Earlier this month, in the wake of Russia's actions in Georgia, the Bush administration said it had "placed under review" talks with Moscow dealing with missile defense and reducing the size of the American and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals. At the same time, administration officials and some in Congress froze U.S.-Russian efforts to develop proliferation-resistance reactors and a secure regime for supplying nuclear fuel.
Given American concerns about nuclear proliferation and the possibility of nuclear terrorism, tying U.S.-Russian cooperation in the nuclear domain with the current Russia-Georgia quarrel may amount to shooting ourselves in the foot in a misguided attempt to punish Russia.
Not all of the cooperative ventures between the two countries are equally important. Some have largely achieved their original aims. Some clearly merit careful congressional review. By putting nuclear cooperation on hold, we get to growl at the Russians about Georgia without much immediate risk — but not much gain either. And the linkage risks complicating some areas where U.S.-Russian cooperation is vital.
One of these has to do with Iran's nuclear ambitions. It is hard to see how an Iran armed with nuclear weapons can be in Russia's long-term interest. Yet as Iran's principal supplier of civilian nuclear technology, Russia has sought short-term political and commercial gain.
Although the United States agreed to support Russian fueling of Iran's civilian nuclear reactor as a way to undermine Iran's arguments that it needs a domestic enrichment capability, Russia has obstructed international efforts to pressure Iran into suspending nuclear enrichment, and there is strong suspicion that Russia may be providing technical assistance in other areas of Iran's nuclear fuel program.
What also matters is what happens next in the region. Will Russia now sell nuclear technology and know-how to other nuclear aspirants made nervous by Iran's developing capabilities? Or can Russia be persuaded to hold the line?
Russia sits on a mountain of highly enriched uranium — 1,200 tons of it left over from the dismantling of Soviet weapons. Under the "Megatons to Megawatts" program, Russia has agreed to dilute this uranium to a level unsuitable for weapons but suitable for reactor fuel. The United States has agreed to buy 500 tons by the time the agreement runs out in 2013 — this represents 20,000 nuclear warheads. So far more than 300 tons of weapons-grade material has already been down-blended. In return, Russia received more than $5 billion from the sales.
It is in our interest — the world's interest — that Russia renders safe this mountain of highly enriched uranium — the stuff of bombs.
For decades, motivated by mutual interest, the United States has worked with the Soviet Union and its successor, the Russian Federation, to limit and reduce their nuclear arsenals, improve nuclear security and safeguards, and prevent nuclear proliferation. Both nations perceive nuclear terrorism as a threat.
Negotiations have achieved genuine progress. The two countries have cooperated in preventing nuclear proliferation, a record that Russia's role in Iran is now tarnishing. Cooperation against nuclear terrorism has been patchy, in part because the threat itself is murky. The historical record suggests that when Russians have reason to be concerned themselves, they seek cooperation.
With the emergence of terrorist groups like Italy's Red Brigades and Germany's Red Army Faction in the 1970s, U.S. military planners worried that terrorists might try to get their hands on a nuclear weapon and set off a sequence of events that could trigger World War III. Suppose, for example, terrorists managed to steal a nuclear weapon in West Germany and fled to East Germany with American soldiers in hot pursuit. Or what would happen if Marx-espousing terrorists, suspected of being sponsored by the Soviet Union or one of its allies, detonated a nuclear device in Western Europe?
These concerns prompted efforts aimed at improving the security of our own nuclear weapons, while at the same time exploring how the United States and the Soviet Union might work together to manage such a crisis. Inadequate communications and absence of dialogue between the superpowers were identified as major obstacles.
In 1987, with the Cold War still on, a handful of Americans, including myself, was invited to Moscow to explore how the Soviet Union and the United States might cooperate against terrorism. We were wary of Soviet propaganda ploys but, with a nod from a curious U.S. State Department, went ahead. At the first meeting in Moscow, we asked our Soviet counterparts what aspects of terrorism worried them most. At the top of their list were (prophetically) the spread of violent Islamic extremism and (one hopes, not prophetically) nuclear terrorism.
With each nation pointing tens of thousands of nuclear weapons at the other, loose nukes were obviously in no one's interest. But Soviet concern about nuclear terrorism aroused skepticism among the Americans at the meeting, who were themselves divided on the likelihood of terrorists going nuclear.
What was bugging the Soviets? One Soviet participant worried about the increasing portability of nuclear weapons — suitcase bombs. Such devices were in the arsenals of both countries. But it turned out that the real driver of Soviet anxiety was the Chernobyl reactor disaster. In the Soviets' view, it was one short step from a disastrous accident caused possibly by human error to a disastrous accident caused by human malevolence.
Although deliberately unofficial, it was fascinating to see former CIA Director William Colby in frank discussions with (allegedly) former KGB generals. We weren't going to end the Cold War, but the talks opened a window into Soviet thinking.
The informal dialogue facilitated more-formal discussions, but these were soon overtaken by the fall of the Soviet Union. That created a new set of problems.
As Soviet authority crumbled, concerns in both the United States and Russia turned to the security of Russia's huge nuclear arsenal. "What if" scenarios now featured corrupt Russian officials and impoverished Russian scientists conspiring with Russia's increasingly powerful mafia to sell nuclear material and know-how to interested terrorist buyers. We know now that al-Qaida in the early 1990s was an interested party, although, insofar as we know, no transaction was ever completed.
These worries led to the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, an idea contained in a piece of remarkably farsighted legislation sponsored by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar. They argued successfully that ensuring nuclear security in Russia was in the national interest of the United States and, therefore, that U.S. funds should be made available to help protect and dismantle Russian nuclear weapons and find useful employment for former Soviet weapons designers. As a result, the situation is greatly improved, although much remains to be done. More recently, the CTR has focused on enhancing efforts to detect and prevent smuggling of nuclear material across the borders of the former Soviet Union.
Since 9/11, international efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism have accelerated. After years of diplomatic wrangling, the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, which was based on a 1997 Russian draft, was finally signed in 2005.
Again, Russian initiative reflected Russian fears, aroused in 1995 when Chechen rebels placed radioactive material in a Moscow park. Instead of detonating any device and dispersing the material, the Chechens tipped off the news media about where to find it, but the threat was clear. This is the only potential terrorist "dirty bomb" we know about. It suggests, however, that Moscow is as likely as Manhattan to be a target of nuclear terrorism. The United States signed the convention in 2005 but has yet to ratify it. (We did in the meantime, however, ratify the vital International Convention Against Doping in Sports.)
The International Atomic Energy Agency, Russia, and the United States have linked up to secure radioactive sources lost when the Soviet Union dissolved. And in 2006, the United States and Russia launched a "Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism." A more ambitious effort, this was aimed at improving nuclear security worldwide, enhancing detection capabilities to deter nuclear smuggling, and developing capabilities to deal with acts of nuclear terrorism should they arise.
Russia is a member of the Six-Party Group that is seeking to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. It is significant that in the midst of the Georgian conflict, Russia publicly denounced North Korea's decision to renege on the promised dismantling of its nuclear facilities.
Selectively cooperating in some areas, while contesting others, requires delicate diplomacy and doesn't always work. Then again, even among close allies, political differences sometimes limit cooperation. Choices must be made.
Even before the conflict in Georgia, resolving these issues was a long shot. Now it will be even more difficult. Keeping the Russians on track will require serious and sustained negotiations.
But if we truly believe that nuclear terrorism is the greatest threat to our national security, we must try to maintain the cooperation of Russia, as well as that of China and India, even as we differ on many issues.
As a trio of Russian analysts recently put it, Russia and the United States, as major nuclear powers, "are doomed to act together." And doomed if we don't.
Brian Michael Jenkins, author of the just-released book Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (Prometheus, 2008), is senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in Providence Journal on October 6, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.