Leaders within Russia and the United States should be preparing for a new era of nuclear security cooperation. To do so, they need to separate other geopolitical issues from the debate over nuclear security.
President Barack Obama, left, followed by Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Chinese President Xi Jinping, leave the room after posing for a "family photo" of world leaders attending the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, April 1, 2016. Photo: AP
In the twenty-five year period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and Russia experienced a level of nuclear nonproliferation cooperation that significantly reduced the global threat of nuclear warfare. However, recent events – including Russia’s recent no-show at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. now has many experts concerned about the future of nuclear security cooperation.
The era of nuclear security cooperation was truly unprecedented and resulted in the down-blending of over five hundred tons of highly enriched or weapons-grade uranium from former Soviet Republics and the repatriation of materials from other former Soviet Republics back to Russia.
Further, joint U.S.-Russian cooperation led to upgraded defensive capabilities and security at Russian nuclear storage sites – areas that once posed a significant regional security risk. The steps the United States and Russia have taken to reduce acquisition of nuclear material by non-state actors has contributed significantly to a safer world.
However, the U.S.-Russian relationship has now deteriorated to the point where former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev asked, "Are we in the middle of a new Cold War?” Twenty-five years ago, this scenario must have seemed unfathomable to Gorbachev. When accepting his Nobel Prize in 1991 he said, “Today, peace means the ascent from simple coexistence to cooperation and common creativity among countries and nations.”
That dream of cooperation set forth by Gorbachev, and then by U.S. Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, has been by and large frozen [Senators Nunn and Lugar co-authored the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, also known as the Nunn-Lugar Act – Editor’s note]. Russia ended bilateral security cooperation in early 2014, and a bill passed by the 114th U.S. Congress prohibits the transfer of any public funding to Russia.
With the prohibition of financing to help secure the derelict nuclear sites of the former Soviet Union, the amount of nuclear material unsecured remains vulnerable to acquisition by non-state actors. This is particularly true as Russia copes with the economic impact of Western sanctions against its vulnerable energy industry.
Further, diplomatic relations continue to decline and one of the primary multilateral venues used to promote the security of nuclear material, the Nuclear Security Summit, was boycotted by Russia this year. The Russian administration indicated the boycott was to prevent the U.S. from continuing to aggressively manipulate nuclear powers by using techniques that dominate the political process. For example, Russia claims that the United States is using international organizations, particularly the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), to promote American interests.
Historically, the perception that the U.S. uses the international community to promote its interests in the nuclear realm is nothing new. In 1946 Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin was deeply concerned the United States was using the precursor to the IAEA, the U.N Atomic Energy Commission, to punish the Soviet Union. Indeed, it would only be three years later that the Soviet Union would detonate its first atomic weapon, aptly named by U.S. intelligence as “Joe-1” after Stalin himself.
What steps can the United States and Russia make to resume bilateral cooperation that ended in 2014 and prevent an event similar to the Soviet Union's first nuclear testing in August, 1949, dubbed as“Joe-1”?
Resumption of bilateral cooperation requires a detachment of nuclear security from other geopolitical issues. For example, the evolving situation in Ukraine should not be linked to the overwhelming threat of unsecured nuclear material. Indeed, the prospect of organizations like the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) stealing unsecured nuclear material should be a priority for international security.
Further, continued cooperation between the United States and Russian nuclear agencies and laboratories would increase transparency and scientific cooperation as well as mutual understanding of key nuclear security problems faced by both countries. As well, cooperation would allow for assessments of security vulnerability by both organizations, creating the groundwork for a forum that could work to prevent increased terrorism.
Increased transparency and scientific cooperation is perhaps the only route available to preventing continued nuclear proliferation and the possibility of nuclear material acquisition by organizations that seek to harm civilization.
The United States and Russia should be proud of previous accomplishments in nuclear security and in particular the historical fact that neither nation has tested a nuclear weapon since 1992. However, the continued decline in the bilateral relationship is leading to the prospect that this record may not continue. Then-U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry indicated that Russia might resume nuclear testing, and geospatial images of Novaya Zemlya show Russia may be preparing for subcritical nuclear testing.
In the United States, absurd and illogical rhetoric on nuclear weapons from the Republican nominee for the U.S. presidential campaign, Donald Trump, coupled with the failure of the U.S. Congress to unlock funding for nuclear security cooperation, stifle the relationship.
In this difficult time, one should keep in mind the words of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, one-time adversary and later friend of President Gorbachev, “Peace is not the absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.