Image courtesy of US DoD, public domain.

Disarmament Disarmed

Moscow’s refusal to extend the Cooperative Threat Reduction Treaty (CTR) calls into question the future of U.S.-Russian nuclear weapons disarmament efforts.

Image courtesy of US DoD, public domain.
Image courtesy of US DoD, public domain.

Moscow’s recent announcement that it will not renew the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program signals increasing fracture within the global nuclear disarmament regime. CTR, also known as the Nunn-Lugar program, is symbolic of the post-Cold War commitment by the United States and Russia to further the nuclear disarmament goals manifest in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The collapse of this two-decade-long bilateral agreement does not bode well for the future of collective disarmament efforts. There is question, however, as to whether the impending breakdown of cooperative disarmament action between the world’s two most powerful nuclear states can be accredited entirely to the abstaining party.

Established in 1991, the CTR was set up as a means for the U.S. to aid the former Soviet Union with the “safe and secure transportation, storage and elimination of nuclear weapons.”[1] Following the USSR’s collapse, there was widespread fear that the stockpiles of the former Union would be susceptible to theft, and that the newly liberated region might become a hub for nuclear smuggling. As a result, the U.S. launched an “emergency response,” providing post-Soviet states including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan with annual funds and assistance for dismantling residual nuclear and chemical arsenals. The program has been viewed as largely successful, resulting in the dismantling of more than 7,500 strategic warheads.

While the CTR has been renewed twice since its inception (in 1999 and 2006), recent comments by Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergie Ryabkov suggest that the prospects for a third extension are grim. On October 10th the Minister announced that with regards to CTR, “The agreement doesn’t satisfy us, especially considering new realities.”[2] Beyond the basic fact that the Russian economy is no longer in such a decrepit state as to require U.S.-assisted funding for weapons dismantlement, there is widespread speculation as to what these “realities” refer to.  Many have pointed to a potential connection between the Minister’s CTR announcement and the Kremlin’s recent decision to expel the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) from Russia on the basis that it has tried to “influence Russian politics.”[3] Moscow has reiterated however, that the two incidents are unrelated.

A more likely explanation is the continuing U.S. project to raise a European antimissile shield with the stated purpose of protecting European states from threats posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. The shield, which includes the installation of a radar system in the Czech Republic and the deployment of 10 interceptors in Poland, descends decidedly too close to home for Russian comfort. Policy-makers including Grigory Berdennikov, Russian envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), are asking how Russia can be expected to move forward [with disarmament] if the United States refuses to curb its missile defenses.”[4]

American advancement of the European missile shield calls attention to broader U.S. disarmament intentions. A closer look reveals that in fact, U.S. security interests, rather than genuine cosmopolitan disarmament goals, underlie the CTR program. For example, according to a 2001 Congressional Research Service report, the primary aim of the CTR program is to “reduce the threat [former Soviet] weapons pose to the United States.”[5] The CTR reflects what former secretary of Defense William Perry refers to as “defense by other means”: by supplying former Soviet states with the money to dismantle their own arms, the U.S. not only reduces the Russian nuclear threat, but does so at a far lower cost than active U.S. deterrence would require.

This is not to say that Russia has been unable to enjoy security benefits from the CTR. By aiding the removal of nuclear weapons from the dangerously unstable surrounding region, the U.S. prevented newly independent states, and even non-state actors, from launching residual Soviet weapons at the crumbling Soviet core itself. Today however, the circumstances have changed. Since 1991, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan have forgone all remaining nuclear weapons, making Russia the only remaining post-Soviet state to maintain an arsenal. Why then, would Moscow continue to allow America to buy its disarmament, especially as an advancing U.S. missile system threatens to breach Russia’s regional security?

Given these circumstances, it seems reasonable that Moscow might begin to view the CTR less as a cooperative disarmament agreement, and more as a means for the U.S. to obtain “sensitive data” on its nuclear weapons program.[6] Such suspicions are compounded by the current U.S.-Russian disagreement over how to manage the ongoing Syrian crisis. The culmination of these factors has driven Russia to reexamine its nuclear arsenal. On October 20th for example, Moscow launched the largest display of its nuclear forces in over two decades, initiating a series of unarmed strategic and cruise missile tests. Combined with the CTR announcement, these events have jeopardized the potential for continued cooperative disarmament between the two states.

While doubts surrounding the extension of CTR may tarnish the luster of the nuclear disarmament regime, the benefits of the U.S.-Russian initiative should not be forgotten. Through the CTR, along with other bilateral initiatives including START I, the U.S. and Russia have built cooperative relations far beyond those imagined possible during the Cold War. Importantly, these post-Cold War bilateral efforts shed light on the potential for even the world’s largest nuclear powers to deconstruct the entrenched self-interested nature of their security logics.

But is such progress enduring? Any effort to mend the decaying reduction agreements will require a willingness on behalf of the U.S. to recognize both the change in Russia’s security environment since the early 1990s, and the importance demonstrating its own disarmament efforts (as opposed to advancing missile shields). Perhaps more than anything, the impending U.S. presidential election will condition the future of U.S.-Russian disarmament relations. Mitt Romney’s repeated reference to Russia as the U.S.’s “number one geopolitical foe” suggests a Republican presidency would only further damage already fractious relations. However, if President Obama remains in office, perhaps he can take this opportunity to showcase his Russian “restart” initiative, and follow through on his 2009 promise to “expand [U.S.] cooperation with Russia” as a means to pursing nuclear disarmament.[7] Such cooperation is vital to setting the precedent required for the success global nuclear disarmament.

[1] Woolf, Amy F., 2001. “Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Programs: Issues for Congress.” Congressional Research Report.

[2] Quinn, Andrew, 2012. “U.S. says still talking to Russia about extending arms deal.” Reuters, 11/10/12.

[3] “Moscow to block US from monitoring Russia’s nuke arsenal.” Russia Today, 12/10/12.


[4] “U.S. Missile Defense Plans Hinder New Arms Cuts-Russia.” Ria Novosti, 30/6/12.

[5] Woolf, Amy F., 2001. “Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Programs: Issues for Congress.” Congressional Research Report.

[6] “Moscow to block US from monitoring Russia’s nuke arsenal.” Russia Today, 12/10/12.

[7] Obama, Barack, 2009. “Remarks By President Barack Obama. “The Whitehouse: Office of the Press Secretary, 5/4/12.

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