Nuke Street

US-Russia and Global Nuclear Security: Under a Frosty Spell?

20 Nov, 2014    ·   4752

Amb Sheel Kant Sharma cautions that bilateral tensions do not bode well for international initiatives towards securing nuclear materials

It is twenty years since acute concern about unauthorised and malevolent access to sensitive nuclear material and radioactive substances, particularly from successor states to the former Soviet Union, roused the international community in 1994. Nuclear security has since remained at the centre of post-Cold War cooperation between the US and Russia over these past two decades - till that cooperation was given severe body blows by the chill that has set in the relations between Putin’s Russia and the West. While the immediate root of this frosty development lies in Ukraine and Crimea, President Putin’s Sochi speech last month seemed to lay down a new manifesto for a Cold War redux. The APEC summit in China and the G20 meeting in Australia earlier this month failed to dispel the frost and, on the contrary, hardened it as the Russian president was cold shouldered and treated with concerted tough talk by his Western interlocutors.

Even prior to these summits Russia had put an end to the twenty year process begun by the famous Nunn-Lugar team in the US to salvage nuclear material, technology and installations in Russia and its Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as Moscow used to describe them. This programme championed by the Nunn-Lugar team has been a success story that now risks being burnt up by the exacerbating diplomatic fracas with Russia. Even someone as committed to the transformation of East-West relations as Gorbachev has voiced fears about a renewed Cold War.

The Nuclear Security Summit process which has been the high point of Barack Obama’s presidency, and supported widely by 59 states, is not spared anymore by an irate Russia which has advised US and all concerned that it would only work for nuclear security within the IAEA framework. Russia announced it would not join the Sherpas’ meetings for the next NSS which is going to be hosted by US in 2016. There has been in addition a whole slew of international initiatives geared to securing nuclear materials, facilities and the enterprise in general from threats of terrorism. In all of these Russia had been an active and willing partner. Since its nuclear enterprise remains vast and as diversified as that of the US it is hard to visualise the future of all those initiatives without a well disposed Russia.

Fear of nuclear terrorism has gone up a few more notches in the past year due to the unmitigated horrors disseminated by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and its propensity to stop at nothing. Among the elaborate action points deliberated and recommended by the Nuclear Security Summits so far, not all are limited to the IAEA even though its centrality has been progressively underscored. The principal requirement in grappling with threats to nuclear security is the combined unbroken pressure from moral, diplomatic, civil society and legal angles. The existing legal instruments and the Security Council edicts are still in the formative stage of enforcement. Undiminished support and cooperation of all major countries with nuclear materials and technology is the sine qua non. It remains to be seen how Russia will play ball in diverse forums.

There have been critiques of the post-Cold War world order, some of them quite harsh too, but to leverage such critiques to a particular situation of conflict and tension, it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. This applies to both sides of the tense situation in Ukraine just as it does to the ongoing talks about Iran’s nuclear future. A relapse to a Cold War-like division of the world would benefit no one just as it did not help even during the heady years of the last Cold War. Neither the triumphalism that marked the 1990s nor a panicked reassertion of destructive power as witnessed in recent months can help in stabilising international nuclear diplomacy, be that in regard to non-proliferation or strategic arms reduction or nuclear security. The edifice created over the past two decades in regard to each of these spheres merits preserving.

Absence of negotiated agreements has also presaged a host of sub-legal or voluntary arrangements to fix the problems posed by inadequate controls on nuclear material - these voluntary arrangements ought not to be interrupted in pique or partisan parsimony as in budget cuts in the US Congress on valuable nuclear security programmes. As regards the centrality of the IAEA, that has also been a result of the growing common understanding about a range of voluntary steps that have been generally supported over the past two decades such as peer reviews, advisory services or collation of related data banks or coordination of intelligence and forensics among different organisations.

Prime Minister Modi stated in Canberra this week that we do not “have the luxury to choose who we work with and who we don’t.” This sentiment remains key to strengthening and sustaining a norms-based order to cope with new age threats like nuclear terrorism. The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism are two significant examples in this regard. The entry into force of the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material can be a big step forward where cooperation of major players remains crucial. 

It is to be hoped that the tough talk possibly conceals quiet diplomacy to restore balance and stability in great power relations and pave the way forward. Until there is progress in that direction a climate of suspicion is unlikely to help global endeavour towards greater nuclear security.