Nunn-Lugar: A Retrospective?

Oct 25 2012
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament
Katherine Tajer, London
With the recent anniversary of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, an election looming, and the historic Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction programme (CTR) coming to its finish, it seems only fitting to turn the conversation over to US-Russian affairs. As Nunn-Lugar expires in June 2013 and has not been renewed, we should consider what we are losing in the retirement of this landmark initiative.
To appreciate the impact of the Nunn-Lugar programme, it may be helpful to think back to the circumstances under which the treaty was born. The fall of the Soviet Union left many political challenges in its wake, and how to handle the USSR’s massive and dispersed arsenal of nuclear weapons was perhaps the most dangerous and delicate of all.
What resulted was one of the most successful US-Russian foreign policy initiatives ever witnessed. Working tirelessly to uncover all of the nuclear weapons storage, manufacturing and assembly points across the vast Soviet empire, Nunn-Lugar can take credit for deactivating some 7,527 nuclear warheads, destroying 498 silos, and rendering three former Soviet states free of nuclear weapons.
When work began on the CTR, verification was considered a baseline requirement of any disarmament activities involving Russia. Given the size of America’s investment, a robust verification regime was implemented to ensure that measures were carried out effectively. A standing ‘Audit and Examination’ team had access to approximately 95 per cent of Russian equipment.
The beginning of the ‘New START’ treaty in 2011 has also changed the U.S-Russian verification landscape. Considering that New START was drafted while the CTR was still solidly in play, doubled-up programs could probably afford to be cut—especially if this presented a more attractive treaty to the Russians. In many respects, New START offers a more streamlined and in-depth picture of each arsenal, but the thorough and pedantic methods of START I and the CTR may have allowed more assurance. The main reductions include the removal of continuous monitoring at the Votkinsk plant, and telemetry exchange has been reduced to a formalized and largely symbolic measure.
The reduction of the CTR’s robust, American-led verification regime may have been Russia’s main objective in blocking the previously successful treaty. Russia’s official stance is that the program is not ‘modern’ enough, and is at odds with their current ideas. Although Russia may ideally like to carry out some of the main tasks of the CTR independently, evidence suggests that this will be nearly impossible with their current budget.
Certainly the issue is more complicated than one of modernity. Despite Obama’s determination for a ‘reset’ on relations with Russia, Russia’s refusal to carry-on this historic treaty highlights cracks in this renewed relationship. The New York Times characterizes Russian resistance to Nunn-Lugar as just another in a long line of Putin-blocked American initiatives. Longstanding issues between the United States and Russia first came to the fore during the heated debate surrounding the New START’s ratification. As Jeffrey Lewis asserts, it was the verification aspect of New START that gave the Russian parliament trouble. More recently, Russia dismissed all USAID workers, stating that they had an unseen influence on election practices. Given Putin's efforts to push out international monitoring bodies, it would make sense that he would seek to eliminate the in-depth American supervision required by the CTR.
More immediately, Moscow’s refusal to continue the CTR represents a potential threat to President Obama’s campaign for a second term. Romney’s advisors have jumped on the opportunity to label Obama’s ‘reset’ policy a failure, accusing the administration of lacking the strength to ensure Nunn-Lugar was kept going. The Republicans have also used this as a moment to dig up their list of grievances regarding New START, stating that Obama should have been more aggressive with Moscow and requested more concessions from them.
Where we move on from here is critical. As New START’s timetable calls for lower numbers through to 2018, the United States will have to negotiate what the next phase holds carefully. If Russia is holding back on Nunn-Lugar because of the possibility that the United States will gain more knowledge about their strategic arms then it seems unlikely that forward motion will be made on tactical weapons. Additionally, Russia is building new missiles, a process that the United States will want to monitor.
All hope may not be lost though. Senator Lugar has stated that Russian officials seemed eager to amend the treaty, but not abandon it entirely. This suggests that perhaps a new form of the CTR would allow both sides to continue the aspects of the treaty they found beneficial. Diplomatic efforts may also make the difference. The answer may lie in concessions to Russia on the planned NATO missile defence expansion into Europe, which the Russian deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, recently deemed ‘threatening’.
Even if we argue that disarmament measures have made the world a safer place and that the CTR has completed the bulk of its leviathan task, the issue of insecure material, weapons and facilities are just as relevant today as they were 20 years ago—especially if Russia is still unable to fund these programs independently. American political polarization and Putin’s quest for isolation make uneasy ground for negotiation, but if nuclear terrorism is truly at the top of their security rosters, an Obama or Romney administration should prioritize how to move on from this failed discussion.

Last changed: Nov 05 2012 at 7:13 PM