Russia Ends U.S. Nuclear Security Treaty, Blames Politics

After decades of collaboration, Washington, D.C., and Moscow in December ended their joint efforts to improve the security of Russia’s nuclear stockpile. Though nuclear security projects between the former Cold War antagonists have been winding down for some time, the events of the past year in Ukraine are seen to have brought to an abrupt close the much-heralded Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program.

The end, according to a recent Boston Globe report, occurred at a meeting in a Moscow hotel during which Russian officials informed their U.S. counterparts that the Russian state atomic energy firm Rosatom would no longer accept U.S. Energy Department assistance in upgrading physical security at a number of sites in the country housing sensitive nuclear material. That work was the last active remnant of Nunn-Lugar activities in Russia following the Kremlin’s 2013 decision to cease Russian Defense Ministry involvement in the program while allowing some cooperative activities between the Energy Department and Rosatom to continue.

Asked in a late January interview whether the United States has any serious proliferation concerns about the nuclear security projects left unfinished in Russia, Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, responded, “We’re always concerned, and this goes for our own facilities as well. We’re concerned about maintenance and sustainability.

“If you build a fence and you put in video cameras, you’ve got to make sure that the fence is kept in good repair and that the video cameras are still working,” she continued. “So we’re very keen to ensure that the improvements we’ve made at these Russian facilities  . . .  are sustained. There’s no question about it.”

Rosatom sought, in a late January press release, to blame the lapse in cooperation on Washington, noting it was the Energy Department in 2014 that canceled planned visits between Russian and American scientists that would have looked at nuclear security and atomic safety issues.

“It cannot and should not depend on situational changes of political environment,” the state-run company said, while indicating it was ready to resume joint activities with the United States if circumstances improved. “We will be ready to return to the cooperation when the American side is ready for that, and, certainly, strictly on the basis of equality, mutual benefit and respect.”

Gottemoeller expressed guarded optimism. “We will see what that means, but the Boston Globe article got their attention,” said the undersecretary, who was the lead negotiator for the U.S. side on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Talks. “We would very much like to continue to work on those kinds of projects with them.  . . .  We actually welcome the fact that they say they want to put more resources into this.”

But in light of continued reported Russian military involvement in Eastern Ukraine, it does not appear that any warming in U.S.-Russia relations is on the horizon. So for now, Washington will have to take Moscow at its word that it is continuing to devote resources toward maintaining security at its nuclear sites.

End to Years of Accomplishment

Enacted in 1991, the Nunn-Lugar Act was named for its Senate sponsors, Democrat Sam Nunn of Georgia and Republican Richard G. Lugar of Indiana. Nunn retired from office at the end of 1996; Lugar was defeated in a primary in 2012.

The law was designed to reduce the danger vulnerable Cold War-era chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in former Soviet Union states could be stolen and proliferated.

Over the course of two decades, the program spent about $2 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars to destroy thousands of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, safeguarding stockpiles of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, providing jobs to onetime Soviet weapons of mass destruction scientists so they would not be tempted to sell their expertise on the black market, and improving foreign governments’ ability to detect and interdict efforts to smuggle weapons-sensitive materials.

“The heroic efforts of the Nunn-Lugar initiatives maintained and strengthened the nuclear order under conditions of unparalleled stress, when international and major power relations were in severe flux,” wrote Michael Krepon, Stimson Center co-founder, in a post for Arms Control Wonk lamenting the end of the program.

Congress clearly anticipated that the end of U.S.-Russia nuclear security cooperation was coming. The 2015 defense authorization law discontinued Cooperative Threat Reduction cooperation with Russia past fiscal 2015 unless expressly authorized by a new law. The fiscal 2015 spending law (PL 113-235) zeroed out threat reduction funding in Russia though the Energy Department had requested $92.3 million. Appropriators, however, left untouched unspent money in the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration nonproliferation account, which theoretically could be used to resume work in Russia if diplomatic conditions improve, according to Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.

“I think the writing had been on the wall for some time,” Reif said recently. “Because of that, and because of the other competing funding priorities they were dealing with the NNSA, they took the money.”