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US-Russia Cooperation in Nonproliferation

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Idaho National Laboratory’s post irradiation examination at the materials and fuels complex. (Photo by Department of Energy)

Overview

The US and Russia both have an interest in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and improving the security of existing nuclear weapon stocks. The US and Russia should continue to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons while encouraging the implementation of best practices and robust security methods for all nuclear material, civilian or otherwise. Both countries also have an interest in hindering the further development of North Korea’s nuclear program while reducing the risk of a North Korean nuclear strike with existing capabilities.

 

Securing Loose CBRN Material

The US and Russia already cooperate with one another, primarily through the IAEA, to ensure the security of nuclear power installations and to prevent the loss of chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) material. Support for the IAEA is important because its inspectors have greater access than either American or Russian inspectors have to potentially sensitive areas in countries throughout the world. Thanks to the general consensus on the dangers of allowing non-state actors to get a hold of CBRN material, the IAEA’s efforts have been largely uncontroversial and effective. Both countries should continue to work with the IAEA by continuing to provide funding and by sharing intelligence related to security breaches at nuclear sites and smuggling networks.

 

Resuming Previous Research Agreements

The US and Russia should resume the research agreements that were suspended by Russia in 2016 as a political response to the Obama administration’s continued support for sanctions. These agreements included looking into the conversion of Russian research reactors to safer, low enriched uranium versions. Additionally, they facilitated further American-Russo cooperation in the fields of nuclear research.

Why?

The research from these agreements would make it easier for the world to pursue peaceful nuclear programs that are much more difficult to shift to military applications. By increasing the number of reactors around the world that rely on low-enriched uranium and decreasing the number that use highly-enriched uranium, the US and Russia can make it significantly more difficult for terrorists and rogue states to acquire the material to develop a nuclear weapon. This also makes the process of monitoring and verifying arms control compliance easier by relying on a fuel source that is more difficult to be weaponized. Additionally, any further American-Russo research will benefit both countries and build trust.

This plan is low risk

Research agreements are generally mutually beneficial and the frameworks of these agreements have already been set, they just need to be resumed. The only risk associated with this plan deal is whether or not Russia will attach demands to the resumption of the research agreements. The agreements were suspended in response to the extension of the sanctions regime against Russia, and their resumption may be linked to easing sanctions.

 

Bilateral Arms Reductions

The US and Russia should extend the New START Treaty, which reduces the maximum number of deployable warheads by both countries to 1,500 each. Additionally, both countries should uphold their commitment to the INF treaty, and remove any weapons systems in clear violation of the treaty.

Why?

The treaties diminish the danger of the US and Russia entering into a costly arms race that will not increase the security of either country. The American nuclear deterrent generally has a qualitative advantage over its Russian counterpart, while Russia has more warheads. Any deal that requires the same ceiling for warheads for both countries inherently favors the side that has higher quality nuclear weaponry. Even with that in mind, 1,500 warheads are more than enough to ensure deterrence; maintaining a greater supply above that point is costly and provides little strategic benefit.

This plan is low risk

Arms reductions remain popular among a strong majority of Americans and Putin reportedly floated extending the New START reduction treaty. Furthermore, bilateral reductions will not upset the strategic balance between the US and Russia. Both countries have large and diverse enough stocks of nuclear weapons to ensure second-strike capability, and neither country is currently willing to risk a hostile nuclear detonation. Additionally, monitoring and verification practices for Russo-American nuclear arms agreements have been developed over decades and are capable of providing effective verification. Even in the event that Russia violates the agreement, it would not upset the nuclear balance of power by removing second strike capability.

The recent Russian deployment of nuclear-capable weapons systems in violation of the INF Treaty show that there may be an unwillingness on the Russian side to pursue arms reductions. Alternatively, the deployment is a means to improve the Russian bargaining position ahead of any US-Russo talks. Regardless of the motive behind it, the deployment should not be allowed to successfully extract concessions from the US lest a new, easily exploitable diplomatic precedent comes into being. Arms negotiations should pursue limits based off the official limits established by preexisting treaties, not in reference to recent unilateral escalations.

 

Pressuring North Korea to Suspend its Nuclear Weapons Program

The US and Russia should both apply pressure North Korea to suspend and ultimately abandon its nuclear program, adopt a less aggressive force posture, and improve ties between North and South Korea. Outside of the continued restriction of trade and use of diplomatic pressure on North Korea, the US and Russia could pursue limited intelligence cooperation to improve interdiction efforts to limit North Korea’s access to materials important to its weapons program.

Why?

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, along with its famously opaque decision making process, have caused immense concern in South Korea, the US, Japan, China, Russia, and most of the world. The threat of a North Korean nuclear strike has undone progress on important projects like the Kaesong joint-industrial zone that are meant to reduce tension between the Koreas and prevent a second Korean War. It has proved sufficiently threatening to provoke an increase in US troop deployments to South Korea, including the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system, which has raised tensions between the US and China. As the program advances and becomes increasingly threatening, the chances of a miscalculation or even a deliberate military strike that could result in full-fledged war also increase. If a war were to occur, the Korean peninsula would be devastated, China (and to a lesser extent) Russia would have to contend with massive refugee flows, and the risk of a last-ditch nuclear detonation would increase drastically. There would be no winners; North Korea’s nuclear program is in nobody’s interest.

Russia is a major source of North Korea’s foreign currency reserves due to ongoing trade ties that amount to roughly $100 million and the continued presence of over 20,000 North Korean workers in the Russian Federation. Especially following the most recent batch of UN sanctions, Russia is one of the few powers to maintain potential economic and diplomatic levers of influence over North Korea. Russia should leverage those assets to dissuade North Korea from continuing the development of its nuclear weapons program. Convincing North Korea to outright abandon its nuclear weapons program is not feasible in the near term, but suspending its development may open the window for further policies that could lead to the ultimate denuclearization of North Korea.

This plan carries risks

It’s not clear how willing Russia is to use its economic ties with North Korea to dissuade it from continuing its program, and even if Pyongyang announced a suspension of its program, it’s doubtful that they would allow the monitoring regime necessary to verify that it had actually suspended development. Additionally, if Russia did halt its trade with North Korea, it could cause the North Korean regime to feel more insecure and pursue even more aggressive and erratic actions. If the North Korean regime believed that Russia was aware of an incoming attack from the US and South Korea, it may decide to launch its own preemptive strike. At the same time, Russia’s continued trade with North Korea provides it with foreign currency that can be funneled into its nuclear weapons program. Russia and the US should still work together to apply diplomatic and economic pressure against Pyongyang, despite the risks; North Korea is highly unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons program regardless of economic and diplomatic pressure, so reducing the speed of the program’s development is the best available option at this time.

 

Continuing the Implementation of the Iran Deal

The US and Russia share an interest in preventing Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon by continuing to implement the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), especially considering the amount of work and resources from both countries that went into securing the agreement. The US and Russia should continue to support the inspection regime being implemented by the IAEA.

Why?

Deviating from the JCPOA at this point in time will remove the advantages that it gives to both parties, while also making it nearly impossible to reestablish the sanctions regime that made the deal possible in the first place. Iran has already shipped its stockpile of low enriched uranium to Russia and continues to rely on Russia for the disposal of excess materials in accordance with JCPOA requirements. Failing to support the IAEA’s inspections would raise the risk of Iran successfully cheating and restarting its nuclear weapons program.

This plan is low risk

It is within Russia’s interest to both prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and to maintain Iran’s dependence on it for uranium shipments. With both of these in mind, Russia is highly unlikely to accept cheating or to tolerate clear violations of the nuclear deal, but it is likely to be more tolerant of minor violations of the agreement that can be attributed to negligence. While these violations alone are unlikely to be, or result in, a legitimate Iranian attempt to clandestinely resume its weapons program, they will still need to be reacted to. Russia may choose to undermine US attempts at pursuing proportional reactions to any such violations, but it is unlikely to disrupt moves to counter an unambiguous and direct violation of the agreement on the part of Iran.

 

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