Arms Control and the U.S. Russian Relationship



Although not the subject of a specific treaty, the most important immediate issue on the U.S.-Russian arms control agenda involves the safety and security of Russia's huge inventories of nuclear weapons and fissile material. Any significant leakage of such material out of Russia would fuel nuclear proliferation, undermine the international nonproliferation regime, increase the feasibility of nuclear terrorism, make it possible for those hostile to the United States (whether states or nonstate actors) to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, and increase the likelihood of nuclear attack against targets on U.S. territory.

The arms control agenda as addressed in this report is generally preoccupied with the negotiation, ratification, or implementation of formal agreements. In the case of fissile material security, the pivotal issue is whether it is possible to achieve the intensive nuclear cooperation between Russia and the West necessary to reduce rapidly the vulnerability of Russian stockpiles and other nuclear-related capabilities to theft or diversion. The imperative to do so is great, because the consequences of any serious breach of the Russian nuclear custodial system would be grave. But the record of the past five years is seriously deficient. Although vital U.S. national interests are jeopardized by the threat of nuclear leakage and proliferation, that threat is being lessened so gradually that it will remain a serious concern for years to come. The Task Force believes that reducing the danger of nuclear leakage as much as possible, as quickly as possible, should be the highest priority of American security policy.


After its disintegration in December 1991, the Soviet Union left behind an enormous arsenal of nuclear weapons and a vast


nuclear weapons complex. Russian officials have indicated that the high-water mark of the Soviet nuclear inventory was in 1986, when it reached 45,000 weapons; today, Western estimates range from 20,000 to 35,000 devices within the Russian Federation. (The Russian government provides no information on the current number.) Moreover, the U.S.S.R. produced 1,300 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and 220 tons of plutonium. About 30 pounds of weapons-grade uranium or 10 pounds of plutonium are needed to produce a nuclear weapon.

The security of Russia's nuclear inheritance has become the subject of urgent concern for a set of mutually reinforcing reasons. Most broadly, the authoritarian government that kept such tight control over its nuclear empire has been replaced by a turbulent regime struggling to establish itself in conditions of high economic distress and social dislocation. Never before have so many nuclear weapons coexisted with such unstable conditions. Moreover, the demise of the U.S.S.R. also meant the collapse of the previous oppressive system of providing security for its nuclear assets; because that system was rooted in the totalitarian realities of Soviet life, the U.S.S.R.'s approach to nuclear security could not survive into the post-Soviet period.

Further, conditions in Russia's sprawling nuclear complex do not meet desirable standards for safety and security. Its system of fissile material inventory control and accounting is inadequate. Its supply of specialized nuclear storage sites for fissile material is insufficient, and many of these holding areas are not sufficiently protected against the threat of theft or diversion. Indeed, some nuclear facilities lack even rudimentary protections (such as decent fences, entry and egress control, and closed circuit television), much less the sophisticated sensors and booby traps commonplace at equivalent Western locations.

These realities raise the risk of nuclear leakage - that is, the illicit spread of weapons-usable plutonium or highly enriched uranium out of Russia and onto an international black market.

Nuclear leakage is not a hypothetical danger. A few serious cases have already occurred (along with a much larger number of fraudulent or unsuccessful attempts at nuclear smuggling). So far, the


breaches of Russia's nuclear custodial system have been small-scale and, as far as we know, nothing disastrous has yet occurred. But until the security at Russia's nuclear facilities is raised to international standards, more nuclear leakage is likely, serious incidents involving weapons quantities of fissile material are a distinct possibility, and the risk of a catastrophic rupture of the Russian custodial system remains distressingly high.

The possibility of nuclear leakage constitutes a major threat to U.S. national interests. This is true, in part, because the spread of nuclear weapons via leakage could jeopardize U.S. forces and bases overseas, threaten America's allies and friends, and complicate - if not inhibit - U.S. military interventions abroad in support of its interests. But even more immediately and compellingly, nuclear leakage raises the possibility of direct nuclear attack against the United States by hostile parties who obtain a nuclear capability by purchasing or stealing fissile material or nuclear warheads from Russian sources. Gaining access to fissile material is by far the hardest part of acquiring nuclear weapons. Should these materials become widely available via nuclear leakage from Russia, most states and some terrorist groups could eventually gain possession of a nuclear capability. Most aspiring proliferators in today's world are deeply antagonistic toward the United States; in many instances, they may desire nuclear weapons precisely because of such adversarial relations.

Small nuclear capabilities in the hands of such forces would not produce a nuclear threat on the scale of the Cold War Soviet nuclear danger. But the United States is an open society with porous borders. It is quite vulnerable to small nuclear devices delivered by unconventional means against its cities - in effect, the equivalent of the World Trade Center terrorist attack, but with nuclear weapons. The odds of such an attack may not be great, but they seem at least as high as the risk of nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States, which sensibly produced endless worry and massive defense expenditures during the Cold War. The likelihood that such a threat will materialize will grow enormously should the problem of nuclear leakage in Russia worsen. Hence, there is a direct link between nuclear leak-


age and the vital American interest in protecting itself from nuclear attack. For Washington policymakers, for the American president, no issue is more important than preventing the emergence of a new nuclear danger to the United States. As the Soviet Union inched toward dissolution in the fall of 1991, the United States recognized that it had a major stake in,the fate of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, and since then has fashioned policies aimed at promoting congenial outcomes. In the context of fissile material security, this has involved numerous initiatives and programs intended to enhance the security of fissile material in Russia, build cooperative relations with the custodians of Russia's nuclear assets, address the problem of the long-term disposition of nuclear materials, and increase the transparency of the nuclear weapons complexes. These are worthy objectives, and some limited progress has been made in meeting them.

However, on the whole, Washington's response to the new threat of nuclear leakage has not equaled U.S. stakes in the matter. Nor has it produced the desired result: to reduce the nuclear leakage threat as much as possible, as quickly as possible. During the first three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, only small progress was made toward reducing the likelihood of nuclear leakage from Russia. In 1995, a few hopeful steps were accomplished at a small number of sites in the Russian nuclear archipelago. Security enhancements are gradually being extended to additional sites in Russia. Lab-to-lab cooperation has been instituted and is increasing. But the critical fact is that most of the relevant facilities are less secure than they were when the Soviet Union disappeared.

The first and most important reason for this is that Russian cooperation on nuclear security has been slow, erratic, and grudging. President Yeltsin and his closest advisers in the presidential apparatus have appeared to be nearly totally uninvolved in improving the security of Russia's nuclear arsenal, perhaps because they have been told there is no problem. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin has not taken on this challenge in a sustained and effective way. The Foreign Ministry has been largely shut out of this subject in Moscow, again cutting off to the West a potentially crucial source of information, and perhaps support,


regarding the Russian nudear stockpile. With the Kremlin, prime minister, and Foreign Ministry largely out of the bureaucratic action, responsibility in the Russian government has been left to the Ministry of Defense (a somewhat more responsible custodian of nuclear materials) and the Ministry of Atomic Energy, a civilian agency that has done everything it can to impede international scrutiny of the stockpile and to deny that any difficulty exists in the safety of Russia's nuclear material.

There needs to be a fundamental change for the better in Moscow's approach to this issue. Without close political supervision and direction of the Ministry of Defense, and especially the Ministry of Atomic Energy, by President Yeltsin and his closest senior associates (or his successor), many of the prescriptions that follow in this section of the report will be difficult or even impossible to implement. In short, the United States cannot - and should not - invest more political will, energy, and money than the Russian government to solve this problem. And for Washington to try to address seriously Russian nuclear safety over the long run without the prolonged cooperation of Moscow is, of course, an utterly hopeless task.

Finally, this issue of nuclear security is of such paramount importance to the United States that Russian reluctance to be responsive to these legitimate American concerns cannot but affect U.S. willingness fo expend resources related to Russian implementation of arms control agreements and to treat Russia as a serious interlocutor across the board.

At the same time, however, U.S. policy has often not been shaped in ways most likely to overcome this Russian obstructionism and succeed in achieving what inevitably must be one of its primary objectives: inducing and facilitating the desired cooperative behavior on the part of Moscow. Because the United States cannot contribute to the improvement of security of nudear materials at Russian nuclear facilities without extensive cooperation with Moscow, U.S. policy must be structured so as to promote that end.

Current American policy, substantially constrained by Congress, has clearly been inadequate in encouraging the necessary Russian assistance that would make possible rapid progress in


implementing antileakage measures. The reason for this is evident from the characteristics of the American program. In the first instance, the United States has not been prepared to invest on a scale consistent with the gravity of the fissile material security problem, even though it routinely and wisely spends billions or tens of billions of dollars annually addressing other major threats to U.S. security.

Second, Congress prefers that monies appropriated for addressing nuclear issues in the former Soviet Union be directed to American contractors; one of the major U.S. initiatives, the Nunn-Lugar Program, is mandated by Congress to "buy American" whenever possible - as it usually is. These two points together mean that the U.S. program as it has been configured provides little direct profit or financial inducement for Russia. This problem is compounded by the increasing inclination of Congress to prohibit expenditure of U.S. tax dollars on Russian priorities such as housing for demobilized officers or support for struggling nuclear cities. A U.S. program seeking to influence Russian behavior ought, in part, to attempt to tackle issues that Russia cares about. American policy, at the insistence of Congress, has largely refused to do this.

Washington's efforts to address the fissile material security issue in Russia have been hamstrung by several other factors. First, the Nunn-Lugar appropriations out of the Defense Department's budget are conditioned on Russiocs commitment that it fully intends to comply with all of its arms control obligations. Given the instability of Russia's internal scene and the uncertainties about its performance in several arms control regimes discussed in this report, verifying that Russia meets these conditions has been an overly lengthy process. Second, the funds appropriated in the U.S. defense budget have fallen under cumbersome defense acquisition guidelines that make it nearly impossible to spend this money quickly and flexibly. This problem has diminished as responsibility for fissile material security has shifted to the Department of Energy, but the largest source of funding for cooperative nuclear programs with Russia allows only slow and ponderous movement.


Hence, while the urgency of the issue justifies moving as quickly as possible to reduce the risk of nuclear leakage as much as possible, U.S. programs have been set up in a way that precludes swift action and provides little Russian incentive to be forthcoming. It is little wonder, then, that almost five years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, fissile material security in Russia remains an acute concern.


  1. The United States shoidd put the problem of nudear leakage at the top of its national security agenda with frequent high-level and significant presidential attention. No other threat to U.S. national interests anywhere is both so proximate and potentially devastating.

  2. The president should make a far more intensive and prolonged effort with Boris Yeltsin and his government (or his successor) to try to move this issue to the top of Russia's national security priorities. The United States cannot sustain a policy in which it wants to solve this problem more and is willing to expend greater resources than the Russian government.

  3. If Washington succeeds in persuading Moscow to make a much greater political and resource effort in this area, the Unitrd States (along with its allies and fnends) should be prepared to spend more money out of the budgets of the Pentagon, the Department of Energy, and other relevant US. executive agendes to address this issue urgently. Although money alone will not end this danger, a serious breach or rupture of the Russian nuclear custodial system could occur. Time is an enemy, and each passing day represents an undesirable increment of risk to American security and interests. Funds that are difficult to spend and impossible to spend quickly are simply not appropriate to the needs of the situation. The United States should be prepared to spend more money in Russia on Russian goods and services when this meets U.S. objectives in this field and can reasonably protect against waste and fraud, and as long as Russia is cooperating adequately on nuclear safety.


  4. The United States should not make its antileakage efforts conditional on Russian behavior on other issues. Certainly, it is desirable that Russia's internal reforms succeed, that it comply with its arms control obligations, and that it avoid unattractive or reckless international actions. But America's national interest in containing the nuclear leakage threat is vital, regardless of Russian behavior in other realms, and it makes little sense for the United States to respond to Russian misbehavior by refusing to pursue its own vital interests.

  5. The United States should seek to accelerate security enhancements at Russian nuclear facilities. In parallel with buying Russia's fissile material, the United States should act to help bring to internationally acceptable standards as quickly as possible the conditions in which Russia's fissile material and nuclear weapons are stored. Thus, Washington should encourage, and be prepared with others to fund, the dramatic acceleration of the program that installs Russian-made security equipment at Russian nuclear installations. It should seek to extend the U.S.-Russian lab-to-lab program, which has produced some security improvements at various Russian facilities, to Russia's main nuclear industrial centers - sites of the largest inventories of fissile materials. And to ensure the requisite cooperation for implementing security enhancements, the United States should be willing to tailor programs of economic and social inducements to the needs of these centers.

  6. The United States should participate in a joint U.S.-Russian nudear inventory. Due to inadequacies in its material control and accounting system, Russia does not know the precise size of its holdings of weapons-usable nuclear materials. Consequently, Russia cannot reliably detect theft or diversion after it has occurred. Therefore, the United States with others should partially fund the mass production and dissemination of the material control and accounting system developed in the lab-to-lab program to nuclear facilities throughout Russia. This should be done in conjunction with a joint and reciprocal inventory of U.S. and Russian stockpiles of fissile material. An


    exact and up-to-date inventory is a necessary ingredient of an adequate fissile-material security program.

  7. The United States should expand and accelerate the enriched uranium deal. One direct and effective way to reduce the threat of nuclear leakage is to buy fissile material from Russia and move it to a secure location or put it under international supervision. In 1992, the United States did just this. It agreed to buy up to 500 tons of highly enriched uranium from Russia. Unfortunately, this arrangement is spread over 20 years, and each annual purchase is contingent upon agreement with Russia on price. The implementing agency for the U.S. side - the U.S. Enrichment Corporation (USEC) - has commercial interests that could be damaged by the rapid import of large quantities of Russian HEU. In addition, Russia's insistence on blending down the HEU into low-enriched uranium before it is sold makes Russia's blending capacity a chokepoint that limits the stocks available for purchase. The U.S. government should actively seek to eliminate this bottleneck in the HEU deal, and should be willing to buy however much is available whenever it is available. This would have the virtue of removing large volumes of HEU from harm's way, while the United States would be acquiring a stockpile of material that has commercial value in the energy marketplace.

  8. The United States at the highest level should urgently and continually press its allies and friends tdassw in these crucial efforts, a strategic necessity almost all of them are now ignoring.