US-Russia Nuclear Security Cooperation: Introduction

US-Russia cooperation on nuclear security developed as a response to raised concerns about the safety and protection of Russian nuclear weapons after the break-up of the Soviet Union. During the past decade an array of different programs have developed into a multi-billion dollar budget regime aimed at helping to securely store and dismantle nuclear weapon and material stockpiles in Russia as well as find alternative jobs for former nuclear weapons scientists.


The Soviet Nuclear Heritage 

The ending of the cold war in 1991 considerably reduced the risk of a nuclear exchange between the adversaries United States and Soviet Union, who since the end of World War II had been engaged in a lethal arms race. With the break-up of the Soviet Union came the question to whom the huge nuclear weapons stockpile belonged to since they were now de facto distributed between four successor states, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine. It has been estimated that at its breakup, the Soviet Union had 30 000-40 000 nuclear weapons and more than 600 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear material. Further concerns were raised in reaction to the deterioration of the Russian economic, social and political system. It was thought that hardship would make it increasingly more difficult for Moscow to provide adequate control and protection over its large weapons complex.


New proliferation concerns

The reasoning behind the growing concerns was that former Soviet nuclear weapons, nuclear material or technical know-how could be diverted and end up in states or with organizations with aggressive intentions. This threat was seen to be exacerbated by that Russia for economic reasons had to start downsizing its nuclear activities with consequences such as unemployment and drastic pay-cuts among nuclear scientists, guards and other staff serving as custodians of the nuclear complex.


Responding with nuclear cooperation

A. The initiating years (1991-1993)

In response to the perceived proliferation concerns posed by the former Soviet nuclear arsenal and a request for help from President Mikhail Gorbachev, a host of initiatives with differing focus and varying results have developed over the last decade to create a US-Russian bi-lateral cooperation regime. Efforts began in 1991 with the passing of a piece of US legislation called the Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act of 1991 and were initially administered through the US Department of Defense. The program became known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR) or the 'Nunn-Lugar initiative' after the two senators who sponsored the bill, Sam Nunn (Democrat) and Richard Lugar (Republican). Progress was slow at first and focused mainly on outlining strategies and developing management structures. A concrete accomplishment of early CTR efforts was the assistance to Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine in transferring their nuclear weapons to Russia. The three republics subsequently signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear weapons states.

B. US-Russia nuclear cooperation matures (1993-1999)

US nonproliferation efforts with Russia received increased attention during the Clinton Administration and in 1993 the Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act was renamed to the Cooperative Threat Reduction Act and expanded the objectives to cover:

  1. Assistance in transferal of nuclear warheads from the Soviet successor states to Russia
  2. Assistance with the destruction and dismantlement of nuclear weapons systems
  3. Assistance with increasing security, control, accounting and centralization of nuclear weapons and materials.
  4. Assistance with chemical weapons destruction
  5. Encouragement of demilitarization of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan

By 1999, the CTR program had evolved to include a wide range of nonproliferation and demilitarization projects and the US government had by this time obligated $1.7 billion to CTR with Russia. In January 1999, the Clinton administration unveiled its Expanded Threat Reduction Initiative (ETRI) proposing increased funding and extended lifetime for many programs. The US and Russia signed a protocol in June 1999 extending the CTR umbrella agreement with another 7 years until 2006.

Today, US-Russia nuclear security cooperation programs are administered and coordinated mainly between US Departments of Defense, Energy, State and Commerce. While several programs overlap, the general division of responsibility is the following:

  • Department of Defense focuses on dismantlement and destruction of weapon systems and delivery vehicles;
  • Department of Energy focuses on securing, monitoring and reducing nuclear material stockpiles, reducing the size of the Russian nuclear weapons complex, and re-directing weapons expertise to civilian fields of work; and
  • Department of State and Commerce focus on export control assistance and providing training and equipment to customs and border guard organizations to prevent nuclear smuggling. The State Department also administers the International Science and Technology Program - which aims to provide alternative work for ex-nuclear weapons scientists - and manages bi-lateral negotiations such as the Plutonium Disposition Agreement.

C. The future of US-Russia nuclear cooperation

After taking over the US presidency in 2001, George W. Bush immediately announced plans for spending cuts among US nonproliferation programs with the Newly Independent States (NIS) and undertook a comprehensive review. However, the reviews were on the whole positive to the programs and recommended expansion of four key projects and reorganization among some. In addition, while the Bush administration had requested budget cuts the President signed a budget bill that increased overall spending levels for US nonproliferation assistance to the NIS.

In November 2001, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed a bill, the Security Assistance Act of 2001, which included two pieces of legislation relevant to US-Russia nuclear cooperation: the Debt Reduction for Nonproliferation Act of 2001 and the Nonproliferation Assistance Coordination Act of 2001. The bill has yet to be submitted for consideration by the full Senate. US nonproliferation efforts have in general received increased attention after the 11 September attack on New York and Washington and it is expected that funding will increase for Fiscal Year 2003.

Assessing effectiveness of US-Russia nuclear cooperation

Over the past decade a host of nonproliferation programs have developed aiming at assisting Russia to safeguard its nuclear weapons infrastructure and meeting its strategic arms reduction obligations under START I (see NRA: START). In numbers, CTR assistance has so far helped remove thousands of Russian nuclear warheads from ballistic missiles, eliminated hundreds of strategic missiles and missile silos, and scrapped 17 ballistic missile submarines. But are the programs achieving their intended goal of reducing the risk nuclear weapons proliferation, and how do you measure success?

Judging the effectiveness of the complex regime of cooperation between the US and Russia is an arduous task. Many reports and analyses attempt to treat this issue and the report cards vary depending on who is assessing and what results are expected. A good starting point for research on implementation assessment is the US General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative body of the US congress. In November 2001, the GAO made the following concise summation of nonproliferation efforts in the FSU:

'U.S. efforts have helped make large quantities of WMD-related materials more secure and have supplemented the incomes of several thousand former Soviet scientists in hopes they will not sell their knowledge to terrorists or countries of concern. However, the cost of U.S. efforts to reduce the proliferation risks of former Soviet WMD has been and will continue to be substantial, and it will take much longer than was once thought to secure sensitive materials and weapons. In addition, the United States' ability to demonstrate that these efforts have had a positive impact is limited primarily because of Russian restrictions on U.S. access to relevant sites and materials and inherent difficulties in assessing the effect of U.S. aid on the motivations of former Soviet scientists. The ability of the United States to conclusively demonstrate that its efforts are having a positive impact is limited at best. In many cases, it may never be proved that these programs have substantially achieved their intended purpose'. (GAO-02-226T: Assessing U.S. Policy Tools for Combating Proliferation)

  • For a comprehensive list (including links) of GAO documents on US-Russia nuclear cooperation click here.
  • For an analysis by an arms control expert on obstacles to nuclear cooperation between the US and Russia click here.