Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

Why the United States Should Suspend Nuclear Security Cooperation Inside Russia

| Nov. 20, 2014

Last week, the editor for the New York Times “Room for Debate” blog asked me to comment on the question, “Should Washington and Moscow continue to work together to reduce nuclear stockpiles and cooperate to secure, or eliminate, weapons and nuclear materials despite the dispute around Russian actions in Ukraine?”  I wrote, “We should honor our New START commitments,” but, beyond that, “until Russia removes its troops from eastern Ukraine and ceases its military support to pro-Russian separatists there, the United States should suspend any discussion on future arms reductions or cooperation on securing Russian nuclear materials and weapons.”  Four other commenters disagreed with my recommendation.  They each said, in essence, that the US government should proceed with its efforts to increase the security of Russian nuclear weapons and materials despite Russian actions in Ukraine.  My Belfer colleague, Nickolas Roth, who has spent over a decade working in nuclear policy, part of which was with the Union of Concerned Scientists, has also published a thoughtful explanation why we must continue working inside Russia to improve its nuclear security despite its invasion of Ukraine.  The fact that I readily acknowledge that I am the only one of this otherwise distinguished group who is not a trained and schooled "nonproliferator" will give you a clue as to why I think all my colleagues are wrong. 

Calls for continued American expenditures on Russia’s nuclear security basically ignore two important developments.  The first is that the situation in Moscow has changed fundamentally over the past 12 months.  The second is that the situation in Washington has changed as much as the situation in Moscow.  There is no appetite in Moscow for American officials climbing through Russian nuclear sites and, there is no appetite in Washington to spend American tax dollars on securing Russia’s deterrent against the US. 

We are no longer in the Cold War era when the sum total of the threat from Russia could be addressed by permanent negotiations over nuclear and conventional arms reductions.  In those years, the case of nuclear weapons encompassed almost all of our interactions.  It covered over our many other issues like a blanket of winter snow.  In the spring time years immediately after the Cold War, when the main threat from Russia was the potential for proliferation of nuclear material - even warheads, our main interest was securing Russia’s stockpiles and preventing them from sprouting up in foreign soil.  But now we are in a new season.  The threat of nuclear war with Russia, although dangerous, is not urgent. The security of Russian nuclear materials is vastly improved thanks to billions of US dollars and Russian rubles.  Nuclear conflict and proliferation with and from Russia are present dangers, but no longer the overriding issues they once were.  Today, they must share the stage with myriad other problems emanating from Russia – many of which, I argue, are more pressing.   And, that is essentially the question – Are the threats from Russian actions in Ukraine, Crimea, Georgia, Moldova, and throughout Eastern Europe so dangerous that we should address them first, before we agree to conduct business as usual on nuclear security inside Russia and bilateral arms reductions?  I say yes. 

Reducing the threat from nuclear terrorism is recognized as a vital interest within the US government, but, despite laudable proclamations from Russian leaders, I maintain that preventing nuclear terrorism has not been embedded into the Russian list of vital interests.  I say this having engaged with senior Russian officials and government leaders and having led the Elbe Group (founded to increase actions to prevent nuclear terrorism).  From my observation of Russian actions in this area, and noting the work of great American nuclear security experts, I would say that the United States is already doing the lion’s share of this work.  Of course it would be nice to have Russian cooperation in this specific nonproliferation vector but, we certainly can do a lot toward the goal without Russian participation.  Russia’s temporary absence from the effort would not be its death knell.  Their absence might even make some of the work progress more rapidly.  If we are really serious about doing something to keep terrorists from getting weapons of mass destruction, we might ask ourselves how much money we are spending in new nuclear states like Pakistan or India, and increase our efforts there.  Perhaps we could take a break from improving already-working Russian security measures and direct our money and attention to these other potential proliferation sources.    

If we think Putin and his actions over the last year are an anomaly or only for show, we are mistaken.  Such a mistake will, in hindsight, be seen to be inexcusable given the many signals he has sent about Russian demands, intentions, and interests.   The situation between our two countries has changed fundamentally.  The suggestion that we can “return to business as usual” in any field, much less nuclear security, flies in the face of what is happening in Europe and what Russian leaders themselves are telling us when they predict no new nuclear security work or tell us that bilateral nuclear arms reductions are outdated.  

Russia, for example, has closed programs that, for decades, sent Russian students to American communities and vice versa.  As an Army officer in 1982, I studied in an exchange program in Moscow: at that time - the heart of the Evil Empire.  That cannot happen today.  Two weeks ago, the last of the American officers studying in Russia were kicked out.  When Elbe Group members (retired Russian and US officers who have been meeting for four years) met in Morocco last March, even before Crimean annexation was announced, the change in the international relationship was already apparent.  The Russians blamed the US for forcing Russia to take action in Georgia, Moldova, and Crimea and accused the US of orchestrating the destabilizing revolutions sweeping the Middle East. “America foments revolution around the world so that investors will turn to the world’s safest market with their money – the US.”  When average Russian citizens were recently polled by the respected Levada Center about the shoot down of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, over 90% surveyed said that someone other than Russians or separatists shot it down. 

Putin and his policies are not an aberration sitting atop and apart from a moderate-minded populace.  Putin enjoys his highest popularity ever at 80+% while the US sits at its lowest point, less than 20% [Levada Center].  These are not symptoms of bureaucracies that just need some prodding to restart efforts they both believe in.  They are siren alarms from a catastrophic failure of understanding and trust between the two countries. 

I realize that Nickolas Roth has raised some good points about my blog comment.  This being an institution of scholarly rigor, if I fail to address them specifically, it may weaken my position.  So, I close with the following specific responses:

  • Nickolas wrote, “Four out of five participants in the discussion thought continuing cooperation was a good idea.” In fact I think it’s a good idea too; just not until after we resolve the more pressing issue of Ukraine and European security.
  • Nickolas wrote that first and foremost, “The United States needs to prioritize national security decisions based on its interests, not its expectations of what other countries can afford to do.”  I agree one hundred percent, but it is not me who has identified the wrong priority.  The priority should be restoring European security and Ukrainian independence.  Those who assume that Russia will not secure its own nuclear weapons and materials are making the “expectation leap” that Nickolas warns against. 
  • Nickolas wrote, “…as long as working with Russia reduces the threat of nuclear terrorism, we should continue to pay the very modest amounts required to purchase support in alleviating the one thing that keeps President Obama ‘up at night.’”  I don’t dispute that President Obama may think about nuclear terrorism at night when he should be asleep, but the quote does not provide true evidence of where US vital interests lie.  I will bet a dollar that President Obama’s daytime calendar shows he is spending more time on Ukraine, Russia, ISIL, China, Iran, and maybe the White Sox than he is on nuclear terrorism.  That might be better evidence of America’s true vital interests.  Nuclear terrorism is the least likely and most dangerous threat we face.  It is like Ebola.  If you spend all your energy thinking about Ebola, you’re likely to wander in front of a bus. 
  • Nickolas wrote, “…[Russian nuclear security] is still not where it needs to be to prevent theft of nuclear materials from Russian facilities.” If that is the case, we should add the list of deficiencies to our letter to President Putin condemning Russian actions in Ukraine and ask that he address those problems as well as getting out of Ukraine.  I see no convincing argument by any of the other commenters why we should continue to manage Russian nuclear security. 
  • Finally, Nickolas wrote, “… General Ryan does not include an explanation as to why cutting off nuclear security cooperation would benefit the United States.”  To be specific, I recommended, “Until Russia removes its troops from eastern Ukraine and ceases its military support to pro-Russian separatists there, the United States should suspend any discussion on future arms reductions or cooperation on securing Russian nuclear materials and weapons.”  It may not be self evident, so I will explain that suspending cooperation on securing Russian nuclear materials is in keeping with the other steps the US government has taken in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: the US has ceased all collaboration in the 16 working group areas of the “Bilateral Commission;”  there are almost no communications happening below the level of Secretary Kerry and Minster Lavrov; the US has deployed ground, air, and naval forces into Eastern Europe in response to the threat from Russia; the US has introduced economic sanctions against Russian individuals and companies.  All of these steps are part of an attempt to present a coherent and strong response to Russian aggression.  Engaging in bilateral talks on nuclear arms or allocating US tax dollars to the Russian government would be grossly out of step with the policy being established by President Obama and his administration. 
For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ryan, Kevin.Why the United States Should Suspend Nuclear Security Cooperation Inside Russia.” Nuclear Security Matters, November 20, 2014,