Skip to main content

Putin and Trump: How to Make Nonproliferation a Priority in 2017

Richard Weitz

Despite good intentions, the Obama administration leaves office in January with U.S.-Russia nonproliferation cooperation in a precarious condition. Moscow’s boycott of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, suspension of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), exclusion from the Group of Eight (G8), and other developments are major, though manageable, challenges in the nuclear security domain.

Renewing U.S.-Russian nonproliferation ties is vital since both countries have large stocks of nuclear weapons, advanced civilian and military nuclear complexes, and expertise in many nuclear and terrorism-related areas. Their cooperation has been responsible for important nuclear security successes, such as removing fissile material from vulnerable former Soviet bloc nuclear facilities.

Yet, while both powers want to deny other countries nuclear weapons, they often differ in their proliferation-related threat perceptions, preferred nonproliferation tactics, and the costs they are prepared to incur to avert further nuclear proliferation. For example, U.S. officials are more willing to sanction countries that pose a proliferation risk, while Russians are more worried about regime instability.

Russia’s exclusion from the G8 has weakened that Group’s nonproliferation functions, including its management of the Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. For more than a decade, the Global Partnership has conducted billions of dollars’ worth of nonproliferation projects in Russia, but now these have been completed or frozen due to tensions between Moscow and the West.

Washington and Moscow can, however, rely more on strengthening the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT). The GICNT endorses multinational training, exercises, and sharing of best practices in the prevention, detection, and response to nuclear incidents triggered by non-state actors. It also promotes use of highly enriched uranium and plutonium in civilian activities and enhancing the security of radiological sources that could be used to make dirty bombs. Importantly, while China is not a member of the G8, it is a leading player in the GICNT.

Russia and the United States continue to support the GICNT. Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, recently told Russia Direct that, “Despite all the difficulties in our relations with the U.S., our cooperation [in the Global Initiative] is very… constructive.”

To further enhance bilateral cooperation on nonproliferation, both countries need to share more intelligence to counter radiological or nuclear terrorism threats to themselves and others. Furthermore, both governments should do more to encourage other contributions to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). By securing more diverse sources of funding, the IAEA can raise the stability, sustainability and credibility of its programs. Furthermore, Russian and U.S. experts could partner to prepare an IAEA prospectus on nuclear security and help its Nuclear Security Division develop a strategic plan to manage emerging threats and opportunities.

At the multilateral level, Russia and the United States can keep strengthening the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which obliges all states to refrain from supporting non-state actors seeking to develop, acquire, manufacture, possess, transport, transfer or use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their delivery systems.

The Resolution further requires that all governments establish export controls on WMD materials and criminalize WMD-related proliferation activities. Consistent enforcement by governments of these obligations remains elusive since neither the resolution nor the UN Committee that oversees implementation offers clear standards for comprehensive enactment or adequate financial and technical support for its execution.

Both countries are leading users and exporters of civilian nuclear energy technologies, so they have a shared commercial interest in making nuclear energy production more secure and safe. For example, they can work together to apply supply- and demand-focused measures to civil nuclear exports to curb the spread of dangerous nuclear technologies and materials as well as better support international safety and security norms.

Furthermore, the Russian and U.S. nuclear enterprises can offer human capital training, regulatory assistance, and other support to states contemplating launching new nuclear energy programs to help them avoid accidents and protect their nuclear material and facilities.

Though bilateral and multinational partnerships, Moscow and Washington can develop safer and more secure commercial nuclear technologies. Such work can be done on a bilateral basis, such as through their underutilized bilateral civil nuclear security cooperation agreement, or via regional or multilateral approaches such as the World Association of Nuclear Operators.

Russia and the United States can also collaborate more closely in support of the new IAEA nuclear fuel bank in Kazakhstan. Such multinational nuclear fuel repositories could provide developing countries with reactor fuel in a safer, cheaper, and more secure way than if they tried to develop their own fuel-producing technologies, which can be misused to make nuclear weapons.

When bilateral relations improve, so will the possibility of renewed U.S.-Russian laboratory cooperation on nuclear security and nonproliferation issues.

Fortunately, Russian officials say they are willing to consider the “Action Plans,” adopted without Russia’s presence, at the last Nuclear Security Summit. The Plans offer proposed agendas for the UN, the IAEA, INTERPOL, the GICNT, and the Global Partnership. Ulyanov suggested, “We are ready to support everything reasonable that was adopted at the Washington Summit.”

The Trump administration should keep an open mind about the international convention to suppress acts of chemical and biological terrorism that Moscow has placed under consideration before the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Even if Washington decides that the proposed convention would add little to existing agreements, U.S. support for the proposal, which is also backed by China and other countries, might catalyze new WMD cooperation. For its part, Russia needs to stop claiming that the United States is supporting chemical terrorism in the Middle East or building biological weapons labs in the former Soviet republics.

Finally, while expanding cooperation on these nonproliferation issues, Russia and the United States should sustain public health collaboration against major natural diseases and keep studying the potential impact of emerging disruptive strategic technologies, such as cyber and outer space warfare. By doing so, Russia and the U.S. can make the world a safer place in 2017.

Dr. Weitz would like to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for supporting his non-proliferation research.

Related Articles

Counterbalance | Ep. 41: Does the U.S. Need To Be (More) Involved in Central Asia?

Michael Doran & Marshall Kosloff

Svante Cornell argues that it's in the best interest of everyone for the U.S. to engage with Central Asian countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazahkstan, U...

Continue Reading

The Strategic Dilemma of the United States and Nuclear Risk in an Era of Great Power Competition

Masashi Murano & Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr.

This interview between Hudson Japan Chair Fellow Masashi Murano and Senior Fellow Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., was first published in the June 2022 edi...

Continue Reading

Hungary’s Real Significance

Peter Rough & Mike Watson

Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushed many European issues to the back burner, Hungary has managed to claw its way back into the headlines. A...

Continue Reading