US-Russia Nuclear Security Cooperation:
Obstacles to cooperation

There are many obstacles to overcome before cooperation in sensitive matters such as nuclear security can run smoothly between the old cold-war adversaries. The worsening of US-Russian relations during at the end of the 1990s, coupled with NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia, made cooperation even more difficult. Russia's increased reliance on nuclear weapons and the Bush administration's back-tracking on nuclear arms control agreements certainly also have impact on implementation efforts. On the other hand, the tendency of warming relations between Washington and Moscow since the 11 September attacks could prove to have a positive effect on implementation of nuclear security efforts.

The following analysis on obstacles to cooperation is excerpted from a report by Mathew Bunn published in April 2000 by the Carnegie Non-Proliferation Project and the Harvard Project on Managing the Atom: The Next Wave: Urgently Needed Steps to Control Warheads and Fissile Materials

Conflicting Interests

The most fundamental obstacle to cooperation is that the United States and Russia continue to have many conflicting interests-though they have profound common interests in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and achieving permanent nuclear arms reductions. Russia would like to maintain a cutting-edge nuclear arsenal comparable to that of the United States, and the United States has no interest in helping Russia do that. Both countries' intelligence services would like to find out as much as possible about the other country's nuclear secrets, and both countries are deeply suspicious of the other's intentions in that regard. The United States has an interest in achieving specific nonproliferation and arms reduction goals as quickly and cost-effectively as possible; Russia, while not opposed to that objective, also has an interest in providing as much employment for excess nuclear workers as possible for as long as possible. Substantial segments of the political establishments in both countries-including a large fraction of both countries' legislatures-remain deeply suspicious of the other, and skeptical of the whole idea of nuclear security cooperation (which creates a constant danger that problems will be blown out of proportion and spin out of control). Given these differences of interest, disagreements about specific approaches to cooperation are inevitable, and need to be resolved patiently with good-faith negotiation and discussion.

Secrecy and Suspicion

Secrecy and limited access to facilities is another serious obstacle faced by essentially all cooperative nuclear security programs with Russia. Enormous progress has been made in breaking down barriers, particularly compared to the early 1990s, when Russia would not allow cooperation on security upgrades at any site with separated plutonium or HEU, even civilian ones-whereas today, cooperation is underway at almost every such site. But enormous barriers still remain, and as political relations have deteriorated, the Russian security services have become more active in restricting access. At the same time, the United States has frequently been reluctant to offer comparable access to its own facilities, and this, too, has slowed progress. The recent furor over Chinese spying and laboratory security in the United States is only making this problem worse.

Competing priorities, bureaucratic disorganization, frequent changes of government personnel, and lack of sustained attention to these issues by the highest levels of government have been serious problems on both sides. It is difficult to do business with a Russian government facing a thousand priorities it considers more urgent, whose prime minister changes every few months, whose ministries often do not communicate, whose nuclear facilities increasingly may not abide by deals cut in Moscow, whose officials often put their industry's commercial interests ahead of nonproliferation interests, and whose senior leadership takes only occasional interest in resolving issues related to these nuclear security cooperation programs. Russian experts have much the same complaints about dealing with the U.S. government.

Money Trail

Another major issue is the difficulty of ensuring that U.S. taxpayers' dollars are being spent as they should be-an issue with several parts. First, there is the widespread corruption in Russia, which makes it essential to structure assistance programs so that the funds cannot simply be raked off into foreign bank accounts. Second, Russia has a dysfunctional payments system, in which, for example, money deposited at a particular bank for use by a joint project at a nearby institute may be seized by the bank to cover the institute's bad debts, or may be seized by tax police to cover the institute's back taxes, or may be used by a desperate institute director to pay salaries of other employees (in the hopes that it can be paid back if institute's promised government funding ever comes). Third, there is the continuing problem of Russian efforts to impose a variety of taxes, tariffs, and duties on U.S. assistance, in effect directing a portion of the assistance away from the agreed projects and into the general coffers of the Russian government instead. While the specific situation of each nuclear security program is unique, all of them have faced these problems, and even when they have found successful solutions, the fact is that an enormous amount of time, energy, creativity, and political capital is spent following the money trail rather than getting the cooperative work done.

Cultural Differences

Cultural differences and poor negotiating tactics on both sides have, on occasion, also led to obstacles and disputes, which in some cases have delayed progress by months or years. What may appear from a U.S. perspective to be the minimum necessary audit and examination approach to ensure U.S.- financed equipment is used appropriately may appear from a Russian perspective as unwarranted intrusion and possibly an intelligence mission. A policy change seen on the U.S. side as tightening up lax spending practices of the past may be seen on the Russian side as abrogating the spirit of partnership by ignoring Russian suggestions for how funds should be spent.

Given this list of obstacles to cooperation - which is by no means comprehensive - success in nuclear security cooperation is never guaranteed, and the obstacles to initiating major new efforts are substantial. The fundamental ingredients of success are: initiatives that genuinely serve the security interests of both sides; sustained and energetic leadership; a genuine commitment to working in partnership; a step-by-step approach designed to build trust as progress is made; patience, persistence, and creativity in overcoming obstacles; and consistent follow-through on commitments. With those ingredients, and with a willingness to apply additional financial resources, there are opportunities for dramatic new progress to deal with the nonproliferation and arms reduction challenges both countries face, and perhaps even contribute to improving the overall political atmosphere between Russia and the United States.