While the whole world anxiously watches the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, another nuclear threat has been brewing elsewhere. We do not mean Pakistan or North Korea — although, unfortunately, neither Islamabad’s Islamic bomb nor Pyongyang’s atheistic communist bomb has gone away. Rather, we are referring to an alarming change in the nuclear status quo in the form of the collapse of bilateral nuclear cooperation between the United States and Russia.
After the successful conclusion of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, which brought the “loose nukes” of the former Soviet Union under control, the nightmare of “loose nukes” is back.
Possibly the most dangerous fallout from the conflict in Ukraine is not the fighting and potential for major confrontation on the ground, but what it has done to the working relationship with Russia that has stabilized the nuclear situation since 1991.
Merely a few months after an agreement was signed in 2014 to continue such cooperation, it all fell apart. The Department of Energy banned Russian nuclear scientists from visiting the United States while also banning DOE nuclear scientists from visiting Russia. Offended, the Russians hit back by declaring a boycott of the 2016 nuclear security summit in Chicago and told U.S. officials that their help in maintaining nuclear safety was no longer welcome.
While CTR has been hailed as possibly the greatest foreign policy achievement since the Marshall Plan, it did not guarantee that proper controls on the Russian nuclear stockpile would last forever. It is something that requires constant vigilance.
Siegfried S. Hecker, a former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and a foremost expert in the field, has said that despite major improvements, “[Y]ou’re never done. They need continuous attention and international cooperation. You cannot afford to isolate your country, your own nuclear complex, from the rest of the world.”
Yet that is exactly what Russia is doing.
The Russians, of course, insist that they will take responsibility on their own. But that is a dubious prospect.
“The Russians say they are going to put a lot more of their resources into this,” said Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. “That would be good news if they do, but with their economic challenges now and with the huge distrust built because of Ukraine and the deterioration of the ruble, the proof will be in the pudding.”
In addition, scattered reports of breaches in nuclear security there are disquieting. Take, for example, this charming little snippet, brought to light this week by Josh Cohen, a former USAID official involved in managing economic reform projects in Russia:
“A colonel in the Russian Ministry of Interior in charge of nuclear security inspections was arrested for soliciting bribes to overlook security violations. One American researcher visiting a nuclear facility was told it would take merely $100 to bribe his way in.”
So, it’s not only a matter of missing American expertise in handling and disposing of nuclear materials. It’s a matter of reining in a whole culture of graft and corruption that imperils the security of the most destructive weapons on the face of the earth.
Cohen urges that the United States put aside its present adversarial attitude toward Vladimir Putin — however justified — and reach out to the Kremlin to resume reciprocal nuclear site visits, scientist-to-scientist cooperation and the joint research that has been scuttled due to Ukraine. There is no question he is right.
Failure to do so could have catastrophic consequences. Russia is not our friend. But we dare not let it become our enemy again.
We know that Islamic extremist groups have not given up on their aim of obtaining weapons of mass destruction. Last year, Islamic State agents stole 88 pounds of non-enriched uranium compounds from a university in Mosul. Some of the nearly 2,000 Russian nationals currently fighting in the Middle East could easily serve as a conduit of such materials to terrorists who would have no scruples whatsoever in using it against their enemies. And that includes us.
The world avoided a catastrophic nuclear war in the last century by the improbable principle of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, for short. The fear of the slaughter of tens of millions that threatened both the United States and the Soviet Union forced both sides to conduct themselves with caution.
Scientists and world leaders at the beginning of the Cold War were convinced that nuclear conflagration was inevitable. That it did not come to pass borders on an open miracle.
But, as Chazal say, we do not rely on miracles.
The Obama administration proposes to spend $348 billion in bolstering the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next 10 years. An investment of a few billion in restoring mutual nuclear security would seem prudent, to say the least.
The alternative— to let Doomsday weapons loose — is truly for dummies, for those who fail to grasp the need for mutual cooperation in nuclear security.