US-Russia rift threatens science ties that keep us safe

By Siegfried S. Hecker | December 8, 2016

Amid increasing tensions between Washington and Moscow over Syria, Ukraine, cyber hacking, and military maneuvers in the Baltics, the Kremlin’s systematic termination of nuclear cooperation with the United States has gone relatively unnoticed. Both countries embraced such cooperation as a shared global responsibility after the end of the Cold War. A return to nuclear confrontation now sets the clock back, putting both countries at enormous risk and endangering global stability.

This fall, Moscow suspended the US-Russian agreement on the disposition of excess weapons plutonium, terminated an agreement on converting research reactors from highly enriched to low-enriched uranium, and ended a 2013 agreement to cooperate on nuclear- and energy-related scientific research and development. These actions followed Moscow’s termination of most initiatives under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, including cooperation on nuclear materials security, which ended in December 2014. And earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin chose not to have his country participate in the last of the Nuclear Security Summits organized by US President Barack Obama.

The termination of any one of these programs on its own would have been lamentable, but Moscow’s wholesale withdrawal from nuclear cooperation is alarming. The plutonium disposition agreement had been an important step, underscoring each country’s commitment to removing 34 metric tons of plutonium from weapons program stockpiles and disposing of it in a mutually acceptable and verifiable manner. Putin’s suspension of the agreement—though triggered by Washington’s announcement that it would take a different approach to disposing of its own excess plutonium—appears politically motivated, as suggested by the onerous conditions he specified would have to be met in order to resume the deal. The suspension will have little practical effect, since both sides will likely proceed with their preferred options for disposing of excess plutonium, as neither needs it for its nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, Moscow and Washington have lost an opportunity to demonstrate progress toward verifiable disarmament to the rest of the world.

The termination of the program to convert Russian research reactors is unfortunate, but it was something that neither Russia’s technical nor political communities regarded as a high priority. What is more important is that the United States and Russia are continuing to cooperate to facilitate such conversion in Russian-origin reactors in third countries, which contain the most vulnerable material.

Suspending the scientific research agreement is unfortunate and unwise. Such cooperation is not a favor that Moscow does for Washington, but rather a necessity for its own scientists to stay internationally connected. US-Russia cooperation on fundamental science existed even during the Soviet days. It flourished during the immediate post-Cold War period, particularly between scientists from the Russian and American nuclear weapons laboratories. It produced innumerable benefits in specific disciplines for scientific communities in both countries. It was that scientific cooperation in the early 1990s that helped to reintegrate Russian nuclear scientists into the international scientific community, and laid the foundation for expanded nuclear security cooperation between Russia and the West.

What is most worrisome is Moscow’s stated reason for ending nuclear cooperation: Putin blames Washington’s hostile actions toward Russia. He insists that Washington will have to undo egregious actions inflicted upon Russia over the past two decades, for example by curbing the NATO military presence in countries that joined the alliance after 2000, repealing the Magnitsky Act, which imposes visa bans and financial sanctions on certain Russian officials, and making reparations for economic sanctions imposed on Russia since 2014.

Russia’s recent steps are tearing apart the fabric of US-Russian nuclear cooperation, which took decades to develop. The bilateral effort that began 25 years ago as the Soviet Union disintegrated was extraordinary in that it served well both Russia and the United States, along with an anxious world. Never before had a country with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, over one million kilograms of fissile materials that could fuel bombs, hundreds of thousands of nuclear workers, and a huge nuclear complex been thrust into political and economic chaos. In Washington and other capitals around the world, the nuclear dangers took an unexpected turn, with nations feeling threatened not by the enormous nuclear arsenal in the hands of the Soviet government, but rather by the prospect that the huge former Soviet nuclear assets—weapons, materials, and experts—would no longer remain in the government’s control but could slip into the hands of others waiting to create havoc in the world.

Visionary leadership in both countries—by dedicated professionals in government, nongovernmental organizations, and academia—fostered 25 years of nuclear cooperation. In retrospect, in spite of the current retrenchment, cooperation served Washington well because it helped avoid a nuclear catastrophe of unknown proportions. Cooperation also enabled the rapid implementation of a series of nuclear weapons treaties, which over 30 years resulted in a nearly 80 percent reduction in each country’s nuclear arsenal. It brought long-needed relief from Cold-War tensions and fears of annihilation.

Cooperation served Moscow as well. Most important, it allowed Russia to safely reduce its nuclear arsenal, which involved the difficult tasks of transporting record numbers of nuclear weapons, disassembling them, and storing the fissile materials safely and securely. Bilateral cooperation greatly enhanced security in Russia’s nuclear complex and its military sites, allowing them to be upgraded to meet the new, challenging security environment resulting from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Cooperation between Russian nuclear scientists and engineers and their American counterparts facilitated successful resolution of many of the most sensitive nuclear security challenges and helped to prevent a brain drain, that is, the leakage of technical expertise outside the Russian nuclear complex.

Although a decade of high oil prices enabled temporary prosperity, Russia has not been able to make the transition to a democratic and economically competitive state in the new global environment. Today, Putin’s Russia blames the West, particularly the United States, for the country’s economic hardships and for fomenting instability in Russia and along its periphery, as well as in other troubled spots around the globe.

Against this backdrop of distrust, Putin has rebuilt Russia’s military, which decayed dramatically in the 1990s, and which is now flexing its muscle in Syria. Though Putin signed the bilateral Treaty of Moscow in 2002, and was prime minister when Russia signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 2010, both of which reduced the country’s nuclear stockpile, he has steadily increased the role of nuclear weapons in Russia’s security. Addressing Russian nuclear weapons developers in Sarov in 2012, he said, “we should not tempt anyone by allowing ourselves to be weak … It is for this reason that we will under no circumstances surrender our strategic deterrent capability, and indeed, will in fact strengthen it.” Putin has continued to strengthen Russia’s nuclear arsenal by developing and introducing new types of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.

Some of Putin’s vitriol against Washington undoubtedly results from his belief that the United States is trying to impose its will on the world, and also sow domestic unrest in Russia against his government. Some surely stems from having a very different strategic vision of the world than that promoted by Washington since the end of World War II. Putin’s strong anti-American rhetoric apparently resonates with the Russian public, or at least strengthens his domestic support.

To be sure, US president-elect Donald Trump and Putin speak collegially of each other, potentially opening a window of opportunity to resume US-Russian cooperation. There would be no better place to start than with nuclear cooperation, because the strong anti-American public sentiment in Russia has spilled over into the nuclear realm, one in which there is no room for error. Terminating bilateral cooperation on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to either other governments or terrorist groups will hurt both countries. A retrenchment that isolates nuclear scientists and engineers from their foreign counterparts will endanger the safety and security of weapon and nuclear material stockpiles.

To make its case for going it alone, Moscow points to the desperate 1990s as a lost decade, one in which Washington took advantage of Russia’s weakness to advance its own agenda. In the nuclear arena, though, these claims are unfounded.

First, they assume an incorrect premise. Unlike the Russian economy and military, the nuclear complex did not collapse. It was not embarrassed. No secrets were lost. In spite of incredible financial, political, and personal hardships, it avoided nuclear catastrophe and positioned itself to rebound in the ensuing decade.

Second, the actual record of US-Russian cooperation in the nuclear sphere during the past 25 years does not warrant the narrative that Washington took advantage of a challenged Russian nuclear complex. I recently edited an account of these years, Doomed to Cooperate, which includes dozens of articles by both Russian and American nuclear experts and leaders. It tells the story of how they cooperated to avoid the four great post-Cold War nuclear dangers—loose nukes, loose nuclear materials, loose nuclear experts, and loose exports. The book shows clearly that both countries and the world benefited from this cooperation.

The book also illustrates quite clearly why such cooperation continues to be vital to both countries. Cooperation is essential; isolation may lead to nuclear catastrophe.

Editor's note: This column is adapted from Doomed to Cooperate: How American and Russian Scientists Joined Forces to Avert Some of the Greatest Post-Cold War Nuclear Dangerspublished by the Los Alamos Historical Society’s Bathtub Row Press in 2016.

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