U.S. and Russia Nuclear Security Headed Toward Uncertain Future

On October 17, Russia successfully launched a newly designed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), with President Putin on hand to personally oversee the event.

Dmitri V. Trenin, a military analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, stated that Putin’s involvement was likely aimed at fulfilling campaign pledges for greater military spending, and is aimed at improving public confidence in him rather than to threaten Western onlookers:  “Two things he needs badly are to continue to support the people who depend on the federal budget, in terms of pay raises, and at the same time to support the military.” Other analysts, such as Pavel Podvig, a researcher with the Russian Nuclear Forces Project, attributed Putin’s participation as simply uniqueness of his character, that he enjoys things such as pushing buttons and sitting front row to all of the action. 

Whatever the case, it’s the second step in an apparent disconnect between the U.S. and Russian cooperation on the issue of nuclear weapons.  Just a few weeks prior to the missile tests, headlines were full of Russia’s decision to pull out of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, also known as Nunn-Lugar, which united Russia and the United States in efforts to secure nuclear material produced in the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.

Nunn-Lugar marked one of the first major cooperative efforts between the U.S. and Russia on nuclear arms security.  But it doesn’t fall in line with the changing face of Russia.  At the start of Nunn-Lugar, Russia was at perhaps one of its weakest states since WWII, facing a wide range of economic woes, political turmoil, and unprecedented security threats.  Today, Russia’s economy is facing a relatively positive outlook, and the country has transitioned from a communist society to that of a nominal democracy.  Russia has regained its role as a leading player in the realm of international security and the global economy. 

From this point of view, weapons’ testing in Russia doesn’t necessarily warrant alarm.  Russia approaches nuclear weapons with careful consideration, as evidenced by the successes of Nunn-Lugar, New START, and other joint agreements to limit the threat of nuclear weapons worldwide.  What Russia desires is a partnership of two equals, with mutually beneficial exchanges, one that the 1990s vintage Nunn-Lugar program may not provide anymore.  That doesn’t, of course, negate the need for a cooperative effort to secure nuclear materials.  An updated Nunn-Lugar, which affords Russia increased respect, combined with a more flexible American approach may be just what the doctor ordered.

Check out our own Joe Cirincione in an interview with HuffPost Live for more on the dangers of a distanced U.S. – Russian relationship, and how we might get a more cooperative approach with Russia on issues not only related to nuclear weapons, but also other current and future geo-political issues, like U.S.-China relations.

photo by Jenniferboyer