RD Interview: Alexey Arbatov, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program, discusses nuclear security challenges and the risk of terrorist groups getting access to nuclear weapons.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. Photo: AP

Nuclear security remains one of the most important fields for international cooperation. However, the global effort to deal with the risks of nuclear nonproliferation seems to be flawed, as evidenced most recently by Russia’s absence at the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. and the lack of trust between the world’s two nuclear superpowers.

Alexey Arbatov, Carnegie Moscow CenterMoreover, the efforts of terrorists to get access to nuclear materials and technologies appear to be increasing at the same time as there is a race for developing nuclear power projects in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. This might create fertile soil for the rise of nuclear terrorism on a global scale.

To assess all these challenges and risks, Russia Direct recently sat down with Alexey Arbatov, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program.

On the sidelines of a meeting of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), Arbatov gave his take on the future of nuclear nonproliferation.

Russia Direct: Russia’s absence at the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit attracted a lot of attention and criticism from the West. Why didn’t Russia attend the summit?

Alexey Arbatov: Well, there have been three such summits since 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin has attended none of them. As President, Dmitry Medvedev attended the first one. When Medvedev later became Prime Minister, he visited the second summit. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov participated in the third summit. This time Putin himself was invited to take part. However, he turned down the offer.

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Russian authorities didn’t come because they didn’t want play by U.S. President Barack Obama’s rules after the intensification of the U.S.-Russia confrontation [in 2014-2015]. I assume that the Kremlin made this decision last year, when bilateral relations with Washington were in sharp decline. It was a gesture aimed at demonstrating Russia’s frustration with U.S. policy.

After all, nuclear security is the very field where Moscow can challenge the United States. The Obama administration sees nonproliferation as strategically important and is interested in collaborating with Russia in this area.  But Russia, dissatisfied with American foreign policy moves elsewhere, refused to attend the summit to hamper Washington’s initiative. But this stance of the Kremlin drives the negotiations to another standoff and aggravates the problem, with the whole nonproliferation regime coming apart at the seams. But, finally, who will lose? I am afraid that Russia will in the end.

RD: Why do you think so?

A.A.: Russia and the U.S. are two nuclear superpowers. But there are also seven nuclear powers. And all of them are located very close to Russia’s territory. Almost all their military systems and nuclear technologies can easily reach Russia. Meanwhile, the U.S. is only vulnerable to Russian and Chinese [nuclear missile systems]. Moreover, if the nonproliferation regime is violated and terrorist organizations get access to nuclear technologies, it will be much easier for them to reach Russia through its neighboring borders than the U.S. across the Atlantic.

Yes, nuclear security is the very field where we can create problems for the United States, but eventually our reluctance to participate in the summit could backfire. If the nonproliferation regime will collapse, Russia will be among the first victims.

The very fact that we refused to participate in the Nuclear Security Summit indicates that we present ourselves as outsiders in this crucial effort. So, even out close allies, including China, India and Kazakhstan, attended it. Likewise, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) plays one of the key roles in such events. That’s why I think that Russia’s position is ill advised.

RD: One of the goals of the summit is to understand how to keep nuclear technologies and materials out of the hands of terrorists. Is the threat of nuclear terrorism increasing or decreasing today?

A.A.: This threat is increasing for two reasons. First, nuclear power engineering projects are becoming very popular around the world and, most importantly, in the most unstable regions, including Asia, the Middle East and Africa (in particular, Nigeria). Today there are 438 active nuclear reactors in the world, but this number will reach 600 in 20 years.

This means there will be increasing demand for nuclear expertise and technologies as well as materials such as uranium and plutonium. Hypothetically, terrorists might get access to the radiation-exposed fuel, steal it from the burial ground, blow up the radioactive materials in a city and make it uninhabited for the next 100 years. Terrorists can also come come up with primitive explosive radioactive materials and explode this “dirty bomb” elsewhere in a basement.

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Second, there is the increasing threat of terrorism in general. Previously we had to withstand guerilla terrorist organizations. Today terrorists create states. Even though they are seen as quasi-states, they seek to expand their territories, create their own armies and move from one country to another. In addition, the refugee crisis exacerbates the problem: There are many terrorists disguised as refugees.

Yes, the threat of nuclear terrorism in increasing. When it comes true — in one year, in three years or tomorrow — it is impossible to predict. Nobody knows.  

RD: Why don’t the most vulnerable countries withdraw from nuclear energy projects?

A.A.: It is impossible. There is a nuclear power boom today. It is a matter of prestige and security for many countries. Why do you think Saudi Arabia and Indonesia need nuclear power stations? They seek prestige. Likewise, prestige is behind Iran’s nuclear energy projects. In this context, many greet the Iranian nuclear deal that suspends its nuclear program for 15 years with optimism, but they miss one point. As soon as the period of the agreement expires, Iranians might not only resume the suspended program, but also reinvigorate it.

The acquisition of nuclear weapons might bring about a lot of problems for a country [including international sanctions], but developing peaceful nuclear power projects is fine. Being close to the nuclear threshold, with the possibility to cross it anytime, enrich uranium and create a nuclear bomb in three months, is seen by many as a very prospective way of increasing international prestige and security.

RD: Hypothetically, what are the most dangerous regions today from the standpoint of nuclear security?

A.A.: It is the Middle East first and foremost. It is an unstable zone due to the threat of nuclear terrorism: There are many plans for developing nuclear power projects in this region. Russia boosts this process by participating in such projects.

For example, Moscow didn’t stop the construction of a nuclear power station in Turkey despite the fact that Russian-Turkish relations are in decline: Moscow is expected to build four reactors within Turkey’s nuclear power plant [in the town of Akkuyu], because it is a matter of substantial money and long-term profits [The contract between Moscow and Ankara is worth $20 billion — Editor’s note].

On the top of that, there are plans to build nuclear power stations in Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. But nobody knows what will happen in Saudi Arabia in the near future. It might repeat the Libyan scenario [after Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, Libya faced a civil war and became a failed state – Editor’s note].

Likewise, the United Arab Emirates have aspirations to build nuclear power stations, which may also spur other countries like Morocco and Algeria to do the same. As a result, the Middle East will become even more unstable, with nuclear terrorism threat looming on the horizon.

The second most dangerous region is Africa, including Central Africa’s Nigeria. It is unclear what will happen in South Africa, giving their aspirations to resume the work of their nuclear power stations.

And the third most unstable region from the point of view of nuclear security is Southeast Asia, regardless of the fact that everything looks stable there at first glace. But I don’t rule out that some countries of this region like Indonesia might face social unrest, with all the following implications. Case in point: consider what happened in Iran in 1979. Before the revolution it was a developing and economically successful country.

RD: What are the odds of terrorists getting access to nuclear weapons in Pakistan?

A.A.: Getting access to nuclear weapons in this country is hardly possible during a peaceful period. But if a political crisis leads to the collapse of the state and radical Islamists come to power, the risks do exist.

RD: What about North Korea?

A.A.: In fact, North Korea is the biggest existing nuclear threat. It has already become a nuclear state.  

RD: How do you assess the cooperation between nuclear powers to denuclearize North Korea?

A.A.: One of the examples of this cooperation is the recent joint resolution of the UN Security Council that imposed severe sanctions against North Korea after it conducted another nuclear testing on Jan. 6, 2016. However, it doesn’t mean that this cooperation is solid and well-coordinated.

RD: What should the nuclear powers keep in mind to alleviate North Korea’s nuclear threat?

A.A.: First, the nuclear powers should come up with a united position. Second, they should not drive North Korea into a corner no matter how bad and intolerable the political regime can be in this country. There is no need to confuse the campaign against the atrocious regime and the prevention of a local or regional nuclear war.

If you fight with the regime, you might provoke the collapse of the state. In this case, nuclear expertise, materials and technologies, which are available in this country, might fall into the hands of deliberate criminals, including terrorists. So, we have to put up with this regime, establish dialogue and guarantee them security. However, for the West it is very difficult to accept, unlike Russia. Yet we have to be realistic and choose the lesser of two evils. It is necessary to negotiate step by step instead of attempting to resolve all problems at once.

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As a first step, we should persuade North Korea not to conduct nuclear weapons testing anymore. Afterwards, we can encourage them to stop increasing developing nuclear materials. This problem can be resolved only through negotiations and dialogue. It is out of the question to talk about a military solution of this challenge.    

RD: Although Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that Kiev had no intentions of going nuclear again, some political figures proposed that the nation should resume its former nuclear potential. Is there any basis for concern?

A.A.: There are 15 nuclear reactors in Ukraine. Objectively, if Ukraine decides to go nuclear again and rigorously focus on this project, it can hypothetically achieve this goal in 10 years despite its plight and severe economic crisis. After all, Ukraine is comparably powerful technologically, given its Soviet nuclear legacy. Economically, it is easier for Ukraine to produce a nuclear bomb than for North Korea, Pakistan or even India.

Objectively, nothing can prevent Ukraine from creating a nuclear weapon, except international rebuke in response to such an initiative. If Kiev decided to resume the production of nuclear weapons, it would lead to another international crisis. Ukraine would become a pariah state, which means that the path to Europe would be closed. Kiev would be under international sanctions and turn into a big North Korea in the heart of Europe.

However, politically, this scenario is impossible, given Ukraine’s aspirations to become a part of Europe. After all, it wants to be seen as a responsible international stakeholder. But the problem is that other countries can give a bad example to Ukraine. I mean those countries that seek to reach the nuclear threshold not through creating nuclear arms but through the possibility of the fast production of a nuclear bomb. Ukraine can easily do it.

If Iran, the member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, will resume its nuclear programs in 15 years, it might be a signal for Kiev to point to Tehran and follow its example. Today Iran has only one nuclear reactor for commercial purposes in Bushehr, while Ukraine has 15. So, it has many more reasons to reach the nuclear threshold.

Kiev can easily buy the nuclear fuel cycle technologies and prepare itself for enriching uranium without leaving the Nonproliferation Treaty, which, by the way, doesn’t forbid using uranium enrichment technologies.