RD Interview: Russia’s Permanent Representative to the International Organizations in Vienna, Ambassador Vladimir Voronkov, discusses the reasons behind the Kremlin’s decision not to attend the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit, while emphasizing the ongoing cooperation between Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

President Barack Obama speaks during aе the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, Netherlands, on March 25, 2014. Photo: AP

This week, the fourth Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) will open in Washington, D.C. in the presence of 52 high-profile national delegations and four international agencies. However, Russia will not be among them, and that’s raising questions about Russia’s commitment to nuclear security.

Ahead of the summit, Russia Direct interviewed Russia’s Permanent Representative to the International Organizations in Vienna, Ambassador Vladimir Voronkov, about the reasons behind Russia’s decision to stay away from the summit. In the interview, Voronkov also discusses current global nuclear security challenges and ways that Russia is cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Russia Direct: Why has Russia decided not to take part in the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington?

Vladimir Voronkov: Let’s recall how this story developed. The U.S. took the initiative of holding Nuclear Security Summits. The first such meeting at the highest level was held in Washington in 2010, the second in Seoul in 2012. Russia took part in them. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov headed our delegation to the third summit in The Hague, which took place in 2014.

The discussions within the framework of the summits played their role in attracting international attention to the problem of nuclear terrorism. They had a positive impact on the international efforts aimed at setting up reliable mechanisms to prevent nuclear material from getting into the hands of non-state actors.

One should say right away that even before that, the IAEA had consistently worked to attain this goal. However, for a long time, member states had a heated debate about whether nuclear security is part of the IAEA’s portfolio, since this term is absent from the Statute of the IAEA. Some developing nations considered any attempts to approach nuclear security within the context of the IAEA as an attempt to limit their access to the benefits of nuclear energy. One can hear statements to this effect till this day, but they have become much quieter.

The American idea to hold the summits has become useful in forging an international consensus on the issue of nuclear security - that nuclear security is an inalienable component of nuclear infrastructure and guaranteeing it is a task to be tackled at the state level. This could be achieved by turning a simple principle into the cornerstone of this system. This principle is that states have to bear responsibility for nuclear security on their territories and define the parameters of respective national mechanisms. Another major achievement is that today countries unanimously support the IAEA’s central role in international cooperation as far as nuclear security is concerned.

This language was first present in the summits’ documents and later migrated to the IAEA. This allows us to incorporate nuclear security projects into the agency’s coordinated program and raise the issue of funding it not only through voluntary donations, but also through the regular budget.

In our view, the task of giving the nuclear security issue a high-level political impetus had been accomplished already by the 2014 summit in The Hague. Back then we warned our colleagues that we won’t go to the next such meeting, since we think it’s time to continue professional work at the IAEA. So, our decision not to participate in the Washington summit is neither spontaneous, nor sensational. And it is not connected to other issues in our relationship.

Also read: "Nonproliferation requires more cooperation between Russia, the West"

RD: How exactly does one plan to reinforce IAEA’s activity in the field of nuclear security?

V.V.: The IAEA has been involved with the issues of nuclear security and physical protection of nuclear material for several decades already. I would like to emphasize that in the case of the IAEA, we are talking not about nuclear security in general, but about facilitating international cooperation in this sensitive field. The agency does not impose anything on its member states as far as their government policies are concerned. It provides a platform for multilateral expert discussion, encourages exchange of best practices among interested parties, and helps countries to organize the respective infrastructure when requested to do so.

First and foremost, such support is in demand among countries, which are just beginning to develop peaceful nuclear energy and are launching their nuclear programs. However, the countries that have a cautious attitude to nuclear energy have to pay attention to nuclear security as well. In the era of globalization and transparent borders, the threat of illegally circulating nuclear material making their way into the hands of non-state actors may affect any country.

In recent years, the international community has been able to do a lot to strengthen the IAEA in this field and make its work more effective. One of the more substantial achievements is the creation of the Nuclear Security Guidance Committee (NSGC). It has finally allowed us to organize the process in which various IAEA recommendations and other documents are being drafted, to structure the efforts of member states and make the priorities clear.

This committee is one of the few bodies within the agency where decisions are made on the basis of consensus. In my opinion, it is an important testimony to the fact that IAEA member states have serious intentions and political will to jointly confront nuclear terrorism and prevent the illegal circulation of nuclear material.

Our top priority has always been to strengthen international law in the field of nuclear security. We consider it quite realistic to achieve a more rapid entry into force of the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) – hopefully by the end of this year.

(The Amendment makes it legally binding for countries to protect nuclear facilities, as well as nuclear material in domestic use, storage and transport. It provides for expanded cooperation among countries on locating and recovering stolen or smuggled nuclear material and requires states to minimize any radiological consequences of sabotage, and to prevent and combat related offences. Adopted in 2005, the amendment still has not entered into force because not enough countries have adhered to it. – Editor’s Note).

Russia was one of the first countries that made all the necessary steps in this direction. Recently, Washington has joined, and the process has now gone faster. Not much is left to achieve the goal – the Amendment now needs to be ratified by eight signatories of the Convention.

Its entry into force will be a landmark event, which will bring the international cooperation in the field of nuclear security to a qualitatively new level and base it on a solid legal foundation. We hope that the announcement about the Amendment’s entry into force will be made at the IAEA International Conference on Nuclear Security, which is still on schedule to take place at the ministerial level in December this year in Vienna.

RD: One of the topics discussed within the framework of the NSS is the question of creating a system of international control over nuclear materials used for military purposes. How does Russia see this proposal?

V.V.: Let me refrain from commenting on the discussions that are being held on an outside platform without our participation.

As far as the IAEA is concerned, the Agency is mandated to work exclusively with peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Issues related to the protection of nuclear material used in the military sphere are not part of its portfolio.

Recommended: "The nuclear threat still looms over the US-Russia relationship"

I can only add that nuclear powers bear full responsibility for the security of their nuclear arsenals and successfully fulfill this task. In Russia, this matter is addressed on a high professional level. How we achieve this is classified material. Disclosing the details would have made our nuclear weapons vulnerable. No reasonable state would do that.

Yet one vivid confirmation of the reliability of the existing mechanism is that there has never been a single incident involving our nuclear weapons or their parts. It means that effective controls are in place.

RD: Where does one see today major threats to nuclear security and nonproliferation regime – in which regions, countries or areas of activity?

V.V.: I’ll permit myself a philosophical answer. Life is full of threats which should be neither overestimated nor undervalued. It is especially true when one speaks of nuclear energy. Correct risk and threat assessment is a very complicated task that, given today’s proliferation of nuclear and radiation technologies, international community has to deal with constantly and within various formats.

One cannot pick anyone and declare to be the source of terrorist threat or nuclear proliferation, a sort of nuclear devil incarnate. That’s not what we do. Nuclear industries in all countries, especially those where peaceful uses are being developed – and there are more and more of those - are required today to professionally manage the risks and maintain high readiness of preventive mechanisms. It goes without saying that diligent compliance with international commitments in this field is a must.

It is clear today that without nuclear technologies, it will be impossible to solve many problems of sustainable development and successfully counteract global warming. In my opinion, nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear security regimes have been created and function first and foremost to prevent the threats and thus create good, stable and predictable conditions for the expansion of peaceful nuclear technology. It is a daily task for every country.

Also read: "UN General Assembly: Nuclear question raises hopes and skepticism"

There is no universal recipe on what to do when and if the threat becomes a reality. Every situation of the kind is a special challenge. I presume much here depends on the potential that has been formed in a specific region. Solid backing of the international law, reliable physical protection, effective ways of accounting for and control of nuclear material, clear and reasonable government policy regarding the treatment of radioactive sources – these are the inalienable components of a successful response to proliferation and terrorist risks.

RD: What kind of contribution does Russia make to international cooperation in the field of nuclear security?

V.V.: Russia’s active position in this regard is well known both in the United Nations and other international bodies. Our country had once initiated the work on UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which became the cornerstone of international efforts to prevent weapons of mass destruction from getting into the hands of terrorists.

The same is true of the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. Since 2006, we have without interruption served as co-chairs of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which had been proposed by the Russian President.

As far as I know, this initiative attracts more and more interest, all the more so because it was able to build a working relationship with the IAEA and integrate the results of its work into a broad international context. I consider it to be an excellent model for cooperation, which strengthens the IAEA’s central role in international cooperation on nuclear security.

For many years, our country has been working in close cooperation with the IAEA in the field of nuclear security. The demand for Russian nuclear security expertise is growing, especially in the context of developing respective IAEA recommendations, and so is our role in personnel training programs and our support for the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Fund.

Last year, the agreement between the Russian Foreign Ministry and the IAEA on Russia’s voluntary contribution to the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Fund was extended to 2021. One million dollars per year represent a substantial support for the Agency. It may not be so easy to find these resources in the current economic conditions, but these expenses are fully justified.

Our money is spent on strengthening nuclear security in those countries, which are our neighbors and partners in peaceful nuclear cooperation as well as for the development of our potential as on the leading international competency centers in the field of nuclear security.

These contributions make the world safer while working simultaneously to serve the interests of Russia and the IAEA. We are interested in it as a responsible state, one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council and one of the world’s largest suppliers of nuclear technology and equipment.