk of a nuclear terror attack in Washington or Moscow — or anywhere on the planet — cannot be ignored due to other disagreements.
Such cooperation has a track record of success. In 1991, as the Soviet Union was nearing its dissolution, global concern focused on an unthinkable danger: the soon-to-be-independent Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan stood to inherit Soviet nuclear weapons, along with fissile material that could be used to make more nuclear arms. In response, my former colleagues, senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, passed an amendment to provide funding for these new states — and Russia itself — to help secure and remove the missiles, warheads, and material.