By John Gall
This month has been marked by Russia’s decision to withdraw from a plutonium disposal agreement and a uranium research agreement with the United States in response to the American end of bilateral efforts in Syria. These actions continue a trend of Russia stepping away from nonproliferation activities with the United States. Earlier this year, Russia argued that its decision to not attend the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington was based on concerns that hosting countries received an unfair advantage against dissenting opinions. However, such a reason may simply be a convenient excuse to not commit to nuclear material reductions. Regardless, in order to effectively combat the spread of nuclear arms to more countries and dangerous non-state actors, Russian involvement is essential in both bilateral action with the United States and collaboration with the international community.
As the two states with the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, the United States and Russia have the greatest capacity, and arguably obligation, to lead the global effort against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the partnership of these nations was crucial in deterring the threat of proliferation by dismantling the weapon stockpiles and securing the fissile materials within the other former Soviet states. Recent cooperation was initially successful, as the Obama administration’s ‘Reset on Russia’ produced the New START treaty in 2010. However, the increasingly hostile relations between Russia and the United States resulted in the cancellation of multiple nuclear cooperation agreements and caused the current halt to any future arms-reductions negotiations.
The strain placed on the American-Russian relationship by the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine by Russia in 2014 and competing interests in the Syrian civil war are well known and impacted tensions in the bilateral relationship. Nevertheless Russia’s deteriorating nuclear collaboration also warrants serious concern.
The 2013 reworking of the Nunn-Lugar agreement scaled back inspections of nuclear weapon and fissile material storage facilities. With the Russian economy suffering from low world fuel prices and economic sanctions, there are doubts that it can ensure the security of its radioactive material and less international oversight of these facilities raises the risk of undetected smuggling activity.
Nuclear modernization efforts from both sides have also created a sense of competition rather than cooperation. The United States current modernization plan calls for an estimated $1 trillion over the next thirty years. Russia’s announced modernization efforts are part of a broad military buildup by Putin to project national strength and as a response to American innovations in missile defense systems. Although these efforts won’t change the number of nuclear weapons each of the two countries have, a sense of an arms race may deter future efforts to negotiate additional arms reduction treaties.
But the development that could inhibit nonproliferation efforts the most would be the lack of arms reduction negotiations since the New START Treaty was signed and ratified half a decade ago. As the owners of the two largest nuclear stockpiles in the world, arms reductions send a signal to the other nuclear states of their commitment to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons; an important message to send to deter other growing stockpiles or aspiring weapon programs. One would think the fiscal costs of modernization would be an incentive to further reduce stockpiles, but the current icy relations between the US and Russia have put a halt to any potential talks.
It would be disingenuous to claim that Russia has been absent in recent
nonproliferation efforts, as Moscow has played a crucial role in the negotiation and implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. As a member of the P5+1 negotiations, Russia agreed to take Iran’s low-enriched uranium as part of the state’s obligations to drastically reduce its enrichment ability. Russia and Iran’s previous nuclear fuel dealings gave the five permanent security council members and Germany some diplomatic goodwill to reach a deal. The JCPA was an important achievement in worldwide nonproliferation efforts, and while it’s currently a fragile success, it does show that Russia is willing to contribute in some ways to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
A lack of cooperation with Russia may not harm the United States’ nonproliferation efforts in some cases, when a more suitable nuclear power partner may be better suited. In the case of North Korea’s nuclear aspirations, China has an exceptional amount of leverage, but not yet willing to fully use it for fear of North Korea instability. The DPRK is economically dependent on official and illicit trade with its neighbor to the north and if China exerts new pressure on North Korea, a breakthrough might be reached where previous sanctions from the international community failed. Russia was involved in the six party talks that previously attempted to curb North Korea’s nuclear efforts and may do so in future negotiations. However, success in this major challenge won’t rely on the United States’ relationship with Moscow, but rather Beijing.
The growing diplomatic distance between the United States and Russia doesn’t jeopardize all international non-proliferation efforts, but it does seriously hinder many worthwhile bilateral efforts. Even if the two governments refuse to work together on major projects such as new arms reduction treaties, some thawing could take place through third channel talks between respective academics. Smaller obligations, such as the return of bilateral inspections, could improve rapport between the two states on at least this crucial policy sector. Unfortunately, if such possible routes aren’t viable, American and Russia non-proliferation activity may be limited to multilateral methods until changes in national leadership occur. In the mean time, a major concern is that such an arms race could lead to taking higher risks from both sides from miscalculation, misjudgment, and high risk behavior.
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