Without the town of Korolev, Russia, Houston would have had a problem. That suburb of Moscow, named after the father of the Soviet space program, produces capsules that are now the only way NASA can transport its astronauts to space and back. America also remains dependent on Russia for engines to power rockets that launch US government payloads—including satellites that spy on Moscow. Russia, too, depends on the United States: Its spacecraft and rocket makers earn billions of dollars launching American astronauts and cargo into space, while Russia’s strategic aviation—part of the force meant to deter America—reportedly continued to use signals beamed by US GPS satellites even after relations between the two countries began to deteriorate in 2012. (Link in Russian.)
This interdependence between the US and Russian space programs persists even though the two countries are now living through what some pundits describe as a new Cold War. There was a time not so long ago, however, when the two nations viewed space solely as an area of strategic competition. The steps that Washington and Moscow took to transform their space rivalry into cooperation can serve today as a model for working together to help prevent nuclear terrorism, no matter how strained relations may seem.
In the early 1960s, manned space flight became emblematic of US-Russian competition, with each country sacrificing blood and treasure to beat the other. Space flight involved the most advanced technologies and sensitive secrets of the time. Bilateral cooperation was unthinkable. Yet, by the summer of 1975, the two countries had launched their joint Apollo-Soyuz mission. Today, the two space programs are not just cooperative but interdependent, although the United States is developing alternatives to Russian space systems.
While continuing to work together in exploring the cosmos, the United States and Russia have all but ended cooperation in a sphere where a failure to work together could lead to catastrophe not only for the two countries but globally. Reacting to Russia’s use of force in Ukraine, the Obama administration restricted nuclear energy and technology cooperation between the two countries. Russia responded by effectively ending a range of projects aimed at improving nuclear security. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called the measures a response to Washington’s “hostile” move to freeze nuclear-energy cooperation. Such a rollback is all the more regrettable given that top statesmen on both sides have described nuclear terrorism as one of the greatest threats to their respective countries and humanity as a whole.
Four concrete steps can reestablish the US-Russian partnership to prevent nuclear terrorism:
To be sure, such cooperation would necessarily involve the protection of sensitive technologies. But the two sides have managed to do this in their space cooperation.
One way to encourage the emergence of equality and tangible benefits would be for US and Russian entities to pursue joint research and development of nuclear security hardware and concepts of operation for application domestically and in third countries. The United States and Russia could then independently manufacture equipment based on the intellectual property they have jointly developed. Scientists in both countries are best positioned to define the realms of work that would be most useful, but a few examples seem to be worth considering.
On the Russian side:
On the US side:
Russia and the United States continue to have real and important differences over national security issues. That, however, does not mean the two countries should not or cannot cooperate on matters in which joint efforts can greatly enhance the security of both countries. Improving nuclear security is one such sphere, and the Trump administration—which has sought to improve relations with Russia—should seize upon it, both as a means to achieve closer cooperation with Moscow and as a benefit to gain from such ties.
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