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Nuclear Security: A Casualty of Moscow’s Involvement in Ukraine
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By Elizabeth Zolotukhina

Russia’s formal annexation of the Crimea on March 18, 2014 has had at least two deleterious consequences for nuclear security. The first is that, worryingly, its involvement in Ukraine has caused Russia to de-prioritize tangible nuclear security cooperation with Washington. The second is it signaled a change in Moscow’s hierarchy of interests: with Crimea a top foreign policy priority, other aims, such as renewed G7 membership, or an economic climate favorable to the implementation of the recently concluded Russia-China gas accord, have become increasingly peripheral. These shifts highlight the importance Moscow attaches to its involvement in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited 650 metric tons of fresh or lightly irradiated highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, enough material to produce 40,000 nuclear bombs. At the same time Russian civilian nuclear facilities, such as scientific research institutes that conduct research using weapons grade materials and sites used to store excess fissile material, became subject to lower security measures, which rendered the dangerous materials stored at these locations highly susceptible to terrorist seizure and use, as well as diversion by determined insiders. Once obtained, terrorists and other non-state actors could fashion such HEU and plutonium—also termed dual-use material—into a crude nuclear explosive device, or a “dirty bomb”, with relative ease. Since 1993, there have been 2,331 known incidents of illicit nuclear materials trafficking worldwide.  Although it is impossible to determine whether any of these incidents have resulted in enough nuclear material “leaking out” of the former Soviet Union (FSU) to enable terrorists to construct an atomic bomb, there is reason for concern.

The limited amount of publicly available data supports fears that the risk of nuclear theft is highest in Russia. A worrisome precedent was set when the first case involving the theft or diversion of direct-use material occurred in Russia in 1992, and it is not believed to be a singular event. In fact, an assessment by the U.S. National Intelligence Council concluded that “it is likely that undetected smuggling has occurred [from Russian nuclear facilities], and we are concerned about the total amount of material that could have been diverted over the last 15 years.” Perhaps even more critical than the quantity of leaked Russian nuclear material is the observation that “nearly all of the stolen [highly enriched uranium] and plutonium that has been seized over the years had never been missed when it was originally stolen.” Not only does this circumstance augment the likelihood that Russian nuclear material could have been diverted undetected, but it also calls into question Moscow’s past denials of known nuclear smuggling incidents.

One illustrative incident involves the interdiction in June 2011 of a criminal syndicate, whose members (including Russian nationals) attempted to sell at least 4.4 kilograms of Russian origin HEU in North Africa. Russian officials’ categorical dismissal of the U.S. finding, which identified  the HEU as being of Russian origin was remarkably similar to Moscow’s response to an earlier incident in 2006, when a Russian national attempted to smuggle 100 grams of weapons-grade uranium over the Russia-Georgia border. Indeed nongovernmental studies, while noting some progress in security measures, have cited disturbingly lax security practices and other vulnerabilities in the Russian nuclear complex. As demonstrated above, persistent uncertainties exist regarding the security of select components of the Russian nuclear arsenal. There is also a real threat—as well as past instances—of theft, seizure, or diversion of select Russian nuclear material. Once diverted, it would be relatively easy to construct, transport, and detonate a crude nuclear explosive device. For a state-sponsored program, the difficulty in constructing a nuclear weapon lies first in legally acquiring the requisite nuclear material, and later, in the miniaturization required to mount a nuclear warhead atop a guided missile. Terrorists and non-state actors are not bound by such considerations. Russia’s recent invasion of Crimea has already  destabilized aspects of Moscow’s nuclear cooperation with Washington. This, coupled with other factors, could have serious consequences.

The covert deployment of the Russian military in Crimea earlier this year, originally repudiated by Moscow, preceded the formal annexation of the territory on March 18 by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The international response was immediate and wide-ranging, including such punitive measures as targeted U.S. and EU sanctions against several dozen top Russian officials, along with less tangible punishments, like the suspension of Russia’s membership in the G8. Moscow does not appear eager to re-instate its membership. The annexation of Crimea and the resulting instability in Ukraine also had an adverse effect on Moscow’s cooperation in nuclear security initiatives, thus imperiling nuclear material protections in Russia.

The above-mentioned view is not universal. For instance, the Obama administration has attempted to downplay the impact of the Russian annexation of the region on nuclear security initiatives. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, by contrast, have passed a bill to block the administration from continuing the implementation of the New START accord with Russia until “Moscow is deemed in compliance with several other arms control agreements, is ‘no longer illegally occupying’ the Crimean Peninsula, and ceases destabilizing activities in other parts of Ukraine.” Conversely, some observers have argued that fears that Russia’s annexation of  Crimea will undermine international nuclear security efforts “are exaggerated.” Commentators holding such views advance arguments based on values, or interests. Broadly, the first argument holds that shared, long-standing, and immutable values between Moscow and Washington have prevented and will continue to prevent the breakdown of U.S.-Russian nuclear security cooperation in the face of passing crises, including that in Crimea. The second argument holds that U.S.-Russian nuclear security collaboration is at the mercy of ever-changing interests. The latest iteration of these is Moscow’s shifting interests following the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

Proponents of the values-based argument assert that common values, which prevented the breakdown of nuclear security cooperation between Moscow and Washington even at the nadir of Russian-American relations during the Cold War, likewise will avert the collapse of nuclear security cooperation between the two countries following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Moscow’s constructive participation as planned in the Nuclear Security Summit following the events in Crimea is indicative, in this view, of shared values overcoming the current political concern. Moreover, underscoring the permanence and intractability of values in this case, Matthew Moran, Lecturer in International Security and Deputy Director of the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King's College London, and Matthew Cottee, Research Associate at King's College London, hold that even a further breakdown of diplomatic relations “probably would not” undermine future nuclear security efforts. Another explanation for Russia’s continued collaboration in bi- and multi-lateral nuclear security initiatives following the annexation of Crimea is based on common interests. For instance, former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Senator Sam Nunn attribute Russia’s continued engagement in nuclear security efforts to Moscow’s identification of the same as “an area of common interest where cooperation remains crucial to [its] security.” Unlike values, which tend to endure over time, interests - particularly as assessed by leaders - can and do change in response to geopolitical developments. By annexing Crimea and subsequently deploying Russian military personnel to destabilize Odessa, Putin is indicating that Moscow’s hierarchy of interests has changed.

Above all, Russia claims to be threatened by the possibility of bordering on a Western military alliance should Ukraine join NATO. Moscow is willing to risk incurring international opprobrium, targeted economic sanctions against top officials, the threat of additional sanctions against sectors of the Russian economy, and provoking a full-scale war in Ukraine in order to prevent this. Moscow may yet have to reverse its stance. Expanding the scope of economic sanctions, which have to date inflicted only “psychological, not tangible” damage, may force Moscow to re-prioritize its interests once again. The recently signed $400 billion USD Russia-China gas deal provides another impetus to re-prioritize stability in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Continued instability there could dampen investor confidence and thus could threaten the implementation of the accord. That is a large gamble, since the gas agreement strengthened the ruble against the U.S. Dollar and the Euro for the first time since February 2014. Regardless, its involvement in Ukraine has caused Russia to de-prioritize tangible nuclear security cooperation. This has impeded progress on several U.S.-Russian nonproliferation initiatives. Given the outstanding vulnerabilities of select Russian nuclear materials, the documented incidents of nuclear material smuggling, and the increased threat of terrorist diversion of the same, Moscow’s de-prioritization is cause for concern.

Since becoming involved in Ukraine, Moscow has decreased its engagement in select substantive U.S.-Russian nonproliferation efforts. Although Russian representatives signed a non-binding declaration on adopting universal standards for securing weapons-usable nuclear material, progress in several existing, binding nonproliferation initiatives between Moscow and Washington has stalled. For example, negotiations between the two countries regarding the accord intended to replace the now-expired Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) umbrella agreement has been delayed by the Ukraine crisis. The delay could be prolonged if Moscow remains involved in Ukraine. In addition, it is unclear whether work on initiatives to secure Russian nuclear and radiological materials at fixed sites and in transit and to help establish a sustainable nuclear security culture are ongoing. Further, Russia’s suspension from the G8 - one of the consequences of its annexation of Crimea - has “already disrupted global initiatives aimed at preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and fissile material under [its] auspices.” One such casualty is the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction (also known as the "10 Plus 10 Over 10 Program.")

As discussed above, not only has undetected smuggling of Russian nuclear material likely occurred, but terrorists - including those affiliated with Al Qaeda and other organizations – have expressed interest in and have attempted to obtain nuclear materials and other WMDs. The recent splintering and devolution of Al Qaeda as a consequence of leadership losses has made it more difficult for central Al Qaeda leaders to ensure that their orders are followed. Thus, in addition to diversion by determined insiders, Russian nuclear materials now could be under two types of terrorist threats from Al Qaeda. A “sanctioned” attack by an Al Qaeda leader ordering the diversion of such assets, and a lone, “un-sanctioned” attack by a current or former member of the organization. This new potential element is yet another reason to augment nuclear material security in Russia. However, instead of increased cooperation in this sphere, U.S.-Russian nuclear security efforts have been disrupted as a consequence of Moscow’s prioritization of its involvement in Ukraine.

Russia’s campaign to destabilize parts of Ukraine has had deleterious effects on nuclear security cooperation between Moscow and Washington. Select programs that address persistent weaknesses in Russian nuclear material security have been stymied at a time when their continuation is critical. Nuclear material smuggling has occurred in Russia, continues to pose a real threat, and should be perceived as such by both parties. Rather than being held hostage to current political considerations, joint nuclear security work should proceed unhindered. To facilitate such an outcome, policymakers should strive to understand and address Moscow’s interests. While at times divergent from those of Washington, they are nevertheless to be reckoned with on their own merit. The alternative may be a price no one should be willing to pay.

Elizabeth Zolotukhina’s past professional affiliations include the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Project on National Security Reform, the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, and the Lexington Institute. She received her M.A. in Russian and East European Studies from the Harriman Institute at Columbia University and her undergraduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh. Her research interests are; nonproliferation, arms control, and Russia. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Strategic Security, World Politics Review, the International Affairs Forum, among others. 

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