The threat of a nuclear weapon being used is increasing, in both frightening and preventable ways. Cold war-era fears of a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia have been replaced by threats of terrorists detonating a nuclear weapon; a cyberattack on nuclear command-and-control systems causing an unauthorized launch; U.S. or Russian missiles on hair-trigger alert launching by accident; or a new nuclear state, like North Korea, Pakistan or India, using a weapon — or Iran obtaining one.
The crisis in Ukraine, Russian withdrawal from successful nuclear security programs and other posturing makes Russia today look more like an adversary. NATO is working to deter Russian aggression, but tensions remain high.
So why cooperate?
The world’s ability to prevent or defend against today’s nuclear threats is simply not possible without cooperation from Russia.
We know cooperation is possible. It’s worked in the past, even amid tensions. The United States and Russia hold nearly 95 percent of the world’s plutonium and highly enriched uranium – the raw materials of nuclear terrorism. Decades of cooperation under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program have made significant progress in preventing nuclear terrorism by strengthening the security of nuclear facilities, removing dangerous nuclear materials from 27 countries, dismantling weapons and building a stronger global security culture.
The rest of the world will not take seriously the idea that they should limit their own nuclear proliferation and cooperate to keep dangerous materials out of the hands of terrorists, if the U.S. and Russia don’t cooperate on the same objectives.
There’s no question today that serious damage to the U.S.-Russia relationship has been done, and cooperation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. What should the United States do? Continue meeting New START commitments and working with Russia to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Take seriously President Putin’s recent comments in support of talks to reduce nuclear arsenals and “concrete discussions” on nuclear disarmament. Leave an opening for Russia to rejoin the Nuclear Security Summit. Engage all countries in a dialogue about the role of nuclear weapons — before trillions of dollars are committed to modernize them.
Remember the stakes. To expect that nuclear weapons and materials can continue to proliferate, including among potentially unstable states, without being used one day is sheer folly. We can’t afford the security risk or the financial costs of a continued arms race. The U.S. and Russia must get back to work.
Joan Rohlfing is the president and chief operating officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
NTI President Joan Rohlfing argues why U.S.-Russian cooperation on nuclear materials security should continue despite Russian aggression in Ukraine in a New York Times Room for Debate series.