04/09/2008 - 13:44

An Interview with Pavel Podvig

Pavel Podvig

Pavel Podvig

A physicist trained at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Podvig works on the Russian nuclear arsenal, US-Russian relations, and nonproliferation. In 1995, he headed the Russian...

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How have U.S.-Russian relations changed in the post-Cold War era?

Not as much as they should have changed. The Cold War confrontation had ideological and historic roots that are irrelevant today for either Russia or the United States. Unfortunately, however, the inertia of the Cold War has proved difficult to overcome, and the notion that nuclear weapons somehow contribute to national security persists. So although it’s impossible to imagine a scenario in which Russia or the United States would need thousands of nuclear weapons, both countries maintain such sizable arsenals nonetheless.

On which issues can the United States and Russia find common ground?

It’s natural the U.S. approach and Russian approach to various problems will always be somewhat different, but there aren’t any fundamental differences between the two countries. Both should be interested in fostering a peaceful, stable international environment that facilitates economic development throughout the world. They could start by working together to reduce their nuclear arsenals and strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime. As for their inevitable differences, those should be valued, as they often help in finding better solutions to difficult problems.

Under what scenario would Russia be willing to agree to complete nuclear disarmament and relinquish its nuclear weapons?

The current Russian leadership often emphasizes nuclear weapons as a vital component to Russian national security. And for many Russians, nuclear weapons became a powerful symbol of Moscow’s prominent role in international affairs and a reminder of its former superpower status. This is certainly a worrisome trend, but I don’t think it will last. As Russia becomes stronger economically and integrates itself into the world economy, Moscow will inevitably discover that nuclear weapons do not translate into security or influence. It’s already clear that nuclear weapons cannot help deal with today’s most pressing problems--whether the problem is terrorism or stabilizing a dangerously unstable nation.

Still, it will take significant effort to build the international security framework to make giving up nuclear weapons easier. Therefore, it’s important that the U.S.-Russian nuclear disarmament process and work on strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty continue.

Name three recent positives for nonproliferation.

It’s good to see that the idea of a nuclear-weapon-free world is becoming a mainstream political idea. When four former high-ranking U.S. officials (former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former defense secretary Bill Perry, and former Sen. Sam Nunn) join the cause (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120036422673589947.html), it’s very encouraging. The idea of banning nuclear weapons is as old as nuclear weapons themselves, but their call helped bring new attention to the idea and outlined practical steps toward it.

Disarmament of North Korea is another significant positive development. Despite all of the problems, dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear program is going forward and is now irreversible. Equally important, the process that yielded dismantlement proved that engagement works much better than confrontation, as there’s a direct correlation between U.S. willingness to engage North Korea and progress in the negotiations.

Lastly, it’s good to see that despite much skepticism, the United States and Russia are becoming serious about extending the formal arms control framework, as it appears like the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) will be extended beyond its current December 2009 expiration date. Eventually, though, the emphasis in START should shift from numerical limits to providing greater transparency and building cooperation mechanisms, allowing the United States and Russia to build trust in one another, which, in turn, will undermine the sole reason for maintaining large nuclear arsenals. Greater transparency and accountability will also strengthen the nonproliferation regime.

How conceivable is an accidental nuclear war between the United States and Russia?

The probability is very small since the command and control of the two countries’ nuclear forces was built to minimize such an accidental launch. That said, the consequences of an accidental nuclear war would be catastrophic. So unless the probability of an accident is zero, we shouldn’t discount it. The most reliable way to do so is by making sure that neither country possesses nuclear weapons to launch--either accidentally or otherwise.

Describe the security of the Russian nuclear arsenal.

The security of the weapons is reasonably good. Russia has managed to preserve the core of the professional military force that managed its nuclear arsenal during the Soviet era. Of course, this runs counter to the perception that the Russian government and military have a problem properly accounting for the country’s nuclear weapons. Such accusations can be leveled at all the nuclear states. For example, as we saw with the six nuclear warheads that left Minot Air Base in North Dakota without being detected, “loose nukes” can be a U.S. phenomenon, too.

The security of weapon-grade fissile material in Russia, however, is another matter, especially in the civilian portion of Moscow’s nuclear complex. Plutonium and highly enriched uranium exist in many physical forms at locations and facilities throughout the country. Securing this material or properly accounting for all of it is an extremely difficult task since the amount that has been produced is extraordinarily large. As a point of reference, Russia maintains hundreds of tons of weapon-grade uranium and plutonium, while constructing a bomb would take only tens of kilograms.