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White House Official: Russian Concerns With CTR Agreement Are "Valid"

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

Missile launch tubes once carried on ballistic missile submarines are disassembled with support from the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction program. Russia has signaled it intends to halt involvement in the program to eliminate and secure former Soviet weapons of mass destruction (U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency photo). Missile launch tubes once carried on ballistic missile submarines are disassembled with support from the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction program. Russia has signaled it intends to halt involvement in the program to eliminate and secure former Soviet weapons of mass destruction (U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency photo).

ARLINGTON, Va. – A key White House official on Monday suggested that the changes Russian officials are looking to make to a bilateral agreement that allows the United States to help secure and dismantle Soviet-era weapons of mass destruction are not unreasonable.

The future of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program in Russia was thrown into question last month when officials there said publicly their government was not interested in extending the pact that has enabled the initiative to operate within the country since the early 1990s.

During the past two decades, the United States has used the program to provide Russia with more than $7 billion in funds, equipment and expertise for securing and eliminating Soviet-era nuclear arms and other unconventional weapons. The U.S. government and its contractors are shielded from virtually all liability from incidents that could occur during the course of CTR work under the enabling umbrella agreement – an issue that has long been contentious in Moscow.

The agreement expires in June. The Obama administration earlier this year proposed extending the deal but received a chilly response from Moscow.

“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 Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying in October. “The agreement doesn’t satisfy us, especially considering new realities.”

Ryabkov’s statement came on the heels of a Russian newspaper report that quoted unidentified Foreign Ministry insiders calling the current agreement “thoroughly discriminating” and adding that a new arrangement would need to be “based on the principles of equality and mutual respect.”

Laura Holgate, senior director for weapons of mass destruction terrorism and threat reduction at the National Security Council, suggested on Monday that such a balance is attainable.

“I think the Russian point that they are not the Russia of 20 years ago is a valid point,” Holgate said during a nuclear nonproliferation discussion at the Virginia Tech Research Center. “They talk about the desire for a more balanced agreement and I’m optimistic that such exists in our common negotiating space.”

Obama administration officials have previously insisted that talks with Moscow were ongoing and that the Russian statements did not necessarily spell doom for the program. Holgate on Monday appeared to go a bit further by validating some of the Russians concerns.

She suggested, however, that progress on the matter had suffered somewhat due to negotiations “happening too much in public and not enough in private.”

“For some reason, the Russians chose to respond in public before they responded in private” to the administration’s proposal this summer to extend the existing agreement, she said.

“We need to get back to the normal diplomacy and we’re on a path to do that,” Holgate added.

She declined to discuss the details of what the two sides have looked for in a new agreement behind the scenes. However, “what the Russians have said in public I think actually shows a lot of overlap with U.S. interests,” she said. “They are interested in continuing cooperation and they have reflected positively on the 20-year history of cooperation that we’ve had and the benefits that Russia has received from that.”

In addition, Russian statements have focused “on third-country work which has really been a growth area over the last decade or so of work together,” Holgate said. She did not elaborate, but the two nations have been involved with various joint nonproliferation projects in other countries in recent years, such as the repatriation of Russian-origin highly enriched uranium from Uzbekistan.

“They say they want to proceed, they want a legal basis to proceed,” Holgate said, referring to the Russians.

Moscow's stance on the CTR agreement is consistent with those it has taken on other international issues since Vladimir Putin reassumed the Russian presidency in May, suggested Andrew Semmel, a consultant to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“What the president has done now is to alert all of his emissaries around the world to take a tough position on a number of issues and I think [the CTR stance] is one of the manifestations of this,” Semmel said during the panel discussion. “I think this is something that has pervaded in a number of issues including the CTR program.”

In addition to the Russians’ concerns about the liability provisions – which nearly caused the umbrella agreement to lapse when it was last up for renewal in 2006 – some observers have suggested that Moscow may have other objections to the current pact.

Kenneth Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security, told Global Security Newswire previously that Russia might raise objections to a Defense Department requirement that it conduct inspections to ensure that any equipment it pays for in Russia has been properly installed. He said Russian officials “balk” at this requirement.

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