The Obama administration expects that Russia will continue to abide by existing arms-control agreements with the United States, despite icy relations between Washington and Moscow over Russian military involvement in Ukraine, a key White House official said on Wednesday.
"We see no reason that the tensions that exist over Ukraine should in any way obstruct the path toward fulfilling the commitments that we have made with the Russians to reduce nuclear weapons on both sides," said Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, White House coordinator for defense policy, countering weapons of mass destruction and arms control.
Over the weekend, the Russia state news agency reported that a senior defense ministry official there was threatening to suspend New START arms-control verification inspections because of the ongoing spat over Moscow's incursion on the Crimean Peninsula.
Speaking at a National Journal LIVE policy summit in Washington on the future of global nuclear security, Sherwood-Randall said the administration also expects it will be able to continue collaborating with Moscow on issues facing this month's Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands. The March 24-25 gathering of world leaders is the third of its kind, and aims to accelerate efforts to lock down dangerous nuclear materials around the world against possible terrorist threats or proliferation.
"We continue to work toward this summit … in The Hague with our Russian counterparts very effectively," Sherwood-Randall said at the forum, co-sponsored by the Nuclear Threat Initiative. "They're important contributors to this process as a country that has a significant possession of both civilian and military nuclear material, and we expect this to be a very constructive summit in that domain as well."
The White House official acknowledged, however, that there is concern that Russia already is not abiding by at least one agreement -- related both to nuclear arms and to the Ukrainian conflict itself. Under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, Ukraine gave up its Cold War-era Soviet Union nuclear weapons in return for a Russian vow to respect the sovereignty of the former Soviet republic.
"We are calling on Russia to abide by that commitment and the world is quite united in its expression of strong disapproval of the Russian current occupation of Crimea," Sherwood-Randall said. "We have continued to point out to the Russians that they are a party to this agreement and have an obligation to respect it."
Speaking at the same forum on Wednesday, Harvard University's Matthew Bunn said he feared that soured relations between the United States and Russia over the Ukraine situation could indeed have negative implications for nuclear security issues on which the two nations collaborate.
The Ukraine crisis could affect multilateral talks over Iran's controversial nuclear program, as well as U.S. efforts to complete nuclear security work it launched inside Russia at the end of the Cold War, the former adviser to President Clinton said.
"I worry because of the really toxic state of U.S.-Russian relations at the moment," Bunn said. "I think we really need to focus on finding some negotiated resolution on the situation in Ukraine because, I think, otherwise it will have a very poisonous effect on all of these other important kinds of cooperation that we're working on."
Global Security Newswire reported last week that U.S. Energy Department efforts to secure nuclear materials within Russia had stalled, and that the delay could be exacerbated by the Ukrainian crisis. The work -- ongoing since the end of the Cold War -- had been conducted under the Cooperative Threat Reduction umbrella agreement.
The accord, often called the "Nunn-Lugar" agreement because of the role former Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) played in its formation, expired last summer, and the two countries have struggled to finalize details of a replacement pact.
Bunn warned against complacency over the issue, particularly in light of the Ukraine crisis.
He described "a feeling in both Moscow and Washington that I think is wrong, that the work is done on nuclear security in Russia and that there's nothing left to do there anymore -- it's not."
"There's a huge problem of sustainability, there are problems of security culture, there's still weaknesses in insider protection and we still need to be working together," Bunn said. Most U.S. work on nuclear security in Russia has been stalled "for almost a year," he said.
"It was just on the point of sort of getting moving again with discussions back and forth when the Ukraine crisis broke out," Bunn said. "I remain hopeful that we will be able to get that back on even keel, and if we manage to resolve the Ukraine crisis and get back to some reasonable level of tension in our relations, really put it on a new level of equal partnership."
Sherwood-Randall was asked whether the Obama administration's plans to make cuts to its own nonproliferation programs during fiscal 2015 could send the wrong message to other nations heading into the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit.
Unveiled last week, the budget plan would reduce Energy Department nonproliferation efforts by 20 percent, while at the same time boosting the agency's spending on nuclear weapons by nearly 7 percent. The nuclear-weapons programs would receive $8.3 billion, while the nonproliferation efforts would receive $1.6 billion.
Echoing an argument that administration officials have made in the past, Sherwood-Randall said the nonproliferation budget in prior years had been "frontloaded to achieve the [nuclear security objectives] that we achieved in the last four years." She said 90 percent of the commitments made at the first Nuclear Security Summit in 2010 had already been implemented.
"To the extent that we didn't require funding for certain programs because they have already gotten their work done -- that money is no longer in the budget," the White House official said. "But we … assess that there is sufficient funding in the budget to achieve all of our nonproliferation goals in this time frame and to continue the very important work we do bilaterally with a number of countries to support their nuclear security regimes."
Lawmakers have raised concerns, however, that budget cuts are causing the administration's goals for securing radiological "dirty bomb" material to slip.
Keri Fulton, spokeswoman for the Energy Department's semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, told GSN last week the fiscal 2015 budget plan calls for 8,500 buildings with "high-priority" radiological material to be secured by 2044. When the fiscal 2013 budget was drafted, that end date was intended to be 2035, she said.
Editor's Note: The Nuclear Threat Initiative is sole sponsor of Global Security Newswire, which is published independently by the National Journal Group.