The Kremlin's refusal to renew a U.S. program that has spent more than $10 billion since 1992 on security for Russia's nuclear and unconventional weapons has caused angst, hand-wringing and finger-pointing. Who'd have thought a foreign aid program could be so popular?
In last week's debate Mitt Romney called Russia "a geopolitical foe," echoing his campaign's theme that the White House was coddling an intransigent Moscow. But shortly thereafter he criticized President Obama for the Kremlin's refusal to accept any more money for Russia's weapons security programs from U.S. taxpayers.
"Russia said they're not going to follow Nunn-Lugar anymore," he said. "They're back[ing] away from a nuclear proliferation treaty that we had with them. I look around the world, and I don't see our influence growing around the world."
A New York Times editorial (though blaming Vladimir Putin, not Obama) warned that pulling the plug on Nunn-Lugar meant that "Russia's unsecured weapons and materials remain a temptation for terrorists of all varieties."
But it's likely Moscow would have stopped accepting Nunn-Lugar aid even if we'd been tougher on them. And it's doubtful that Russia is about to become a candy store for jihadists in search of WMD.
Instead, it was probably inevitable that Russia one day would decide that, yeah, the world's ninth richest nation should pay the freight for protecting its own nuclear arsenal. "At some point Russia has to do for itself what other states do for themselves, which is provide security for the weapons and material they chose themselves to produce," said Sharon Weiner, an associate professor at American University and an expert on U.S. counter-proliferation programs. "Russia needs to step up to the plate."
Russia's image as a country in the grip of political turmoil and poverty is amazingly persistent in the United States. But visitors to Moscow find spiffy skyscrapers, billboards advertising Italian sports cars and private jets, and bureaucrats wearing Swiss watches worth tens of thousands of dollars.
After the ailing Soviet Union finally gave up the ghost in the waning days of 1991, Russia inherited its vast stores of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. And they were a mess. Western visitors to weapons depots and labs were shocked to find AWOL guards, broken fences and unlocked doors. Two million nerve gas shells were discovered sitting in rotting barns in a patch of forest in western Siberia.
Senate Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican Richard Lugar, in an act of bipartisanship that might be impossible today, pushed for creation of an emergency aid effort that grew into a multi-agency effort that is now generally called the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program.
The program has channeled about a half-a-billion dollars each year into efforts to beef up the safety and security of Russia's unconventional arms. And in the early years, at least, it helped insure the grim downside of what Russian President Vladimir Putin has called "the greatest geo-political catastrophe" of the 20th century didn't extend much beyond the U.S.S.R.'s former borders.
The United States helped remove all of the nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus and return them to Russia. U.S. taxpayers financed the demolition of thousands of Soviet weapons, including missiles, submarines, bombers, and of course city-shattering nuclear warheads. Most of the dismantled weapons were obsolete or surplus, but still could have made dangerous toys for desperate boys.
Americans even paid the salaries of some of the Soviet Union's tens of thousands of weapons scientists, engineers and technicians impoverished by the economic crises of the early 1990s, to discourage them from working for rogue states.
The programs weren't 100 percent successful. The CIA complained repeatedly to Russia that former weapons scientists were freelancing abroad. Vyacheslav Danilenko, who worked at one of the Soviet Union's two premier nuclear weapons labs, is the "foreign expert" the International Atomic Energy Agency suspects of having spent several years in Iran in the late 1990s and early 2000s helping develop conventional explosive systems that could initiate a nuclear blast.
Small amounts of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium were diverted from former Soviet weapons and other nuclear facilities.