Tuesday, September 23, 2008


As the presidential nominees’ debate on national security issues approaches, there is one issue on which both sides agree - preventing nuclear terrorism and proliferation must be a top priority.

The nominees also have converged on another theme - using Russia as a rhetorical punching bag to look tough on foreign policy. They can’t have it both ways.

Russia is our most important partner in preventing nuclear catastrophe. Taking a hard line on Russia makes for good campaign sound bites, but the successful candidate might take positions he will regret once in office.

“I think it’s very clear that Russian ambitions are to restore the old Russian empire,” Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, said in reaction to Russia’s recent military operation in Georgia.

Mr. McCain advocates expelling Russia from the G-8, the group of leading economic powers, and denying it World Trade Organization membership. Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, agrees that the United States should “further isolate Russia internationally because of its actions.”

The United States need not condone recent Russian actions in Georgia. But hostile rhetoric does nothing to improve U.S. national security and could be counterproductive in solving three of our most urgent problems: securing stockpiles of nuclear materials worldwide, preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons to new states and pressing ahead with deeper cuts in our nuclear arsenals.

First, helping Russia and its neighbors to secure, consolidate and reduce their nuclear stockpiles is the surest means of preventing nuclear terrorism. There are hundreds of tons of separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) in Russia alone (and more outside Russia).

These are the essential ingredients for a nuclear bomb. They are scattered in weapons arsenals, military stockpiles, civilian fuel cycle facilities and research reactors in about 40 countries around the world. It would take only a few pounds of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium in the hands of determined terrorists to turn the center of a major U.S. city into smoke and ash.

Terrorists cannot make a nuclear bomb if they cannot get their hands on these materials. Important and longstanding U.S.-Russian cooperative programs designed to reduce this threat have made us safer. Working within Russia, great progress has been made since the early 1990s, when bomb-grade materials lay unguarded in rundown sheds.

Russia and the United States also have worked together to improve nuclear security in other countries. One example: shipping back to Russia Soviet-origin HEU from former Soviet republics and allies.

These programs have not yet been affected by the Georgia situation. But as an annual worldwide assessment of nuclear security from Harvard University’s Managing the Atom Project reports, additional and intensive collaboration with Russia is necessary to accelerate, deepen and sustain joint efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism. These efforts must not be put at risk.

Second, preventing the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran is a top U.S. priority. A diplomatic resolution to this crisis will depend on Russian support. Persuading Iran to comply with U.N. Security Council demands regarding its nuclear program has been difficult. Russia is a key trading partner with Iran, has helped Iran complete its nuclear reactors at Bushehr and wields major influence in Tehran.

Efforts to persuade Iran to cease its uranium enrichment or accept additional international oversight are likely to founder because of a lack of Security Council support unless Russia is willing to play a positive role.

Third, U.S.-Russian arms reductions are a vital means of mitigating nuclear dangers. The United States thus far has refused to extend important strategic arms verification measures, which will expire if no action is taken. Moscow has been eager to extend these procedures and is willing to discuss further nuclear arms reductions.

Deep cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, when carried out responsibly, reduce the risk of accidents, weaken incentives for other states to arm, and enhance the credibility of U.S. pleas for tighter nonproliferation rules worldwide. Russia’s willingness to continue to shrink arsenals jointly may not continue if the next U.S. president enters office on a platform of confronting Russia in the Caspian Sea region and beyond.

Preventing nuclear terrorism, halting nuclear proliferation and reducing nuclear arsenals are not “if we get to it” issues. Prompt action can make a major difference and inaction can result in a world-shaking disaster.

Russia is not only a necessary partner in progress on these issues: It is a willing partner, despite recent tensions. Campaign rhetoric that bashes Russia and ignores our common interests should cease. Instead, let’s hear more from each candidate about how he will re-engage Russia to tackle the nuclear dangers that lie before us.

cMartin B. Malin is the executive director of the Managing the Atom Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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