New Russian-US agreement on Nunn Lugar vastly dilutes program’s reach

A nuclear submarine being dismantled.

Publish date: June 19, 2013

Written by: Charles Digges

The US and Russia have renewed a weakened form of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program – which since the fall of the Soviet Union has helped secured or scrap thousands of nuclear and chemical weapons – in an agreement that is watered down to the point of being nearly unrecognizable, experts said.

That changes where on the horizon for CTR became abundantly clear last August when Russia began chaffing to ditch the program altogether.

Moscow had complained that the weapons destruction and security program was giving the US access to too many of its military secrets. Russia’s Foreign Ministry also said it was tired of Russia being viewed as a charity case rather than an equal parnet. Moscow also disagreed with liability issues within the previous CTR umbrella agreement, which placed fault or any accident occurring during any CTR-run nuclear remediation project – from acts of terrorism to US CTR workers being injured in minor accidents – squarely on Moscow.

But it was also recognized by observers that the two-decade old accord had nearly completed its mission in Russia, which spread the scope of the program to other countries in need of nuclear and chemical weapons security.

White House issues delayed statement on limits of new agreement

The White House issued a statement on Monday hinting that US efforts to assist Russia in further dismantling nuclear and chemical weapons would be significantly limited under the new form of the CTR agreement, also known as the Nunn Lugar agreement for former US Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, who developed the program in 1992.

Since that year, Nunn Lugar programs worked in Russia to dismantle and secure Cold War-era weapons of mass destruction, making it one of the most successful disarmament programs in history.

Its activities were primarily targeted at the destruction of Russian bombers, tactical submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the construction of facilities needed to more securely store weapons grade nuclear stocks and chemical weapons.

The White House statement said the new agreement was signed on Friday, June 14, but it did not make the statement public until Monday, July 17. There was no explanation given for the lag time, and barely any mainstream US or Russian media made note of it.

New CTR to exclude weapon security and safe waste storage?

But Monday’s White House statement said only that joint US-Russian nuclear security activities would now be conducted under the Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Program in the Russian Federation (MNEPR), which has traditionally outlined the legal underpinnings for which member-nations can assist Russia with spent nuclear fuel safety and radioactive waste management.

In all, however, it remains largely unclear what, precisely, US non-proliferation programs will be able to do in Russia under this new agreement, particularly those programs run by the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), Global Security Newswire (GSN) reported.

“This new bilateral framework authorizes the United States and the Russian Federation to work in several areas of nonproliferation collaboration, including protecting, controlling and accounting nuclear materials,” the White House statement said.

But it is still unclear whether the new accord will allow the NNSA’s Global Threat Reduction to continue accessing sites within Russia where the United States has made investments toward the security of dangerous nuclear materials, numerous experts told GSN.

Averting total Russian pull-out

In October 2012, the Russian government announced it was backing out of the Nunn Lugar pact, citing Russia’s prioritization of military secrets over its concern for financial assistance in destroying Soviet-era nuclear and chemical weapons stockpiles.

Russia’s foreign ministry further elaborated by telling Russian media that times had changed and Moscow was tired of being viewed as a charity case.

Obama responded to Moscow’s threats to unilaterally dump Nunn Lugar by appealing to Moscow in December to renew some form of the 21-year-old Nunn Lugar pact. He answered Russia’s insistence that the agreement was out of step with the times by offering to update it in consultation with Moscow.

‘It’s all over’ say some analysts of CTR

The resulting pact signed Monday, however is “totally different” from the original Nunn Lugar agreement, Kenneth Luongo, president of the Washington-based Partnership for Global Security, and a former nonproliferation advisor to the US Department of Energy, told GSN.

“This [new] agreement is a continuation of a program in a very truncated form,” he said as quoted by the agency.

“It is shocking that Russia, with its risks, is curtailing this program,” said Bellona President Frederic Hauge. “That Russia is limiting access sends a scary signal on how Russia wants to cooperate with the international community and 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.”

Thomas Moore, who helped Senators Nunn and Lugar establish the Nunn Lugar program, took an even dimmer view of the new agreement and its impact on the future of Nunn Lugar engagement in Russia.

“Its all over,” he said to GSN.

Former Senator Nunn, who now serves on the board of directors of the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a powerful nonproliferation group, said in a statement on the organization’s website, that: “Certain key elements of what we have known as Nunn-Lugar will not be carried forward under this umbrella agreement, including certain defense work[…]”

But he maintained optimism that the US and Russia would still engage in cooperative efforts beyond the now-gutted pact.

“I congratulate President Obama and President Putin for setting aside historical animosities and demonstrating that responsible leadership requires acting together to reduce nuclear risks,” he wrote, but added, “[…] we must find ways beyond this agreement to work together on these critical issues. I believe that we will.”

The White House, the Department of Energy, the State Department and the Department of Defense failed to immediately respond to emailed requests for further comment from Bellona.

Has CTR run its course in Russia?

Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona, had a more sanguine view of the apparent wind down of CTR in Russia, but cautioned against what it means for Russia’s environmental safety and the mounting nuclear waste problems.

“On the one hand, this decision is appropriate because international money is pouring in to Russian from different countries to dismantle old weaponry, submarines for instance, and Russia is building new submarines on its own money, “ said Nikitin, who is also 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.

He also said future efforts toward ridding Russia of Cold War legacy waste in the absence of CTR will invite corruption.

“Because Russia will spend a little money on [weapons security and dismantlement] from time to time, it will be plundered by bureaucrats or sabotaged.”

Nonproliferation’s loss of capital with US lawmakers

Luongo suggested to GSN that the CTR wind-down could take a political toll in Washington and broader nonproliferation initiatives there.

As Russia had been the “political core” of CTR, the programs wider efforts in other countries could be torpedoed by a Congress looking to use CTRs practical discontinuation as a reason to slash funding for nonproliferation programs across the board, he told GSN.

Luongo stressed it was important that Obama administration detail the changes in CTR to Congress and underscore that it should continue to fund the programs safety activities outside Russia, GSN reported.

 “If you let that go, you’re never going to get that back under the current [US] fiscal circumstances,” Luongo told GSN. “The political poles holding up this tent have taken a bit of a hit.”