UPDATE: Russia turns back on Nunn-Lugar after 20 years of cooperative nuclear weapons destruction – Russian papers say

The Russian government announced that it is backing out of the Nunn-Lugar program, the most successful US-Russia nuclear and chemical weapons destruction program of the post-Soviet period, citing, according to US officials, the Kremlin’s prioritization of military secrets over financial assistance, Russian Media have reported.

The bilateral agreement – also known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction program (CTR) – has, since its inception in 1991, helped Russia destroy and safely store scores of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Spokespeople at Russia’s Foreign and Defense ministries refused througout the day to independently confirm or deny the reports of the country’s withdrawal from CTR that ran in primarily the Kommersant newspaper and the Interfax newswire that were picked by other media as well.

According to Bellona President Frederic Hauge, Nunn-Lugar has been essential to assuring the nuclear safety of Russia, and indeed the world.

“It is shocking that Russia, with its risks, is cancelling this program,” he said. “That Russia is backing out sends a scary signal on how Russia wants to cooperate with the international community and definitely increases risks for the entire Russian population,” he said, adding that, “Such a program is crucial because we all have a stake in protecting these dangerous materials.”

Russia’s move away from CTR is the latest in Moscow’s review of its relationship with Washington, and comes after Russia stopped the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) from working in the country earlier this month.

It also follows comments last week by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the “reset” policy between Russia and the United States “cannot last forever.”

It additionally comes at a time when many US officials, too, have been assessing the future of CTR in Russia, and grappling with whether or not the 21-year-old program has fulfilled its mandate, government sources told Bellona.

“From one side, this decision is appropriate because international money is pouring in to dismantle old weaponry, submarines for instance, and Russia is building new submarines on its own money, and the process seems endless” said Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environment and Rights Center (ERC) Bellona, a former naval captain and military nuclear inspector.

“On the other hand – from the point of view of safety, including environmental safety – if Russia is left alone with its nuclear waste problems and old chemical weapons, then the danger of this legacy will grow many times over,” he said, adding, “Because Russia will spend a little money on this from time to time, it will be plundered by bureaucrats or sabotaged.”

According to one government official familiar with arguments ongoing over Nunn-Lugar in Washington, rounding up support for the program has been on a downward spiral ever since its co-founder and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee Richard Lugar surprisingly lost his Indiana Senate seat in US Congressional elections late last spring. His term in office will end in January 2013

“While President Obama supports Nunn-Lugar [...] the Lugar political operation had to fight every day through the government bureaucracy to make progress happen. That will now be lost,” said the US government source, who asked to remain anonymous as he is not authorized to discuss the issue, in emailed comments.

“There is no one else in Congress with the interest and expertise [to continue the work of Nunn-Lugar]. In fact, Republicans are moving to the right. Romney now calls Russia America’s greatest enemy,” wrote the source.

Former US government sources, however, have suggested that Nunn-Lugar is not only surviving, but thriving – especially in areas that do not involved Soviet legacy weapons destruction. “I can assure you Nunn-Lugar continues and has gone global,” said the source. 

The CTR program began in 1991, and was extended twice – in 1999 and 2006, but each year with mounting pressure in Congress, and no significant increases in its average – and moderate by US standards – budget of about $450 million a year.

CTR’s current terms expires in 2013. The US Pentagon, which oversees the program, has reportedly spent an estimated $8 billion on its programs over the last two decades, making it one of the cheapest and most effective Defense Department programs in history.

The program included measures to increase safety at old nuclear weapons plants in the former Soviet Union, increasing the safety of former weapons storage, dismantling nuclear submarines and generating alternative work for former institutes and production facilities that had been involved in making weapons of mass destruction.

According to US State Department sources cited by Kommersant, the Pentagon and the State Department had hoped to renew the program after its current deadline of 2013 expired.

The issue was highlighted during the latest Russian visit of a high-ranking delegation of the Congress, the State Department and the Pentagon led by former Senator Lugar.

The delegation achieved nothing  – sources told Kommersant the delegation was told that Russia deemed the extension of the deal inexpedient.

“The Russian side announced that it no longer needs the US’s financial help and is itself capable of dealing with the tasks that fall within Nunn-Lugar’s framework,” an unnamed State Department official told Kommersant.

Michael McFaul, US Ambassador to Russia, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that the United States was open to discussion “less discriminatory” policies for Nunn-Lugar.

“Our position is this,” said McFaul. “[Nunn-Lugar] is a very important program in the framework of which many important tasks are implemented. And we will continue. Maybe this will take a different form, but in essence, this cooperation will continue.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry official said Russia did not oppose such future cooperation so long as it excluded an agreement that gave both countries an equal footing.

The official told Kommersant that, ”The agreement is discriminatory toward Russia and does not take into account the changes that have occurred since the moment of its signing during the early 1990s, which were very difficult for our country.”

The Russian official added that another advantage of shutting the Nunn-Lugar program down was that it made America privy to too much “sensitive information” about Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

The US State Department official took umbrage with that notion, saying that, “The essence of the program in the past years has boiled down to the US simply giving money to Russia,” but added that the program’s value lied in “joint evaluations of installations and studies, joint work toward liquidation and dismantlement, as well as working out measures to fortify safety of [weapons storage] installations.”

The program, participants on both the Russian and US side have told Bellona over several years, also helped foster an atmosphere of trust at a military level between the two Cold War foes.  

The State Department source told Kommersant that ditching the program would lay vulnerable many more sites where Russia stores the remnants of its nuclear arsenal.

The Foreign Ministry, however, pushed back, telling the paper that the Global Partnership agreement arrived at in 2002 – under which G-8 nations agreed to furnish Russian with $20 billion over 10 years to clean up its Soviet nuclear legacy – was supplying ample security. 

However, the Nunn-Lugar program has been since 2002 a major function of the US’s Global Partnership efforts. The former US government official who spoke with Bellona, however, did not put much stock in further Global Partnership initiatives, especially now that the program is reaching is decade expiration date.

“The Global Partnership is becoming just another forgotten G-8 footnote in history,” wrote the  government official. Russia’s nuclear weapons could again become targets for nuclear predators.