The Challenge and the Potential of U.S.-Russian Nonproliferation Cooperation

Remarks
Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
International Advisory Council Meeting
James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies; Washington, DC
October 22, 2018


Good morning, everyone.

The last time Ambassador Antonov and I attended an event together, it was in Washington last June, for the Depositary-led conference the State Department sponsored on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). In my remarks at that conference, I took listeners through a bit of the history of the NPT’s negotiation and the lessons it can offer us today.

I. Lessons for Cooperation from NPT History

I stressed the importance of remembering how the NPT provides security benefits for all States Party — especially non-nuclear weapon states — by providing assurances against weaponization by one’s neighbors or regional rivals. I also stressed the lessons we can learn from the NPT’s negotiation about the importance of prudence and pragmatism in multilateral nuclear diplomacy, including the wisdom of not overreaching by making the unachievable “perfect” into an objective that precludes actually achieving an available good result.

For present purposes, however, I think the most important lesson to learn from the story of how we got the NPT in the first place — and the global nonproliferation regime that has been built up around it — was the example set by how the United States and the USSR were able to work together in negotiating the Treaty. Despite it being a very challenging time in the middle of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow were able to compartmentalize their differences in order to work together out of a shared strategic interest in preventing nuclear proliferation.

I argued that this willingness – despite poisonous differences and fiercely competitive global postures – to come together to help save the world from the dangers of instability, conflict, and nuclear war that would result from proliferation, should be a lesson for us today.

That’s why I’m so pleased to be able to attend this event today, which is dedicated to exploring the possibilities for future U.S.-Russian cooperation in the nonproliferation arena. For my part, I am convinced that shared interests remain, and that such cooperation is still possible.

II. Challenges to Cooperation

But I think it is also important to be honest and clear about the challenges that exist to nonproliferation cooperation. Some of these challenges relate to big and obvious things such as the range of malign activities in which Russia has engaged in recent years — destabilizing and invading its neighbors in 2008 and 2014, conducting routine exercises that play-act targeting nuclear weapons against NATO countries, violating arms control treaties, and meddling in elections in both the United States and European countries. These clearly make it harder, both politically and practically, to engage in cooperative endeavors of other sorts.

I don’t want to emphasize those broader problems too much, however, because the example of the NPT itself suggests that cooperation in support of shared interests on nonproliferation is possible even while other aspects of our relationship remain problematic.

More troubling to me, from the perspective of pursuing cooperation in the nonproliferation arena, is the degree to which Russia’s malign behavior has now come to manifest itself, not just in other areas that could conceivably be compartmented off from nonproliferation, but in fact in the nonproliferation arena as well. As you can imagine, this makes it much more difficult to imagine Russia as a potential partner. Nevertheless, Russia’s nonproliferation record is not entirely bad — and the areas where things have been working can perhaps point us toward a more constructively cooperative future together. Let me offer some examples.

A. Problem Areas

(1) Nuclear Safeguards

Let’s start with the problem areas. At the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Russia has made it a diplomatic objective to undermine support for the IAEA’s “State Level Concept” (SLC) for effectively implementing the safeguards agreements that are negotiated between NPT States Party and the IAEA and are intended to cover all nuclear material in peaceful use in the state, as required by Article III of the Treaty. Most recently, for instance, Russia tried to block the expanded use of the SLC by introducing a competing safeguards resolution at the IAEA General Conference.

Russian diplomats have also worked to undermine the IAEA’s long-established ability to consider and professionally evaluate all available relevant information in conducting safeguards work — trying, in effect, to prevent the IAEA from taking action based on information it did not itself directly acquire through safeguards declarations and its own verification activities. We know from experience that the IAEA cannot – and must not – ignore credible information indicating the possible existence of undeclared nuclear material or activities. If successful, this campaign against the SLC and sound safeguards analytics would blind and hobble safeguards implementation around the world and undercut decades of progress in strengthening nuclear safeguards, and damage the nonproliferation regime. So far, other IAEA Members have remained strong in resisting Russia’s campaign against effective nuclear safeguards, but Russia has not relented.

Russia, unfortunately, has also sometimes worked to undermine IAEA investigative authorities in Iran. This manifested itself last year, for example, in a Russian effort to redefine and downgrade IAEA investigative authorities under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — in effect, to erase from that agreement both the IAEA’s responsibility under the JCPOA’s “Section T” to monitor against Iran’s resumption of nuclear weaponization and the site-access authorities given by the JCPOA’s “Section Q.” Thankfully, this effort was rebuffed, with the IAEA Secretariat and most member States remaining committed to the integrity of the IAEA’s work and authorities. But it was a disturbing episode that may bode ill for the future.

(2) Chemical Weapons Accountability

As for chemical weapons, I won’t belabor here the history of Moscow’s continuing efforts to shelter the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad from accountability for the chemical weapons atrocities it has committed. Russia has engaged in a disinformation campaign to obscure responsibility for Syrian abuses. More troublingly still, it has also acted to immunize Syria against responsibility for its use of chemical weapons in concrete ways — thus becoming an enabler for the regime’s barbarism and continuing erosion of global norms against chemical weapons possession and use.

As most of you will remember, it was Russia that involved itself in defusing international horror and anger when Syria first began using nerve agent in its civil war several years ago, stepping in to facilitate Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile under supervision of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). In retrospect, however, it is tragically clear that this Russian-facilitated “solution” was little more than a way to protect Syria from a serious accounting and meaningful accountability.

Syria clearly kept its clandestine chemical weapons program going, and was soon back in the business of using these weapons on its own people, including the same nerve agent it had employed earlier. And Russia has continued to protect its ally from consequences after the Joint Investigative Mechanism confirmed that Syria was responsible for use of chemical weapons on four separate occasions. Moscow also fought fiercely to oppose efforts at the OPCW to establish new authorities — in the wake of the Joint Investigative Mechanism’s demise — to assess attribution of chemical weapons use. And Russia continues to oppose the work of the U.N. Secretary General’s mechanism for investigating chemical and biological weapons use. None of this, certainly, is what one would ordinarily expect of a country particularly serious about nonproliferation.

(3) Chemical Weapons Use

And that’s not even counting Russia’s own use of chemical weapons — specifically, in an attempt to assassinate Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March — for which the United States recently imposed sanctions against Russia, and the European Union may also target as part of a new sanctions mechanism.

To be sure, both the United States and Russia have declared Cold War-era stocks of chemical weaponry to the OPCW, and worked hard for years to destroy them. Russia finished destroying what it declared to the OPCW with substantial help from the United States and our EU partners. But the U.S. government has had longstanding concerns about the completeness of Russia’s declarations, and recent events made it clear that this is not just an accounting problem. The United States expressed concern about Russia’s potential military stockpiling of fentanyl following its use in the Dubrovka Theater 15 years ago. More disturbing in the Skripal case, Russia’s attack demonstrates that Russia possesses novel nerve agents, colloquially known as “novichoks,” designed to be more lethal and less detectable than traditional ones such as the sarin used in Syria. This is troubling indeed and why the United States certifies that Russia is in non-compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

B. Mixed Records

(1) Biological Weapons

With regard to biological weapons, Russia’s record is also poor, but not nearly as confrontational. On the one hand, Moscow still engages in wild and baseless accusations about United States bioweapons activity, and it dismisses all requests for accountability for, or clarity about the current status of, its own prior biological weapons program — the existence of which President Boris Yeltsin admitted in 1992, and that defectors have confirmed, but that Yeltsin’s successors have gone back to denying. On the other hand, Russia was helpful in 2017 in working with us and the United Kingdom to get the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention process back on track.

(2) Nuclear Energy

When it comes to nuclear energy cooperation, Russia’s record is also mixed. On the one hand, modern Russia thankfully no longer does what the Soviet Union did in using nuclear energy cooperation as a cover for providing facilities, technological assistance, and training — and very nearly a prototype nuclear weapon — to the nuclear weapons program of Maoist China in the 1950s. On the other hand, Russia is consistently willing to deviate downward from global nonproliferation “best practices” in order to make money and develop strategic relationships from the massively state-subsidized export of nuclear power technology. The Kremlin uses the civil nuclear sector to advance its own foreign policy and security aims, with nonproliferation goals a distant afterthought.

By not insisting upon sound nonproliferation practices as a condition for such supply, Russia has been encouraging a “race to the bottom” in terms of the nonproliferation requirements. Unlike the United States, Moscow does not require that countries it supplies with nuclear reactors, equipment, and fuel have in force an IAEA Additional Protocol to help reassure the international community against the presence of undeclared and illicit nuclear activities. Nor does Russia observe OECD financing guidelines for nuclear power plants, or ask for all of the nonproliferation protections that the U.S. requires in all nuclear cooperation agreements with other countries. The Nuclear Suppliers Group was established so that suppliers would adopt high nonproliferation standards and would not use lax requirements for commercial advantage. Russia is, unfortunately, not the only global nuclear supplier to use proliferation irresponsibility as a marketing tool, but there is clearly much room for improvement here.

(3) Nuclear Security

In nuclear security, Russia’s track record is also mixed. On the one hand, the world was horrified by the Kremlin’s use of radioactive material Polonium-210 to assassinate Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. In response to the UK’s inclusion of information about that poisoning in the IAEA’s Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB), Russia compounded the damage by trying to undermine the legitimacy and credibility of that database. This is worrying, for the ITDB is the only international mechanism for tracking State-confirmed incidents and facilitating information-sharing on radioactive or nuclear material that has fallen out of regulatory control, and its operation is a significant contribution to maintaining security standards and preventing nuclear terrorism worldwide.

So that is clearly a problem, and not the sort of thing one would expect from a good nonproliferation partner. It was also disappointing that after many years of good cooperative work together — during which U.S. “Nunn-Lugar” Cooperative Threat Reduction program dedicated many resources to improve nuclear security practices of the former Soviet Union — Russia decided in 2013 not to extend this project that had made the world much safer.

On the other hand, Russia’s cooperative track record is good when it comes to things such as implementing the 1997 U.S.-Russia Plutonium Production Reactor Agreement (PPRA), which required the permanent shutdown of 13 Russian and 14 U.S. production reactors from the Cold War era. The PPRA mandates annual inspections of each side’s shutdown reactors and inspections of the safe and secure storage of the more than 10 tons of weapon-grade plutonium produced by the last three Russian PPRA reactors prior to their shutdown under the agreement.

So that is clearly a success story, although we should not forget that U.S. funding played a pivotal role in providing the replacement heat and electricity that facilitated the last three of those reactor shutdowns in Siberia more than a decade ago. Joint U.S. and Russian implementation of the 2004 Russian Research Reactor Spent Fuel Return Agreement has also been highly successful, resulting in the removal and blend-down of more than two tons of Russian highly enriched uranium (HEU) from 16 countries — 12 of which are now considered “HEU-free” as a result. Russia has been a good partner in that effort, and the agreement was extended for 10 more years in 2013, to continue this important HEU minimization effort for the handful of remaining countries still holding Russian-origin HEU.

Another success is the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), which the United States and Russia jointly established more than a decade ago, and of which we have served as co-chairs ever since. Under these auspices, Russia routinely sends experts to engage in GICNT events promoting “best practices” and sharing experiences in nuclear security, and it has supported an effective multilateral work program. In GICNT, Russia and the United States remain good partners, helping enable the Initiative’s 88 other partners to work together to address critical practical issues at the nexus between nuclear security and counterterrorism.

(4) Nonproliferation Sanctions

The record is also clearly mixed with regard to the enforcement of proliferation sanctions against rogue proliferators such as North Korea and Iran. Russian support — or at least its non-opposition, given its Security Council veto rights — was obviously critical to imposing U.N. sanctions against both of those countries in the first place, and for the most part Russia has complied with such sanctions as indeed international law requires.

However, Russia has recently failed to uphold its DPRK sanctions commitments. Russia has become increasingly active in its efforts to circumvent international mechanisms associated with U.N. sanctions enforcement against North Korea, including blocking designations, by the United Nations’ “Resolution 1718 Committee,” of vessels caught in illegal sanctions evasion, and in conducting illicit ship-to-ship transfers of prohibited North Korean commodities. This is a worrying trend that, unchecked, could sabotage the global pressure campaign, which is necessary to achieve the final fully verified denuclearization of the DPRK.

III. Conclusion

In these remarks, I have tried to be honest and clear about the nature and extent of deeply problematic Russian behavior in the nonproliferation arena — behavior that raises questions about the degree to which Russia feels itself to have a strategic interest in preventing proliferation and is prepared to be a good partner in nonproliferation cooperation.

Nonetheless, I still cling to the hope that Russia does perceive an interest in preventing proliferation, and that it will be willing to act with us to promote that interest, which we share. And indeed Russia’s track record in nonproliferation-related cooperation is not unremittingly bad, for there are points of light — as I have tried to outline, giving credit where credit is due. Speaking on behalf of the United States, I can certainly say that we would like to build upon those bright spots, expand the scope of Russian cooperation on nonproliferation issues, and welcome Moscow back into the global community of states committed to stemming the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems.

To be sure, there are clearly some troubling Russian behaviors that need to change along this path to a fully cooperative Russo-American future as partners in fighting proliferation. But we hope it will be possible to get there.

The last time I saw Ambassador Antonov, our governments, working with the United Kingdom, released a statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov. In it, these men overcame differences that divided them in order — on the 50th Anniversary of the NPT’s opening for signature — to celebrate the security benefits the NPT has brought to all states, the foundation it has provided for sharing nuclear benefits around the world, and the role it has played in contributing to disarmament by helping ease tension and strengthen trust. Together, they pledged their “unstinting commitment to preserving and deepening this legacy for future generations.”

For my part, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t believe those were just empty words. Accordingly, even as U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton meets this week in Moscow with his counterpart Nikolai Patrushev, I call upon my Russian counterparts to join us in the great project of building a better world in which the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems has become no more than a distant, unpleasant memory.

We must work together to strengthen the international institutions of transparency and accountability that support the global nonproliferation regime, not undermine them, and we must build ever-stronger nonproliferation norms and institutionalize sound nonproliferation “best practices” in the daily routines of the international community.

I do think we can do this together, Anatoly, just as our predecessors did half a century ago in crafting the NPT itself.

Thank you.