Global Risk

War in Georgia and Repercussions for Nuclear Disarmament Cooperation with Russia

09.02.08 | 5 min read | Text by Alicia Godsberg

In an earlier blog post, arguments were discussed from a 12 June 08 meeting of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs for and against the signing of a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement (123 Agreement) with Russia. At the time, the most salient issues were our ability to influence Russia’s position vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the possibility that the 123 Agreement would restart domestic reprocessing, reversing 30 years of US policy. Since then, a full scale military operation has taken place between Russia and Georgia, a newly democratic ally of the U.S. who sent 2,000 troops to support U.S. efforts in Iraq. Now both Russian and American leaders want to remove the 123 Agreement from consideration for the time being, so as not to allow current events to color any debates about passing the legislation. Those in favor of the 123 Agreement believe that it would open up greater cooperation with Russia on issues such as pressuring Iran on its nuclear program. Whether this is true or not, if the 123 Agreement is now off the table because of Russia’s actions in Georgia, how much has this conflict damaged our ability to cooperate with Russia on nuclear arms control in the future?

Even at the height of Cold War tensions the U.S. and the Soviet Union realized they needed to work together to start reducing the danger of their vast arsenals by drafting nuclear arms control agreements, including START I, signed right before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. START I placed limits on missiles, launchers, and bombers and established prohibitions on the location, training, testing, and modernization of weapons. An intrusive verification regime was set up to ensure compliance with the Treaty, including on-site inspections and continuous monitoring activities. START I expires December 2009, after which time there will be no nuclear arms control treaty that requires intrusive verification measures to ensure compliance or that requires the dismantlement of warheads (instead of merely removing operationally deployed warheads which could then easily be redeployed). The Bush administration has not favored verification measures in nuclear arms control treaties with Russia; with a change in leadership coming to Washington, the importance of being able to build upon the START framework toward irreversible reductions in nuclear arms is again possible. For that, we need Russia’s commitment and cooperation, things that are now in jeopardy due to the war in the Caucuses.

U.S. – Russian relations were arguably already at a post-Cold War low point before the conflict in Georgia broke out in early August. The Bush administration had ignored Moscow’s protests over several foreign policy moves, including the expansion of NATO to former Eastern Bloc countries (including considering membership for Georgia and Ukraine), the abrogation of the ABM Treaty, the recognition of an independent Kosovo, and the signing of treaties to put missile defenses in Eastern Europe. At the same time, the U.S. was pushing for Russia to help pressure Iran on its nuclear program directly and through UN Security Council resolutions; the 123 Agreement was supposed to be the “carrot” with which the U.S. would achieve this cooperation.

But then came the fighting in South Ossetia and the overwhelmingly disproportionate Russian reaction. Public opinion demands a response against an aggressor, and the Western media has painted Russia as that aggressor from the start. Responses to “punish” Russia that have been openly discussed include canceling the next NATO – Russian summit, removing Russia from the G8 talks, and even canceling the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi, near Georgia. In arguing that the Western media have been biased toward the pro-Western Saakashvili government in Georgia, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times 20 August 2008 that, “Tskhinvali was in smoking ruins and thousands of people were fleeing – before any Russian troops arrived.” That is, skirmishes between separatistsin South Ossetia and the Georgian army had already been taking place before the disproportionate military response of Russia began, blurring the lines of which side began the hostilities. The suffering of Russians and Georgians from this war is not predicated on who started firing first, and we must be careful not to use that rhetoric to preclude cooperation with either party in the future on national security issues such as nuclear arms control and the securing of nuclear material.

To continue working toward preventing the holocaust that would be nuclear war, the U.S. should shy away frm talk of “rewarding” or “punishing” Russia for its behavior and focus on maintaining a stable cease fire and confronting humanitarian issues, such as caring for refugees. Georgia, as a “hotbed of nuclear smuggling”[i] must be stabilized so that nuclear material does not get stolen by or sold to terrorists; diplomacy and discussion should therefore center on these dangers so we can work with Russia toward stability in the region. Similarly, the U.S. can use the contested missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic to work with Russia on related areas of confidence building, such as identifying and eliminating certain classes of missiles or jointly determining the range of any future Iranian missiles these systems are supposed to guard against. Such confidence building measures would also help decrease tensions between our two countries and help create space in which to negotiate a follow up treaty to START.

The United States needs Russia’s cooperation to pressure Iran into forgoing its nuclear ambitions, to secure nuclear material in the former Soviet Republics, and to work toward reducing the dangers of intentional or accidental use of nuclear weapons. With the looming December 2009 end to START I, it is imperative that the U.S. and Russia be able to cooperate on producing a new nuclear arms control treaty that will include verification protocols and irreversible reductions in nuclear weapons. The war in Georgia has seriously damaged the pathway to this cooperation, and instead has renewed Cold War tensions.[ii] It will be up to the new leaders in Washington to use this time as an opportunity to draw attention to the proliferation danger of unsecured nuclear material in the Caucuses and to impress upon the American people the need to continue to work with Russia to secure this material and continue to work toward eliminating nuclear weapons. The 123 Agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia was never our best effort for either of these goals; it will be up to the next administration to find a better path of cooperation with Russia on verifiable, irreversible nuclear disarmament.

[i] Bender, Bryan. “Georgia chaos halts nuclear security effort.” The Boston Globe. 19 August 2008.

[ii] Solomon, Jay and Gregory L. White. “U.S. Weighs Halt to Talks With Russia On Nuclear Arms Curbs.” The Wall Street Journal. 29 August 2008.