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U.S. Officials Downplay Impact of Ukraine Crisis on Nuclear Security Efforts

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

Cossack men install a Russian flag and a Crimean flag on the roof of the City Hall building on March 17 in Bakhchysarai, Ukraine. Obama administration officials on Tuesday downplayed the impact the Russian annexation of the region would have on nuclear security initiatives. Cossack men install a Russian flag and a Crimean flag on the roof of the City Hall building on March 17 in Bakhchysarai, Ukraine. Obama administration officials on Tuesday downplayed the impact the Russian annexation of the region would have on nuclear security initiatives. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Obama administration officials on Tuesday sought to downplay the likelihood that the recent crisis in Ukraine would undermine various arms control and nuclear security efforts.

During a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing, administration officials faced questions regarding how Moscow's controversial annexation of the Crimea region could affect efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons across the globe, along with initiatives to secure nuclear materials inside Russia.

Lawmakers also raised concerns about how Russia -- along with India, Pakistan and China -- did not sign onto certain pledges to improve nuclear security at a global leadership summit in the Netherlands last week.

Of the 53 nations that participated in the third biennial Nuclear Security Summit, 35 signed a declaration aimed at inching the international community closer to adopting universal standards for how to secure weapons-usable nuclear material.

The nearly three dozen signatory nations agreed to "meet the intent" of voluntary guidelines for securing nuclear materials already drafted by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency.

This multilateral pledge and several others that were not agreed to by all the countries participating in the event were called "gift baskets," in summit parlance.

During Tuesday's hearing, Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) raised concerns that Russia, India, Pakistan and China did not sign onto the 35-nation pledge.

Fischer, the top Republican on the emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee, also downplayed the significance of a vow by Japan to return a portion of its plutonium stocks to the United States -- a move that administration officials cited as one of the major accomplishments of the summit.

"Did we get a good gift basket from Russia, China, India and Pakistan?" Fischer asked. "Those are the countries I would have the most concern with, rather than Japan."

Senator Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), the subcommittee chairwoman, also suggested she had some concern about these four countries not signing onto the initiative, although she acknowledged that she was not familiar with the details of the pledge.

Anne Harrington, the National Nuclear Security Administration's deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, told the lawmakers she "would not gauge their interest or commitment to nuclear security on whether or not they signed up for this particular gift basket."

Harrington said the four countries in question "are not very fond" of the gift basket approach to nuclear diplomacy, generally speaking.

"But Russia certainly did sign up on the statement of combating nuclear terrorism under the global initiative, and Pakistan and China have made a number of their own unilateral commitments to do other things," she said.

"We may have our issues right now," especially with regard to Russia, the official from the semiautonomous Energy Department agency said. But the summit process -- which President Obama initiated in 2010 -- has been successful in part due to Russian assistance in removing nuclear materials from several former Eastern bloc nations, she contended.

Harrington said the United States and Russia also have a history, "even during times of high political tension," of recognizing the importance of work on which the two countries collaborate, in terms of securing nuclear warheads and weapons-usable materials within Russia itself.

Under the terms of a new agreement made last year, "our teams continue to work with our Russian counterparts to improve the security of Russian nuclear and radiological material in fixed sites and in transit, and to develop a strong and sustainable nuclear security infrastructure" in the country, Harrington said.

Rebecca Hersman, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for countering weapons of mass destruction, said the Pentagon had also agreed with Russian officials to undertake two projects under the new agreement: The dismantlement of certain Russian strategic submarines, and the transportation of highly enriched uranium previously used as submarine fuel "from a less secure to a much more secure location in Russia."

It was unclear, however, whether the two officials were referring to work that is already ongoing or to work that is planned to take place after the United States and Russia hash out deals on how exactly to implement last year's new agreement.

The accord was meant to replace the now-expired Cooperative Threat Reduction umbrella agreement that had been in place between the two nations since the end of the Cold War. Last month, Harrington said the Ukraine crisis could further delay the relevant negotiations.

In addition, NNSA spokesman Bill Gibbons said in a statement last week that there is currently an "ongoing internal review of Russian-related activities" across the board at his agency, in light of the Ukraine crisis.

Officials at the nuclear agency did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Administration officials on Tuesday also sought to downplay the potential for Russia's actions in Ukraine to dissuade other countries from giving up -- or not pursuing in the first place -- the possession of nuclear weapons. Shortly after the Cold War ended, Ukraine agreed to transfer its entire Soviet-era nuclear arsenal to Moscow, in exchange for a Russian, U.S. and U.K. pledge to respect its territorial boundaries.

"I think the value of pursuing a policy of nonproliferation and a rejection of nuclear weapons by countries like Ukraine will continue to be the best path forward for them," Hersman said. "It won't really change their policy or approach, despite some of these concerns from Russia."

Fischer was not convinced.

"I disagree with you," the Republican senator said. "Ukraine was the third [ranked global] power with regard to nuclear weapons. They signed an agreement with Russia and the United States that I understand basically said, 'Give up your [nuclear weapons] and we'll take care of you forever.' So is forever now 20 years? Is that the mark we're going to go by?"

In a related matter, Fischer did "commend the [Energy Department] for doing difficult but necessary prioritization in its [fiscal 2015] budget" request of its nuclear nonproliferation programs. Under the proposal, "critical work is sustained while less is asked of the American taxpayer," she said.

Hagan, however, said it was "not clear that the lower budget request will fully support the aims of [the Nuclear Security Summit] and other important nonproliferation goals."

She noted that, for fiscal 2015, the Defense and Energy departments propose to spend "roughly $1.9 billion for nonproliferation activities to help stem the flow of weapons of mass destruction … this is a 21 percent reduction from the $2.4 billion appropriated to both programs" in fiscal 2014, Hagan noted.

The committee is expected to draft its version of the annual defense authorization bill, which authorizes funding levels, later this year.

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