Why We Still Need to Cooperate with Russia on Nuclear Security

The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 dismantled a highly centralized multi-national government, leaving behind 15 newly independent states, an economy in chaotic transition, and an enormous nuclear weapons complex. The sudden meltdown of the military structures that had managed the Soviet nuclear arsenal for decades left destructive weapons, technologies, and materials exposed and vulnerable. Guards went for months without payment, leading some to desert their posts and leave tons of nuclear material and weapons entirely unguarded. Electricity shutoffs at facilities that could not afford to pay for basic utilities rendered entire security systems (alarms, surveillance cameras, etc.) useless. As security measures deteriorated, the risk posed by “loose nukes” intensified.

Reagan_Gorbachev_negotiate_outside_Reykjavik_SummitThe Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR) was established in 1991 in order to assist the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union in transporting, safeguarding, and destroying its weapons of mass destruction. For over two decades the United States contributed funding and expertise to collaborative projects that prevented Soviet weapons, materials, technologies, and bodies of knowledge from falling into the wrong hands, but recent years have seen cooperation between the U.S. and Russia slow to a halt. While the two nuclear superpowers decrease cooperation on nuclear security and non-proliferation, the security threats posed by unsecured nuclear material, technology, and expertise still loom large.

The concept behind CTR originated as the USSR was thrust into a period of political crisis in the late 1980s and the stability and longevity of the Soviet Union became an open question.  Prior to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the threat posed by nuclear material existing outside of command and control systems was not thoroughly considered or well understood. The fragmentation of the USSR therefore created a new nuclear risk for states to manage.

Recognizing the potential for unsecured Soviet weapons and material to fall into the hands of aspiring nuclear powers, then-Senators Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) began proposing measures to secure the expansive Soviet arsenal. The idea of offering robust financial assistance to a former adversary was controversial, but it was ultimately approved by Congress in 1991.  It took years of educational efforts in Congress to facilitate the widespread change of opinion that allowed for the passage of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act in 1991. Despite the successes of CTR, the complex relationship between the United States and Russia has continued to challenge cooperative nuclear security and non-proliferation efforts in the years since the program was established.

Under the CTR program, the United States helped Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine to transport, consolidate, and destroy its excess nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and to convert facilities that had been used to produce nuclear weapons for peaceful use. Through information sharing and personnel training, some projects focused on improving the security culture at Russian facilities. Projects like the Nuclear Cities Initiative, the Initiative for Proliferation Prevention, and the International Science and Technology Centers engaged nuclear weapons scientists in order to prevent them from selling their technical knowledge of weapons systems to other nations’ WMD programs.

The benefits of cooperation on nuclear security extended beyond the protection of dangerous materials and technologies. Collaborative projects between the United States and Russia were important in developing relationships between Russian and American scientists after the Cold War. These valuable professional and personal connections require maintenance, and are sacrificed when sustained cooperation is eliminated.  Relationships take years to establish, and losing these lab-to-lab and person-to-person connections may make it more difficult to resume cooperative projects in the future.

The conditions in Russia, including the large quantity of nuclear material it possesses and relatively weak security culture, make material stored there especially vulnerable to theft and smuggling. Compared to the United States, Russia has more nuclear facilities spread out over a greater geographic area. The distribution of Russia’s nuclear material makes it logistically difficult and expensive to secure. Given the immense difficulty of producing nuclear material, the easiest way for an illicit group to acquire it would be to steal it from a storage facility. Ensuring the security of nuclear material is critical for preventing terrorist groups from acquiring it and developing a crude nuclear weapon or dirty bomb.

In light of this, Russia’s proximity to illicit organizations that might aspire to obtain this material is especially troubling. Four terrorist organizations have demonstrated interest in obtaining nuclear materials, including Chechen separatists that are active within Russia’s borders. The risk of proliferation of nuclear materials to terrorist groups is especially clear and pressing in Russia, and should motivate the United States and Russia to collaborate on nuclear security initiatives.

Cooperative threat reduction efforts with Russia have sharply declined in recent years in the wake of souring relations between the U.S. and Russia, but CTR has faced criticism since it was first proposed. Throughout the first decade of the program critics in Congress argued that the benefits of CTR were not worth sending billions of American taxpayer dollars abroad. This sentiment has at times been paired with an ideological objection to funding programs in a state that is still widely considered to be an adversary of the U.S.

Criticism of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program has not been limited to the United States. Russian objection to CTR occurred in the broader context of eliminating American funding and influence from Russian policy. In the midst of a series of decisions to eject American organizations from Russia in 2012, the Russian Federation declined to renew the Nunn-Lugar agreement, reasoning that the country no longer needed American funding to achieve the goals of the CTR program. Russian rejection of the program may also have served to amplify a message of discontent with the U.S. installation of limited missile defense near Russia’s borders.

While a new framework negotiated under the Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Program in the Russian Federation allowed for some limited cooperation between U.S. and Russian agencies after 2013, Russian officials announced their withdrawal from this agreement in 2015. Additionally, the U.S. Congress has suspended almost all funding for cooperative nuclear security and non-proliferation projects with Russia. Although the decline in U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation has accelerated in recent years, the cancellation of CTR arrangements did not happen overnight. A series of actions and reactions contributed to the suspension of nuclear cooperation between the two states.

Despite the challenges of the U.S.-Russia relationship, the threat posed by nuclear material existing outside of command and control structures is so great that it should supersede international tensions. Instead of terminating cooperative programs that address this danger, the United States and Russia should re-establish mechanisms for dialogue on issues of nuclear security and non-proliferation. Preventing the spread of weapons-usable material and technologies requires continuous effort, and the need for international cooperation is unending.

Therefore, the United States and Russia should re-establish mechanisms for dialogue on issues of nuclear security and non-proliferation. The troubled state of the U.S.-Russian relationship requires that projects evolve to focus on specific initiatives rather than amorphous issues, and the U.S. and Russia should move towards a “partnership of equals” in terms of leadership and funding. Working together as peers, rather than a donor and recipient of aid, the United States and Russia may be better able to mitigate the risk posed by nuclear material, technology, and expertise by exchanging best practices, resuming scientific cooperation, and engaging in joint work to secure material in third party countries.