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Nunn-Lugar Program Could Survive Despite Russian Objections, Experts Say

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

Ballistic missile submarine launch tubes are dismantled with U.S. gear and assistance provided under the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction program. Moscow announced this week that it does not intend to renew the agreement under which the United States for two decades has provided support for elimination and security of Soviet-era nuclear arms and other weapons (U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency photo). Ballistic missile submarine launch tubes are dismantled with U.S. gear and assistance provided under the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction program. Moscow announced this week that it does not intend to renew the agreement under which the United States for two decades has provided support for elimination and security of Soviet-era nuclear arms and other weapons (U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency photo).

WASHINGTON – Russia’s announcement this week that it is not willing to extend the agreement with the United States that enables joint WMD security work under the Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative does not necessarily mean the two countries could not work out a revised deal allowing the program to survive, issue experts say.

Originally forged in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the so-called umbrella agreement shields the U.S. government and its contractors from virtually all liability stemming from incidents that occur in the course of CTR efforts to dismantle and secure nuclear and other unconventional weapons in Russia.

The accord, which nearly lapsed in 2006 due to Russian concerns over its liability provisions, is now set to expire in June of next year.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Wednesday indicated Moscow remains unsatisfied with the terms of the deal and is not interested in renewal.

“The basis of the program is an agreement of 1991 which, by virtue of the time when it is conceived, the way it was worked out and prepared, does not meet very high standards,” Reuters quoted Ryabkov as saying. “The agreement doesn’t satisfy us, especially considering new realities.”

Ryabkov’s statement came on the heels of a Russian newspaper report that Moscow had decided not to extend the deal. “Russia announced that it had no more need for American finances … that it could implement the tasks in question entirely on its own,” a U.S. State Department official said, according to the paper.

The paper also quoted Russian Foreign Ministry insiders as saying that while the current agreement “is thoroughly discriminating” Russia hopes to prepare a successor arrangement “based on the principles of equality and mutual respect.”

The signals from Moscow do not necessarily indicate a “death knell” for CTR work in Russia, Kenneth Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security, told Global Security Newswire.

“I’m certain this is the Russian government’s opening salvo and they’re going to gauge what the reaction is,” Luongo said. “I don’t think this is the kind of thing you just put on the guillotine and pull the cord.”

Matthew Bunn, associate professor of public policy at Harvard University, also said he did not believe the statements from Moscow this week would be the last word on the issue.

“I think it’s the beginning of what will be a long story,” Bunn told GSN. “Russia has been grumpy about the language in that agreement for a long time – it’s not a surprise. Is it a harbinger for something that may be more important? Possibly, but I don’t think we should jump to that conclusion yet.”

Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who along with former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) championed the legislation that created the CTR program, lobbied for an extension of the umbrella agreement during a trip to Russia in August. At the time, “the Russian government indicated a desire to make changes to the Nunn-Lugar Umbrella Agreement, as opposed to simply extending it,” Lugar said in a statement Wednesday.

“At no time did officials indicate that, at this stage of negotiation, they were intent on ending it, only amending it,” Lugar added. “Further, during my visit to the Missile Dismantlement and Elimination Facility at Surovatikha, near Nizhy Novgorod, where Nunn-Lugar works to destroy SS-19 and SS-18 missiles, Russian Federal Space Agency officials welcomed prospects for future work.”

Nunn anticipated continued collaboration between the U.S. and Russia in his own statement on the issue Wednesday.

“I hope and expect that the U.S.-Russian partnership will be strengthened by any changes to the program and that the lessons learned and best practices developed by our two nations can help other countries meet their security responsibilities in reducing nuclear, biological and chemical dangers around the globe,” said Nunn, now co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Since its inception, the Defense Department-managed Cooperative Threat Reduction program has provided funding, equipment and expertise for eliminating and securing Soviet-era nuclear arms and other unconventional arms in Russia and nearby nations. Its accomplishments include removal of all nuclear weapons from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, along with elimination of more than 7,000 strategic nuclear warheads and more than 900 ballistic missiles. In Russia, its umbrella agreement also enables Energy Department work aimed at securing and consolidating nuclear material at numerous sites.

While CTR work outside of Russia could continue if a deal betweeen Moscow and Washington is not reached, Luongo said he feared failure by the United States and Russia to work out a deal would send “exactly the wrong signal about international cooperation to security loose nukes and WMDs to the global community.

“This is the most successful program in the history of the world in controlling nuclear material and other weapons of mass destruction on a bilateral basis,” Luongo added. “Nothing similar to this has ever been created before and I think if this goes under it will be very difficult to continue.”

Luongo predicted that Russia’s concerns about the liability provisions could be addressed in a new agreement, given a lack of major accidents in the CTR program’s history. He said there will likely be other roadblocks, however, such as a Defense Department requirement that it conduct inspections to ensure that any equipment it pays for in Russia has been properly installed.

“The Russians balk at that but that’s a DOD interpretation of a federal acquisition regulation,” Luongo said. “You could reinterpret that, but that’s not something you can negotiate in the agreement.”

Bunn said a modified agreement should be “based much more on equality and a sharing of ideas coming from both sides rather than on a model that’s basically the United States providing assistance to Russia.” He suggested that “a more equal approach may be more appealing in both capitals and not just in Moscow.”

With less than a year remaining before the current deal expires and the U.S. presidential election three weeks away, reaching a new agreement will be difficult, Bunn warned.

“My hope is that whoever is elected in November would push forward with a cooperative approach,” he said. “On the other hand, given the rhetoric from [Republican nominee Mitt] Romney about Russia being our biggest strategic competitor,” creating such a balance might be difficult.

According to Luongo, “transition chaos” alone could make it difficult for a Romney administration to forge a new agreement by the June 2013 deadline. “Even for Obama, time is short for renegotiation,” he said.

“I think our best hope come June is probably a short-term extension while continuing to work through the issues,” he added.

Officials with the State and Defense departments did not respond to requests for comment.

[Editor's Note: The Nuclear Threat Initiative is the sole sponsor of Global Security Newswire, which is published independently by the National Journal Group.]

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