Nunn-Lugar, the post-Cold War program best known for securing "loose nukes," is probably coming to end -- at least in Russia. Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax, "The agreement doesn't satisfy us, especially considering new realities." Realities are such a bummer.
There is some hope that the United States and Russia might yet save the Nunn-Lugar program, but the "new realities" mentioned by Ryabkov have been slowly strangling the bilateral arms control process. For two decades, our bilateral arms control efforts with Russia have been largely about reducing our bloated nuclear arsenals. Although those reductions were welcome, they were never the most important part of the process. The promise of arms control with the Russians was always more about building a more stable relationship -- initially with nuclear weapons and then perhaps, dare to dream, the security of a world without them. But neither side managed to create a truly cooperative effort to manage nuclear dangers. We've failed. And now, the two countries are running out of reductions to make, leaving only an awkward inability to deal with the real issues that truly threaten us.
Nunn-Lugar, which is formally known as Cooperative Threat Reduction, was a creation of a very specific moment, when the Soviet Union and what remained of its economy collapsed. The time was deeply traumatic, with the mortality rate jumping by 60 percent. Millions of former Soviet citizens couldn't care for themselves, let alone a massive nuclear stockpile. Nunn-Lugar provided funds and expertise to help Russia meet its arms control commitments at a time when Moscow was unable to do so itself. This was no mere altruistic foreign aid program. This was a hard-nosed calculation about where our interests lay in a moment of genuine danger. We purchased something for all that money: the dismantlement of actual nuclear weapons and, importantly, access to Russia's dismantlement complex.
That sort of transparency is very useful. You will find a healthy body of opinion that argues that the verification measures are the real contribution of arms control agreements, with the reductions simply making for a nice press release. That's probably too strong; still, Nunn-Lugar was part of an unprecedented set of verification measures, one that placed American contractors inside the Russian dismantlement process. If you are free to peruse the State Department cables compromised by Wikileaks, you will notice a perfect example of the value of Nunn-Lugar. During the negotiations over New START, the United States and Russia disagreed about the procedure for verifying the dismantlement of ballistic missile submarines. A classified U.S. cable noted the verification challenge might be managed through Nunn-Lugar. "If Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) funds are used to scrap the submarines, which has been the case for the past 10 years, the U.S. side will have the opportunity to correlate trusted agent reports from the CTR contractors to see whether the submarine had been fully scrapped."
Russian officials were willing to view the access as confidence-building, not spying. Perhaps owing to Russian sensitivities, U.S. officials seldom emphasized this obvious benefit of the CTR program. There was no need to rub their noses in it.
The Russians are no longer willing to be so tolerant, making Nunn-Lugar the latest casualty in the chill between Moscow and Washington. As a cause célèbre, it is considerably less sexy that Pussy Riot. But it is as important in so much as the thousands of nuclear weapons that each side retains pose an existential threat to us all.
Perhaps because our common interest in managing our shared nuclear danger is so obvious, we all expected cooler heads to prevail. Nunn-Lugar was too important to just let lapse, right? Administration officials were optimistic as recently as this spring. The rest of us were probably guilty of wishful thinking or perhaps just an inability to imagine a world without CTR.
There were troubling signs during the 2008 negotiations to replace the expiring START treaty, had we looked. Most outside experts, myself included, believed the difficult issues between the United States and Russia would relate to the numerical ceilings -- how many warheads and delivery vehicles? -- because the United States had a substantial advantage in "upload" (the ability to put warheads back on delivery vehicles if Joe Stalin were to come back to life). In fact, those issues proved relatively easy to finesse. But the negotiations stalled as the Russians made a concerted effort to eliminate two hard-won verification measures from the START treaty. In particular, the Russians wanted to end monitoring at the Votkinsk missile plant and to end the exchange of telemetry data from missile tests.