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Renewal of Weapons Security Pact With Russia Not a Sure Thing, Experts Say

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

Military personnel prepare in 1997 to destroy a Soviet-era SS-19 ballistic missile in Ukraine in an effort supported by the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative. Specialists said it is uncertain whether Washington and Moscow will extend an agreement enabling the United States to carry out CTR activities in Russia (AP Photo). Military personnel prepare in 1997 to destroy a Soviet-era SS-19 ballistic missile in Ukraine in an effort supported by the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative. Specialists said it is uncertain whether Washington and Moscow will extend an agreement enabling the United States to carry out CTR activities in Russia (AP Photo).

WASHINGTON – The renewal of a key weapons security agreement between the United States and Russia is not a sure thing despite preliminary assurances from an Obama administration official, issue experts warn (see GSN, July 1, 2005).

Madelyn Creedon, assistant Defense secretary for global strategic affairs, told a Senate panel last week that the United States is looking to extend the so-called umbrella agreement that allows the United States to do work under the Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative in Russia. The agreement, which has authorized the Russian component of a program that has eliminated 7,619 strategic nuclear warheads and 902 ballistic missiles, among other accomplishments, is due to expire in June of 2013.

“So far our very preliminary discussions have been positive,” said Creedon, who added that she believed that the agreement would ultimately be extended. “But if we don’t have that agreement then pretty much the work stops.”

This scenario – the umbrella agreement expiring and work under the so-called Nunn-Lugar program in Russia coming to a halt after two decades – is not outside the realm of possibility, according to issue experts who follow the program closely.

“I think it really could go either way,” Matthew Bunn, an associate professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who served as an adviser on nuclear security issues during the Clinton administration, told Global Security Newswire.

“I could imagine a scenario where everyone just agrees on language and it goes through and nobody pays much attention,” he said. “I could also imagine a huge blowup on this topic.”

The umbrella agreement, originally forged in 1992, was last renewed in 2006 when Russia at the 11th hour agreed to extend the original pact without making substantial changes. The agreement came within hours of expiration due to Moscow’s concerns over the pact’s liability provisions.

Under the original deal, the U.S. government and its contractors are shielded from virtually all liability stemming from any incidents that could occur in the course of the Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative’s work with nuclear and chemical weapons. U.S. entities are not only shielded from liability for accidents, but also intentional acts of sabotage for which they otherwise would be considered responsible.

In the past, other nuclear accords between the United States have been allowed to lapse amid disputes over such liability issues. For example, the Nuclear Cities Initiative and the Plutonium Science and Technology agreements – initially signed in 1998 – were not renewed when they expired in 2003.

The liability provisions in Nunn-Lugar and other such pacts were “negotiated essentially when the Soviet Union had just collapsed and Russia’s lawyers weren’t really paying attention yet,” Bunn said. As Russia’s position in the world strengthens the likelihood that it will hold up renewal agreements over such issues increases, he and other observers say.

“It really depends how much the political level, as opposed to the technical level [of the Russian government], decides to get involved,” Bunn said. “At the political level the Russians have been saying for years now, ‘We’re not on our knees anymore, we don’t need assistance. If you want to do cooperation as equals, fine, but if you want to tell us what to do … then we’re not interested.’”

However, “at the technical level Russians have been saying ‘our facilities still needs this, that or the other thing and we would love if you would help us,’” Bunn adds. “So there’s been a real divide between the message from the facilities and from the message from the political level.”

Some congressional Republicans in recent years have sought to reduce or place conditions on funding for Nunn-Lugar operations. For example, the House last month approved by a vote of 244-181 an amendment to the 2013 defense authorization legislation by Representative Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) that limits “the availability of funds for Cooperative Threat Reduction activities with Russia until the secretary of Defense can certify that Russia is no longer supporting the Syrian regime and is not providing to Syria, North Korea or Iran any equipment or technology that contributes to the development of weapons of mass destruction.”

The terms of the Lamborn amendment to the authorization bill notwithstanding, the House Appropriations Committee is recommending approving the Obama administration’s request for $519.1 million for the Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction activities in fiscal 2013, a slight increase over what Congress backed for the current year.

However, a congressional staffer who has discussed the issue with Russian officials in recent years told GSN that Moscow could take efforts to restrict funding as an indication that U.S. support from the program is waning. In addition, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) – who along with former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) championed the legislation that established the program in 1991 – will no longer be in office next year. Lugar was defeated by a challenger in a GOP primary earlier this year.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which administers the DOD program, could also sustain “devastating” cuts if it is forced into cost-cutting sequestration pursuant to the Budget Control Act, DTRA Director Kenneth Myers said at last week’s hearing. Myers declined to elaborate, saying the agency has “no planning going on” to prepare for such reductions.

The presidential election in the United States this year could have an impact on negotiations with Russia. Bunn attributed the demise of past nuclear security arrangements with Washington’s former Cold War foe at least in part to the unwillingness of the Bush administration to budge on liability issues. He noted that John Bolton, a top State Department official and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Bush, is also an adviser to Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

Such complications could cause Russian officials to “wonder whether they shouldn’t just go for broke and insist on no more liability protections,” according to the congressional staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to a lack of permission to discuss the issue publically. “Whatever the early indicators at a low level between Madelyn Creedon and her counterpart in the Russian bureaucracy, above Madelyn Creedon in the United States and above her counterpart in Russia, people will look at the bigger picture and see that the program has become less popular.”

The congressional staffer predicted there will be a “hardening of the Russian position” on the liability provisions as the umbrella agreement draws closer to expiration. The staffer described Russian officials as being “very tepid” about the issue in private conversations in recent years.

“They aren’t nasty about it but they don’t really understand that there is great support for it and bottom line they don’t really feel that they need it,” the congressional staffer said.

Large-scale construction projects administered and funded by the Defense Department under the Nunn-Lugar program are mainly complete. The Mayak fissile material storage facility was completed in 2003 and the Shchuchye chemical weapons destruction facility opened in 2009.  

The Defense Department’s Nunn-Lugar work has become increasingly globalized, with much of its resources devoted beyond Russia, Creedon noted last week. Areas of emphasis include Asia and Africa, where she said there is increasing concern over biological threats (see GSN, April 19, 2011).

Still, the U.S. Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration continues to administer a broad array of initiatives in Russia that could suffer a blow if the Defense Department’s umbrella agreement dissolves, Bunn warned. In addition to maintaining the Mayak facility, the Energy Department is involved with security upgrades and efforts to strengthen nuclear protective regulations in Russia.

The legal framework that enables this DOE work comes from the same umbrella agreement, Bunn said.

“These are being done by DOE, but it all falls under the Nunn-Lugar [umbrella] agreement,” said Bunn. “If that agreement expired, we’d be up a creek without a paddle.”

Bunn contended that the Defense Department also continues to do “important stuff” in Russia under Nunn-Lugar. “For example, DOD is paying for dozens of shipments of nuclear weapons back to dismantlement facilities very year,” Bunn said. “That’s nontrivial stuff.”

The end of the umbrella agreement “would be a disaster for U.S. security,” according to Bunn. “Vulnerable nuclear material anywhere is a threat to everyone everywhere.”

Officials with the Russian Embassy, the Romney campaign and the Defense Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Clarification: This article was updated to reflect that while the Shchuchye chemical weapons destruction facility opened in 2009, additional construction at the site was expected to occur after that.

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