Challenges in US-Russian Cooperation

William C. Potter
June 14, 2002

Paper presented at the Conference on Cooperative Threat Reduction in the 21st Century, Oslo, Norway (June 1, 2002)

I. Introduction

It is a great honor to speak before this distinguished gathering. As one of the co-organizers of the conference, I wish to express special thanks to my good friend Sverre Lodgaard for hosting us in this lovely setting. My only concern is that in such an idyllic environment it may be hard to focus on the dangers of nuclear terrorism and weapons proliferation.

The topic I have been asked to address is “what are the challenges in creating and implementing a framework for cooperative U.S.-Russian nuclear threat reduction?” As a preface to my presentation, I believe it is useful to recall an important but often overlooked aspect of U.S.-Russian relations during the Cold War. It involves the often close consultation and cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union on nuclear nonproliferation issues. This cooperation generally persisted across both Republican and Democratic administrations and served, in many respects, as the cornerstone of the NPT and related nuclear export control regimes. It also was an important element of stability in an often-turbulent superpower relationship.

Ironically, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War aggravated strains in the nuclear nonproliferation partnership between Washington and Moscow. To a large extent these strains, evident in disputes over Russian nuclear exports to Iran and India, conflicting positions on Iraq, and the lack of sustained cooperation on important regional security issues in South Asia and the Middle East, were the product of powerful domestic political pressures in both countries to emphasize short-term economic and military considerations to the neglect of longer-term, international security and nonproliferation objectives.

Russia’s strong and positive support for U.S. efforts to counter international terrorism after September 11 provides a new opportunity to reinvigorate traditional U.S.-Russian cooperation for nuclear nonproliferation, as does the new spirit of cooperation reflected in this past week’s summit meeting. The challenges to forging a successful partnership and reducing nuclear dangers in Russia (and abroad), however, remain very substantial.

II. Challenges Ahead

The good news, as former Los Alamos director Sigfried Hecker recently noted in Congressional testimony, is that “nothing really terrible happened in the Russian nuclear complex in spite of the enormous hardship endured by the Russian people.” Thanks in large measure to the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, great strides were taken to remove nuclear weapons from Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, destroy hundreds of strategic ballistic missiles and their silos, enhance the security of hundreds of tons of weapons usable uranium and plutonium, and provide meaningful civilian employment to thousands of weapons scientists in the former Soviet Union.

As Hecker also notes, “the bad news is that the problems in the Russian nuclear complex were much greater and more pervasive than either Russians or Americans realized ten years ago.” What I would like to do in the remainder of my talk is to highlight some of those problems and then suggest a number of practical steps one might undertake to address the proliferation challenges they pose.

A. Magnitude of the Problem

I remember a number of years ago when the movie Titanic was the big Hollywood hit. After it opened in Moscow there were many jokes circulating which compared Russia to the ill-fated ocean liner. A Russian friend, however, took exception to the comparison. Russia, he explained, is not the ship, it is the iceberg, and until we recognize that point and take corrective action it has the potential to sink the entire nonproliferation regime.

The nature of the proliferation challenge posed by Russia stems from many factors, including:

  • Its enormous nuclear weapons stockpile, numbering many thousands of nuclear charges;
  • Its vast stocks of highly-enriched uranium (=1100 tons) and plutonium (=160 tons);
  • Even larger quantities of highly radioactive nuclear waste;
  • A bloated military-industrial complex, including a wide array of closed nuclear cities inhabited by hundreds of thousands of under employed individuals;
  • The collapse by the early 1990s of the nuclear export monopoly previously enjoyed by Techsnabexport and the rise of nuclear entrepreneurs prepared to sell most anything to anyone for the right price; and
  • The disappearance almost overnight of a decades-old approach to nuclear material security which emphasized guns and gates to defend against external threats without a clear understanding of the new risks posted by “insider” threats or how to guard against them.

Let me elaborate slightly on the current state of some of these challenges. Because of time constraints, I will focus primarily on those challenges which I believe have not received adequate attention.

B. Nuclear Terrorism

In the aftermath of September 11, I believe we need to take a long and hard look at the very different types of threats often lumped together under the heading of “nuclear terrorism.” In addition to the one popularized by Hollywood screenwriters–the seizure of nuclear weapons by a renegade military faction–these threats include the theft of fissile material for the purpose of fashioning a nuclear explosive device, the attack on or sabotage of civilian nuclear power installations or spent fuel storage sites, and the matching of highly radioactive nuclear material with conventional explosives to create radiological dispersal devices or, in common parlance, “dirty bombs.”

To date, U.S. nonproliferation assistance to Russia has tended to focus almost exclusively on safeguarding fissile material and nuclear weapons rather than on mitigating the threats of sabotage and radiological dispersal. Unfortunately, these latter dangers are not hypothetical threats. Although not widely known in the West, there were at least four episodes in the mid-1990s in which nuclear power plants in the post-Soviet states were the targets of terrorist actions. Three of them involved the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Lithuania and one had to do with the Kursk Nuclear Power station in Russia.

Although Russian authorities have taken some steps to heighten security at civilian power plants, many civilian nuclear facilities remain deficient in such basic defensive elements as intact perimeter fences, more than token armed guards, vehicle barriers, and surveillance cameras. These gaps in perimeter defense are compounded by an approach to the terrorist threat that is fixated on Chechens. As the assistant director of one major Russian nuclear research center told me, in the past there was little concern about perimeter defense against terrorists at his facility since “Chechens look different than us” and would be recognized before they could get close to the site.

On the nuclear terrorism front, one also needs to guard against complacency with respect to the progress that has been made in enhancing physical protection of fissile material. Although security upgrades have been accomplished at many Russian facilities, they are apt to be effective primarily against the threats posed by amateur thieves or individual and small group incursions, but not necessarily against the more sophisticated threats of terrorist organizations.

Were these individuals or groups to succeed in acquiring less than 100 kg of highly-enriched uranium, one could not rule out their ability to manufacture a crude but effective nuclear device–i.e., a real nuclear bomb. What has changed since September 11th is not that it has suddenly become easier to fashion a nuclear bomb–it has not–but that we now must assume that there are organizations that covet fissile material for the purpose of actually detonating nuclear explosives in our cities. The main obstacle in their path is obtaining highly-enriched uranium.


According to conventional wisdom, Russian nuclear weapons are much more secure than are their fissile material components. Although this perspective is probably correct, it is worthwhile to recall the candid acknowledgement last October by General Igor Valynkin–commander of the Russian Ministry of Defense’s 12th Main Directorate–that in the past year there were two incidents in which terrorist groups were observed carrying out reconnaissance at Russian nuclear weapons storage facilities [October 25, 2001] Valynkin did not mention the facilities in question. What can be said, however, is that by far the most vulnerable category of nuclear weapons to diversion and nuclear terrorist acquisition is tactical nuclear weapons.

Tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) are the category of American and Russian nuclear arsenals least regulated by arms control agreements. They are only subject to an informal regime created by unilateral, parallel declarations made by George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in the autumn of 1991, the latter of which subsequently was affirmed and expanded upon by Boris Yeltsin in January 1992. Since then, TNW have not figured prominently in the bilateral U.S.-Russian arms control agenda and have been almost totally ignored by the current U.S. administration. Significantly, they were not covered by last week’s arms control treaty.

This lack of attention to TNW is unfortunate and dangerous given their large but unconfirmed number, the risks of their early and/or unauthorized use, and their vulnerability to theft. The informal regime itself is increasingly precarious since it is not legally binding, does not provide for data exchanges, and lacks a verification mechanism. Neither the United States nor Russia has released official public information regarding the size or location of their TNW forces, a circumstance which contributed to the controversy two years ago about possible Russian redeployments of TNW in Kaliningrad. The absence of a legally-binding accord is especially worrisome at a time when nuclear weapons designers and some policy makers in both the United States and Russia display increasing enthusiasm for new, low-yield nuclear weapons which are perceived as more usable in a broad range of conflict scenarios. Also disturbing is the comment by a senior U.S. National Security Council official on May 13, 2002, at a White House briefing on the planned Moscow arms control treaty. He explained that the Defense Department intended to convert four Trident submarines to non-strategic nuclear uses. Were the United States to do so, it would directly contravene President George Bush senior’s 1991 pledge to remove TNW from U.S. naval vessels.

In Russia, the security of TNWs is compromised by the lack of adequate storage facilities to handle the influx of warheads pending elimination and the retention of some airbased TNW outside of central storage sites. Another serious but under-appreciated security problem involves the growing number of retired officers who previously guarded nuclear weapons sites. Many of these individuals continue to live within the storage site’s outer perimeter since they are entitled to housing by law, even though they work elsewhere. There have been cases in which such retirees have assisted local criminal elements to penetrate several layers of security at nuclear storage sites, although the target of these activities appear to have been conventional rather than nuclear arms.

D. Soviet-Origin HEU

The overwhelming majority of the hundreds of tons of separated plutonium and highly-enriched uranium produced by the Soviet Union resides in Russia and currently is scattered over more than 50 sites. A much smaller, but still proliferation significant quantity of Soviet-origin fissile material also continues to reside at a variety of facilities in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, as well as Yugoslavia. Although the U.S. Department of Energy long ago held commissioning ceremonies at the nuclear sites in the non-Russian republics which were supposed to signify their enhanced safeguards status, HEU and plutonium remain inviting targets for diversion at a number of these sites. It probably is not coincidental, for example, that Iraq has appointed an honorary consul general to represent its interests in a Ukrainian city housing one such nuclear site, or that the first consular office Iran sought to establish in Kazakhstan was in the vicinity of hundreds of kilograms of fresh HEU and three tons of low-irradiated plutonium. At another site in Yugoslavia outside of Belgrade, nearly 50 kg of Soviet-origin weapons usable HEU reside, remnants of the former dedicated Yugoslav nuclear weapons program. Hopefully, Russia’s plans to provide a new research reactor to Myanmar (Burma) will not result in more HEU being delivered to a high risk security zone.

E. Naval Issues

The Monterey Institute first called attention to the nonproliferation risks posed by naval fuel in the early 1990s and urged the U.S. government to focus on this danger. The concern was prompted by two diversions of highly-enriched fuel from Russian naval facilities and by information we had received regarding dangerous safety and security conditions at naval bases and shipyards in the Far North and Far East. As my colleague Dr. Clay Moltz has discovered in his research, there may be as much as 70 tons of HEU residing in active duty Russian nuclear submarines, ice-breakers, and cruisers and in the large number of decommissioned submarines that still contain operating reactors. There also are enormous quantities of spent naval fuel with high fissile material content.

One of the major success stories of the Nunn-Lugar CTR program has been U.S. cooperation with the Russian navy to dismantle strategic submarines and to enhance physical protection of both fresh and spent naval fuel. Major proliferation, terrorism, and environmental challenges remain, however, especially with regard to the dismantlement of cruise missile and attack submarines. To date, no U.S. funds have been provided to dismantle these naval systems, although some have a fuel enriched to as high as 90% U-235, [Alphas]. In addition to the dangers posed by the diversion of HEU and the possible use of spent fuel for radiological weapons, one also should be concerned that the decommissioned submarines or their reactor technology might be acquired by countries of proliferation concern. In 1994, for example, Russian officials caught two North Korean agents in a scheme to purchase dismantlement schedules for decommissioned vessels in the Pacific Fleet. The bulk of the Russian Far East’s naval fuel cycle and dismantlement facilities, it should be noted, are located less than 100 miles from the North Korean border.

Finally, one cannot dismiss either the environmental or terrorism risks associated with poorly guarded active-duty or decommissioned submarines that have not been defueled. These dangers were highlighted in September 1998 when a disgruntled sailor killed eight sailors, barricaded himself in a torpedo room and threatened to blow up an Akula-class attack submarine.

F. Illicit Nuclear Trafficking

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been frequent reports of thefts, attempted thefts, and illegal exports of nuclear material from the post-Soviet states. The overwhelming majority of these incidents involved material that cannot be used to make nuclear weapons. A careful examination of the available evidence, however, suggests that there also have been at least 14 confirmed proliferation-significant cases involving the theft or attempted theft of HEU or plutonium from nuclear facilities in the NIS (Refer to the table CNS has prepared on the subject which is on the NTI website, The majority of these cases took place between 1992 and 1995, followed by a lull of three years during which there were no confirmed cases. Since 1998, however, there have been a handful of new incidents that suggest the possible emergence of a nearly invisible, illicit market in nuclear material. Unlike many of the earlier cases which involved a small number of disgruntled employees and/or sting operations orchestrated by German intelligence, at least one of the newer incidents involved an organized group of facility employees, and several involved export of material to the Caucasus and Southeast Europe.

Regrettably, despite various summit pronouncements since 1996 to the contrary, to date there has been little if any meaningful intelligence sharing between Russia and the United States on illicit nuclear trafficking incidents. There also is reason to question the reliability and scope of the reports Russia and other NIS states have provided the IAEA for its illicit trafficking database. Reports provided by Russia to the IAEA, for example, do not capture all of the incidents contained in the annual reports prepared for internal use by the Russian nuclear regulatory body. As a consequence, one cannot exclude the possibility–I would say strong probability–that additional nuclear diversion incidents have occurred but have been concealed by NIS authorities. Given the absence of any comprehensive physical inventory of Russian nuclear material–the Achilles heel to date in efforts to safeguard Russian nuclear facilities–Russian officials have no basis for asserting that all fissile material is accounted for.

G. Human Factor/Sustainability

Even more difficult than completing physical inventories of nuclear material and of greater necessity for the long-term sustainability of Russian safeguards is the transformation of the attitudes or “mind-sets” of Russian nuclear workers and custodians. In my view, the greatest structural weaknesses of the current system are the absence of a deeply ingrained safeguards culture and the lack of an incentive structure to encourage the ongoing maintenance of prudent safeguards practices. As a result, the considerable safeguards progress made to date could be reversed.

At the level of high politics, one must be concerned about the potential impact on safeguards of the erosion during the past decade of traditional U.S.-Russian cooperation for nuclear nonproliferation. Although things may change after this past week’s summit, one has yet to see the exercise of political will at the highest levels in either the United States or Russia that demonstrates that concern for nonproliferation will trump other political and economic considerations.

Institutional issues in Russia create additional impediments. Foremost among these are the inadequacy of regulation and oversight by a financially viable and independent agency, and the absence of a long-term strategy for implementation and sustainability of nuclear material protection, control, and accountancy. Resource constraints at the national, ministerial, and facility levels in Russia also hamper sustainability.

A final set of impediments within Russia pertains to cultural issues. A penchant for secrecy and inadequate attention to insider threats are the most serious problems of this kind. Another cultural impediment is a lingering deference to authority (allowing senior facility management to circumvent safeguards procedures).

Impediments to sustainability also result from U.S. shortcomings, including a narrow definition of MPC&A training, emphasizing technology to the neglect of broader nonproliferation and safeguards issues. Insufficient appreciation of Russian concerns over reciprocity and equality, inadequate use of Russian expertise, and frequent changes of U.S. government and national laboratory personnel also contribute to the problem of sustainability.

What Is to Be Done?

There is no shortage of good recommendations about what needs to be done to address these pressing proliferation challenges. Some actually have been adopted as U.S. and Russian policy. I will limit my remarks to some additional steps that might usefully be taken.

A. Assess the Full Range of Nuclear Terrorist Threats

There is an urgent need to assess the full range of nuclear terrorist threats and to invest limited resources where they can have the greatest impact. It is my impression that at this moment there is no consensus within the U.S. government about the relative risks posed by radiological dispersal devices, sabotage of nuclear facilities, theft of an intact nuclear charge, or terrorist acquisition of HEU for use in a crude nuclear device, or an action plan to allocate resources commensurate with the probability and consequences of these very different threats. During the next six months CNS plans to undertake an unclassified assessment of those risks and to share its findings with U.S. and international policymakers.

Without prejudicing that study, I believe it is fair to say that nuclear power plants in the Soviet Union were not designed to confront current terrorist threats which could lead to catastrophic accidents with global consequences. More attention, therefore, should be given under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program to enhance reactor security as part of the larger effort to strengthen the national nuclear safeguards system. At a minimum, current physical protection efforts need to be coordinated with work to upgrade the safety and security of the four dozen nuclear power reactors currently operating in four post-Soviet states (Armenia, Lithuania, Russia, and Ukraine). The threat of nuclear sabotage, however, is by no means confined to the post-Soviet states, and requires much more attention from the world community than has been given to date.

B. Consolidate Soviet-Origin HEU

The United States and Russia also should seek to reduce the quantity of fissile material which must be protected and the number of sites where fissile material is stored. As part of a program of consolidation and elimination, the United States should undertake to negotiate as soon as possible the purchase of all HEU known to reside at research facilities in the non-Russian successor states. Given the relatively small, but nevertheless significant, quantities of weapons-usable material at sites in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, a uranium “buy-up” approach to the non-Russian republics represents a low cost, high return nonproliferation strategy. A similar HEU purchase plan might usefully be applied to other sites outside of the former Soviet Union such as Vinc√° in Yugoslavia where Soviet-origin fissile material is stored under inadequate safeguards and is vulnerable to theft and/or misuse. After many false starts, modest funds to support such an initiative are now available, and hopefully will soon lead to implementation of an HEU repatriation effort, most likely beginning with material in Uzbekistan and then Yugoslavia.

To the extent that HEU is actually being used by research facilities, assistance should be provided to convert Soviet-origin research reactors to run on low-enriched uranium. The United States has long supported such an international conversion program for U.S.-supplied reactors (RERTR). Ideally, the United States and Russia should launch a joint global campaign to convert all research reactors to run on low-enriched uranium as part of a new phase of U.S.-Russian nonproliferation cooperation. A useful related initiative would involve the two states’ taking the lead in promoting a world-wide effort to down-blend most stocks of HEU to low enrichment levels.

Building on the CTR successes and lessons of Project Sapphire, which removed over 500 kilograms of HEU from Ust Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan and Project Auburn Endeavor, which airlifted out a much smaller quantity of HEU from a site in Georgia, the United States and Russia could contribute significantly to the goal of combating nuclear terrorism by working together to eliminate high risk civilian stockpiles of HEU throughout the world. This kind of creative nonproliferation action could be facilitated by the efforts of both international organizations such as the IAEA and by non-governmental bodies such as the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

C. Reduce TNWs

Ironically, at a time when we are celebrating headway in nuclear arms control, there is silence from both Washington and Moscow about reduction of tactical nuclear weapons–the category of nuclear arms most vulnerable to theft. Although it would be desirable to initiate negotiations on a legally-binding treaty to reduce such arms, this approach does not appear to have much prospect for success. As a consequence, one should focus attention on two alternative means to reinforce the informal and fragile TNW regime.

  • Reaffirm 1991/92 Declarations
    Among the most important steps that could be taken would be the reaffirmation by the United States and Russia in a joint statement of their continued commitment to the 1991/92 parallel unilateral declarations. Failure of Presidents Bush and Putin to issue such a statement last week represents an important missed opportunity.
  • Utilize CTR
    The United States also needs to explore the feasibility of utilizing the Nunn-Lugar CTR program as a vehicle for safeguarding TNW and enhancing their transparency. Although this is a complex matter, which will not necessarily be embraced at first by Russia, I believe the objective is consistent with the intent of the Nunn-Lugar program. Among the potential gains from the expansion of the CTR mandate would be the acceleration of the pace of TNW dismantlement, greater likelihood of Russian receptivity to further arms reductions including TNW, increased transparency for TNW dismantlement (since accountability and transparency are part of the CTR process), and more safeguards for the fissile material byproducts of the TNW dismantlement process. Given the growing interest on the part of a number of countries in TNW disarmament, including Norway, it would be highly desirable for other states to join the United States in this expanded CTR effort.

D. Expand CTR Efforts in the Naval Sphere

I will say very little about how to advance cooperation in the naval sphere since my Norwegian colleague on this panel will also address this topic. I only would like to emphasize the need to extend U.S. assistance to the dismantlement of cruise missile and attack submarines. Given the high priority Russia places on submarine dismantlement, such an approach has the potential to boost greatly Russian enthusiasm for nonproliferation cooperation with the United States and also to achieve meaningful disarmament.

E. Utilize Education as a Nonproliferation Tool

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has observed correctly that “education is quite simply, peace-building by another name.” Neither the United States nor Russia, however, has adequately appreciated how education might be used as a nonproliferation tool. A tremendous gap therefore exists between government statements about the dangers of WMD proliferation and the paucity of funds allocated to train the next generation of nonproliferation specialists. Given this lack of support, it is not surprising that the United States, Russia, and the international community repeatedly fail to anticipate proliferation developments or to devise adequate nonproliferation strategies.

One useful step that could be taken to redress this problem would be passage of legislation to create a National Nonproliferation Education Act. Such legislation–perhaps modeled after the National Defense Education Act or the National Security Education Program–could among other things provide fellowships to U.S. and/or selected foreign graduate students for advanced multidisciplinary training in nonproliferation. Alternatively, private foundations such as NTI might provide funds for such fellowships.

The Department of Energy also needs to devote more resources to broadly based nonproliferation education and training. In Russia, the education and training component of an effective safeguards sustainability program should concentrate on two distinct but related approaches: (1) giving a short introduction to the basic elements of nonproliferation and international safeguards to the widest possible audience in the Russian nuclear sector; and (2) giving extended nonproliferation training to a select number of highly motivated individuals who can serve as agents of change within organizations responsible for nuclear material control.

As a UN Experts Group on Disarmament and Nonproliferation Education will soon recommend, more attention also needs to be given to the use of new information and communication technologies to provide nonproliferation training via distance learning to a much larger global audience. This territory is largely uncharted, but offers an unusual opportunity for the United States and Russia to share their considerable technical and pedagogical experience in pursuit of common nonproliferation objectives.

IV. Conclusion

Winston Churchill is reported to have observed that “Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but usually will pick himself up hastily and carry on without regard to it.” Senators Nunn and Lugar are remarkable in not only having stumbled over the truth, but having persisted over ten years in shining an international spotlight on it. Due to their foresight and persistence, the world is a safer place.

Their task and ours, however, is far from complete and the battle against “Mega-Terrorism” has just begun. If we are to be successful in this long-term enterprise, both Russia and the United States will need to adjust old patterns of thinking to new political realities. Hopefully, this conference will contribute to that process.

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