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New U.S.-Russian Security Deal Greatly Scales Back Scope, Experts Say

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

A worker in Ukraine cuts apart a nuclear-capable Kh-22 air-to-surface missile in a project backed by the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Experts said a U.S.-Russian agreement announced on Monday would limit bilateral efforts to dismantle and secure nuclear and chemical arms in Russia (U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency photo). A worker in Ukraine cuts apart a nuclear-capable Kh-22 air-to-surface missile in a project backed by the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Experts said a U.S.-Russian agreement announced on Monday would limit bilateral efforts to dismantle and secure nuclear and chemical arms in Russia (U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency photo).

WASHINGTON -- U.S. efforts to dismantle and secure nuclear and chemical weapons in Russia will be substantially limited under a new bilateral agreement the White House announced Monday, experts say.

Kenneth Luongo, a former nonproliferation advisor for the Energy Department, said the Defense Department’s Cooperative Threat Reduction effort within Russia’s borders would be “totally different,” under the new accord announced Monday. “This agreement is a continuation of a program in a very truncated form,” said Luongo, now president of the Partnership for Global Security.

Since the early 1990s, the CTR program actively worked in Russia to dismantle and secure Cold War-era weapons of mass destruction. Among the activities the Defense program was directly involved with was the destruction of Russian bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, along with the construction of facilities needed to destroy Soviet-era chemical weapons.

Though the initiative had become increasingly globalized in recent years as it expanded to address biological threats outside the former Soviet Union, the program had continued to do some work in Russia, including additional destruction of submarine-launched ballistic missiles that still remained. With the expiration of a 20-year-old umbrella agreement this week, however, the Defense Department presence in Russia will largely cease to exist, sources tracking the issue say.

“It’s all over,” Thomas Moore, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Monday regarding the physical dismantlement efforts in Russia that the Defense Department had been involved with for two decades. Until earlier this year, Moore was a top aide to now-retired Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who along with retired Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), helped establish the CTR program in the early 1990s.

What exactly U.S. nonproliferation programs -- and particularly those run by the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration -- will be able to do in Russia under the new agreement remains unclear, however.

A statement issued by the White House Monday said only that joint U.S.-Russian nuclear security activities would now be conducted under the Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Program, which historically has provided a legal framework under which member-nations can assist Russia with spent nuclear fuel safety and radioactive waste management.

“This new bilateral framework authorizes the United States and the Russian Federation to work in several areas of nonproliferation collaboration, including protecting, controlling and accounting nuclear materials,” the White House statement said.

It remains unclear, however, whether the new agreement will allow the NNSA Global Threat Reduction Initiative to still access Russian sites where the United States has made investments toward the security of dangerous nuclear materials, the experts say. The extent of Defense involvement is also unclear -- Moore suggested it might be limited to conducting joint-training exercises with Russia, but added that it was not yet certain.

The White House, Defense Department and Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Given that Pentagon efforts to destroy Russian weapons leftover from the Cold War had already been winding down in recent years, Luongo suggested that the most significant impact of the new arrangement could be its political effect on Capitol Hill. Luongo said the Defense Department’s CTR efforts in Russia had historically formed the “political core” of the program’s broader initiatives across other countries and raised concerns that lawmakers could use its discontinuation as justification for budget cuts to nonproliferation programs.

Luongo said it would be important for the Obama administration to explain the details of the change to Congress and convey to lawmakers that the program is doing crucial security work outside of Russia that merits continued funding.

“If you let that go, you’re never going to get that back under the current fiscal circumstances,” Luongo said. “The political poles holding up this tent have taken a bit a hit.”

Given that concern, Luongo said he found it “amazing” that the new agreement was apparently signed last week and “no one said a word” about it until Monday. Moore speculated the Obama administration was seeking to downplay the limitations of the new agreement so as not to be seen as criticizing Russia, as the two nations grapple with other high-profile disagreements such as the Syrian civil war.

Bryan Lee, formerly the director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s International Counterproliferation Program, said his biggest concern would be what happens with U.S.-Russian cooperation on the security and destruction of chemical and biological weapons in Russia -- neither of which is addressed in the new agreement.

“I have confidence they can handle it, but I don’t have confidence they can handle it in our best interest,” Lee said, regarding the security of Russian chemical and biological materials.

In a statement Monday, Nunn acknowledged that “key elements of what we have known as Nunn-Lugar will not be carried forward under this umbrella agreement, including certain defense work and reducing the very serious risks posed by chemical and biological weapons.”

He added: “We must find ways beyond this agreement to work together on these critical issues.”

Despite the concerns, experts this week stopped short of laying blame for the lapse of the Nunn-Lugar umbrella agreement on the Obama administration. Most agreed it was inevitable, due to Russia becoming increasingly reluctant to be perceived in recent years as a nation that is a proliferator or one that needs assistance.

Moscow officials were already unwilling to provide the United States with access to their biological facilities, Moore said, and their military was no longer willing to have U.S. officials “mucking about” at Russian defense facilities, added Lee.

“If this is what President Putin wants, this is what he gets,” said Lee.

Nunn praised President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin “for setting aside historical animosities and demonstrating that responsible leadership requires acting together to reduce nuclear risks.” He said one of the "most encouraging elements of [the new] agreement is the fact that we will be moving forward as equal global partners.”

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