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Challenges for Nuclear Security Cooperation in Russia

I had the pleasure of spending a morning recently with some people very knowledgeable about nuclear security cooperation in Russia, and it got me thinking.  It’s useful to ponder this topic, because we stand at an important crossroads with respect to such cooperation today.

Nuclear security cooperation in Russia has been an important priority for U.S. policymakers since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Indeed, American taxpayers have supported efforts such as the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR, a.k.a. “Nunn-Lugar”) program with considerable sums of money over the years, frequently providing several hundred million dollars annually, for a total of what the Congressional Research Service calculates as having reached nearly nine billion dollars by the end of Fiscal Year 2010 alone.

I will leave it to others to assess in detail the degree to which our security – and that of the world as a whole – benefited from these programs in Russia, but it seems very likely that they did a great deal of good.  The Russia of the mid-1990s was in a woeful state with regard to things such as fissile materials storage, transportation security, weapons storage security, and even the ability safely and accountably to undertake the dismantlement and disposition tasks associated with post-Cold War nuclear reductions.  Were they to have been left unaddressed, these failures could have presented grave security threats – not just to us, but all around the world – by raising the possibility of former Soviet nuclear materials, technologies, or weapons ending up in the hands of proliferator countries or even terrorists.

It has been reported, for instance, that before he fled (to Iran!) upon the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the Egyptian scientist and al Qaeda operative Abdel al-Masri conducted experiments with high-explosive implosions in order to explore the feasibility of producing nuclear yield if fissile material became available.  It has also been reported that a former Soviet weapons scientist played a critical role in the mid-1990s in tutoring Iranian experts on how to build high-precision detonators for nuclear weaponry.  We should be very thankful that Osama bin Laden’s people did not actually have any fissile material with which to work, and that the former Soviet weapons scientist “brain drain” to proliferator regimes such as Iran was not worse.

Russian performance in nuclear security has reportedly been much improved since those days, in large part through our CTR efforts, and I have little doubt that U.S. security has thus benefited from such changes.   It is somewhat troubling that even some quite sympathetic studies of CTR’s net impact – among them Sharon Weiner’s 2011 book – suggest that CTR has on balance had a somewhat mixed record, but it does seem likely that CTR programs have done quite a bit of good.

The interesting question for current policymakers, however, is not whether CTR did good work “back in the day,” but rather what future there is, if any, for U.S.-Russian nuclear security cooperation.  I hope the reader will indulge me, therefore, while I outline what I see to be some of the challenges facing this work today.

I.          Some Preliminaries

Let’s (mostly) leave aside the question of whether Russia is itself wants more such cooperation.  I get the impression that Moscow isn’t particularly interested, although the White House proudly announced the signing last year of a new framework agreement for CTR-type work: a new protocol under the somewhat older Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Program in the Russian Federation (MNEPR).

It has been reported that U.S. officials hope this new protocol will support work to improve Russian nuclear and radiological material security and customs control, consolidating nuclear materials, converting research reactors to operate with low-enriched uranium (LEU) instead of highly-enriched uranium (HEU), and completing the dismantlement of decommissioned Soviet nuclear-powered submarines.

What I haven’t heard, however, is much to suggest that the Russians themselves are keen on continuing their traditional role as the recipient of U.S. largesse in the name of nuclear security, and indeed I am informed that they are currently undertaking a “review” of all such cooperation today.  We shall see what happens, but Moscow may pare things back significantly, even on top of the cutbacks upon which they already insisted in negotiating the new MNEPR protocol.  For now, however, let’s just assume that Moscow is reasonably willing to continue programs in Russia – as opposed to cooperative efforts against proliferation risks elsewhere, which is perhaps more likely – if we are.

Let’s also leave aside the question of how much nuclear security work still needs to be done in Russia, for that is something that others are much better able to discuss than I am.  I’m willing to assume both that despite all the work we’ve done (and funded) already, significant problems still exist – and that the United States would be better off if nuclear security in Russia improved still further.

That said, however, it doesn’t necessarily follow simply from these points that more “CTR-ish” cooperation is advisable, feasible, or politically saleable here in the United States.  In this essay, I’d like to focus upon three further obstacles to continued U.S.-Russian nuclear security cooperation: (1) the problem of changed economic and fiscal circumstances; (2) the problem of budget “fungibility” and the resulting danger of de facto U.S. subsidization of the Russian nuclear weapons program; and (3) the problem of nuclear security opportunity costs.  After outlining these points, I will try to suggest a sort of “roadmap” by which proponents of continued nuclear security cooperation might be able to address these problems.

II.         Funding Questions

To begin with, there has obviously been a significant change in fiscal circumstances since the halcyon early years of the Nunn-Lugar program.  In those days, Russia was starkly impoverished and needed help, and the only way sensible things would get done in the nuclear security arena seemed to be for us pay for them.  Making the argument even easier, the United States also had a booming economy by the mid-1990s, with few budget pressures in sight.

Now, however, things could scarcely be more different.  For its part, Moscow has had a decade of its own petrodollar-fueled boom, and while the long-term prospects of the corrupt kleptocracy of Vladimir Putin’s siloviki state are surely poor, with the country facing formidable demographic problems to boot, Russian budgets are far from tight and plenty of money seems to be available – at least for anything about which the autocrats in the Kremlin care about, including invading their neighbors and funding the Russian nuclear enterprise.  Whether they do care about nuclear security specifically is another matter, but the argument that Russia cannot afford what is needed no longer seems at all compelling.  If any need for U.S. funding can be said still to remain, the most that can be said about it now is merely that we should pay for what Russia chooses not to.  Personally, I do not take it as an absolute that we should now refuse to cover any such expenses under any circumstances, but the burden of persuasion here is a great deal higher than it used to be.

Moreover, we in the United States today remain stuck in the debt-ridden economic doldrums – endlessly on the verge of a much-promised “recovery” that never quite seems to arrive, and with unemployment figures that seem to improve principally as people drop out of our labor force – and modern budgets are chronically tight.  Under these circumstances, U.S.-Russia cooperation along CTR-type lines seems unlikely to have much future unless proponents can provide a persuasive account of why it is still appropriate for U.S. taxpayer to subsidize, into the indefinite future, what the Russians really should be doing for themselves – and which they now can.  It may be possible to make that case, but it doesn’t seem to have been made yet.

III.        Fungible Budgets and Shifting Cost/Benefit Calculations

This brings us to the second problem: problem of budget “fungibility,” and the implications of U.S. taxpayer support for Russian nuclear-related budgets.  Specifically, I refer here to the possibility that American nuclear security cooperation may permit the Kremlin to spend more on its nuclear weapons program than if only domestic funds had been available for nuclear security.

During the early years of the CTR program, though this was a very real possibility, the fungibility issue wasn’t felt to be too much of a problem.  At the time, it was possible to argue plausibly that providing U.S. funds for nuclear security work that Russia ideally should undertake for itself was in our security interest even though these U.S. monies might have the effect of permitting the Kremlin to spend more on its nuclear weapons program than would otherwise have been the case.

In the 1990s, after all, amidst a palpable sense of strategic relief created by the end of the Cold War, Russia seemed to be at least a friend, and potentially even an incipient ally.  At any rate, Moscow certainly didn’t seem like an enemy, and was felt to present little or no threat, either to the United States directly or to our allies and friends.  Under the circumstances, providing some indirect subsidy for Russian weapons work did not seem terribly problematic, if by such means we could forestall much worse threats in the form of proliferation to third countries or non-state actors.

The question for us now, however, is whether the balance of harms still favors sending nuclear security money to the Russians.  Historically, many prominent CTR proponents tried to avoid this question, preferring to dodge it and to suggest that such American spending was an unmitigated, per se good, but this was never true.  I’m willing to accept that CTR spending in Russia was of considerable net benefit to U.S. national security for many years, but it would be dishonest to pretend that there weren’t costs associated with these benefits.

As a matter of historical fact, for instance, it does seem that our money never managed to fund as many actual transitions into peaceable civilian work as had originally been hoped.  As a result, even as the U.S. funding pipeline helped reduce the dangers of more Soviet-era weapons scientists leaving Russia in search of salaries in Iran, North Korea, or elsewhere, our dollars nonetheless apparently kept many of those experts available and employed as weapons scientists until the Putin regime could put the complex fully back to work on the Kremlin’s ambitious present-day modernization and weapons-development programs.  As Sharon Weiner has noted, U.S. taxpayer dollars were “crucial” in enabling the survival of “several core nuclear weapons institutes, such as the weapons research and design facilities at Sarov and Snezhinsk.”  Every American dollar spent on nuclear security, moreover, was indeed one that Russian nuclear budgeteers did not have worry about providing on their own, thus permitting them to spend more of what little they had elsewhere.  It is not always appreciated how important the CTR subsidy was for the Russian nuclear weapons program.

So there were clearly costs.  Nonetheless, it is the balance between benefit and cost that is the critical question in assessing the merits of CTR – and of potential additional cooperative projects in the future.  For most of the CTR program’s history, the merits probably lay on the side of continued support.

Yes, we kept Russia from having to spend so much on nuclear security, thus presumably freeing up more of that country’s nuclear budget for work on weapons that were, and remain, aimed at us.  And yes, we doubtless helped facilitate Putin’s reconstitution of Russia’s nuclear might.   In earlier years, however, Russia’s nuclear security needs were staggering, and Moscow’s own nuclear arsenal seemed less threatening to us that the specter of “loose nukes” or some other form of proliferation to third-party countries or non-state actors.  Under the circumstances of the 1990s, why not subsidize Russia’s weaponry a little, if doing so would forestall worse threats – especially since without help, Moscow seemed at the time unable to afford even rudimentary nuclear security?

But you can surely see the problem, and here’s where I think an important challenge lies today, both substantively and politically.  As circumstances have evolved, the balance between benefit and cost has changed; the comparatively benign assumptions of the 1990s no longer seem to hold.

Today, Putin’s Russia is openly autocratic, predatory, and revanchist.  Far from being poised to evolve into a peaceable democracy, the Kremlin suppresses domestic dissent once more, and is rebuilding its military machine – not least by investing what are apparently considerable sums not just into nuclear weapons modernization but also into new weapons development, and in support of military doctrines that stress early nuclear first use and clearly prize peacetime nuclear saber-rattling.  Worse still, this rearming great power seeks to reconstitute the Soviet sphere of influence, and even to seize back some of that Empire’s lost land.  Indeed, Putin’s Russia has now invaded two of its neighbors in order to dismember them, setting up puppet client statelets on their sovereign territory or even annexing portions of it outright.  All this changes things considerably.

Both because CTR has already done so much to improve the nuclear security situation in Russia (i.e., making the need for more assistance less acute) and because the modern Kremlin is working very hard to seem like our strategic adversary after all, it is much harder to make the argument today that the old CTR cost/benefit tradeoff is worth it.  Even if there are still nonproliferation benefits to be gained thereby, it is now extraordinarily difficult to defend providing any kind of de facto subsidy for Russia’s nuclear budgets and nuclear weapons industry.

IV.        Opportunity Costs

The third and final challenge to further cooperation is more subtle and prosaic, but real just the same.  The case for additional American funding for projects in Russia rests upon its proponents being able to show that directing to Russia the U.S. money available for spending on nuclear security represents the highest and best use of such funds.  When CTR began, it was easy to argue that Russian nuclear security problems – that is, gaping holes in security practices in a country possessing staggeringly huge stocks of fissile material and just having gone through the chaos of an imperial implosion – were so worrisome that it was clearly the best place to spend nuclear security money.

Particularly as U.S. aid has succeeded in ameliorating the worst nuclear security problems of mid-1990s Russia, however, it is much less obvious that the best “bang for the buck” – or perhaps one should say non-bang for the buck – in nuclear security spending is in fact there.  Any thoughtful consideration of whether to do more in Russia should weigh whatever benefits are still to be had there against what we could do for nuclear security with such funding elsewhere in a world still all too full of nuclear security problems.  Perhaps the case for Russian cooperation is indeed still compelling, but this needs to be demonstrated rather than simply assumed.

V.         A Way Forward?

So how might proponents of further Russian nuclear security assistance hope to make their case in the face of these challenges?  To make as good a case as can be made, proponents of nuclear security aid would need to be able to demonstrate several things.  (I don’t claim that this is necessarily an exhaustive list, but I hope it will provide some useful food for thought.)

First, it would have to be clear that very significant nuclear security needs remain unmet in Russia, notwithstanding the progress that CTR has brought since the grim years of the mid-1990s.  To the degree that this can be shown, and that it seems likely that improvements will not occur without our support, this at least raises the possibility that it would be to our net advantage to use some U.S. taxpayer money to help ensure that such security problems are fixed.

Second, it would presumably be necessary to demonstrate that the marginal nuclear security dollar is today better spent in Russia, on such projects, than anywhere else in the world where it would be feasible to spend it as an alternative.  Even if Russia no longer has the most pressing nuclear security problems, for instance, it might perhaps be the case that we would be unable for some reason to spend anything more on such projects in needier locations – e.g., because host governments won’t permit us to do more.  In such an event, work in Russia might yet be fairly characterized as the “best available” use for such funds as we can make available for nuclear security purposes.  Showing that nuclear security efforts elsewhere are for various reasons already “maxed out,” in other words, would help proponents of Russian aid make the case that money for Russians doesn’t compete with nuclear security work in other countries.

Third, to cope with the “fungibility” argument, proponents would have to make some kind of a showing that notwithstanding CTR’s effect in partially subsidizing Russian nuclear weapons work in the past, future aid efforts would likely have no meaningful impact in this respect.

Part of this might come through a U.S. focus upon cooperation that doesn’t involve money transfers or paying for things that Russia should really be paying for itself.  Engagement with the Russians on nuclear security and material accountancy training, the development of “best practices,” and an improved regulatory framework, for example, might be comparatively “costless” from this perspective.  (The specific agenda could be “tuned” with an eye to “fungibility” concerns; not all types of engagement or assistance raise such problems equally acutely.)

Alternatively or additionally, perhaps it could be shown that there is little or no “fungibility” problem anymore in the first place, because it is essentially certain that the Kremlin will not spend any more on nuclear security if left entirely to its own devices.  Such a showing might cast worrisome doubt upon Russian competence or intentions if local unmet nuclear security needs really remain significant, but might nonetheless tend to decouple Russian weapons funding from any kind of competitive status vis-à-vis that country’s nuclear security budget – thus attenuating “fungibility” concerns.

Fourth, it would be helpful to make a strong showing that whatever it were proposed to do with the Russians is an activity of a sort that would avoid putting the U.S. taxpayer in the position of providing a “permanent line item” in the Russian nuclear security budget.  We should work hard to avoid indefinite commitments, and this might actually be especially challenging precisely to the extent that proponents of further Russian aid make a strong showing of “non-fungibility.”  (If our paying for a particular project is both necessary and does not provide a de facto subsidy Moscow’s nuclear weapons work because there is no way the Russians would ever pay this expense on their own, we would need to be particularly careful that we aren’t signing ourselves up to pay Moscow’s security bills, in this regard, forever!)

Provided that there is indeed U.S. money available for any kind of nuclear security cooperation in the first place, the above arguments would represent significant progress toward making further Russia aid into a sound policy option.  Irrespective of these conclusions, of course, it may ultimately be that there is no feasible way around the decidedly awkward political optics of sending any U.S. taxpayer money to Moscow – at all – at a time when our government is otherwise trying to impose economic sanctions on Putin’s regime for its aggressive war to carve up Ukraine.  (Even if Russian nuclear security aid could be shown to be a pretty good idea on programmatic grounds, in other words, it is not hard to imagine it being politically unsaleable.)

In the cost/benefit tradeoffs that constitute public policymaking, however, debates over such matters need to be had, for the merits of further aid need to be persuasively shown and defended, rather than simply assumed.  Perhaps they can be and will be, and perhaps U.S. officials can sell the resulting policy case to the American people and their elected representatives.  But we’re not there yet.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford took office in January 2018 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. In October 2019, he was delegated the authorities and responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, nor those of the U.S. Government.
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