Russia-U.S. Interaction in WMD Non-Proliferation

13 april 2004

Vladimir Dvorkin

Resume: The Bush administration seemingly doubts the efficiency of the non-proliferation regime. This may explain why the U.S. administration has opted to resort to the pre-emptive use of force. At the same time, Moscow has developed new approaches toward counterproliferation. These factors are indicative of Moscow’s and Washington’s drift away from control and observance of the non-proliferation regime toward practical measures to prevent WMD from falling into the wrong hands.

Since the emergence of new Russia, the nation has maintained an unequivocal position on non-proliferation issues. This unambiguous and consistent attitude should be largely attributed to the consensus of the main social and political forces in Russia on these issues.

Russian analysts have been emphasizing that Russia, unlike the United States, has ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. It also proposed, much earlier than the United States, substantial cuts in strategic offensive weapons, which is the core of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Russian analysts have reiterated this country’s invariable and strict compliance with the spirit and letter of the NPT. This is notable because of the extremely adverse environment that emerged following the breakup of the Soviet Union, together with the resultant long-term economic crisis.

Presently, the Russian analysts believe that U.S. President George W. Bush has noticeably eased his pressure for an all-out, uncompromising struggle against WMD proliferation. However, Joseph Cirincione, the Carnegie Endowment’s Non-Proliferation Project Director, noted that Washington continues to regard the risks of WMD proliferation as extremely serious. The Bush administration seemingly doubts the efficiency of the non-proliferation regime: against the backdrop of the significant efforts to establish it, there have been little tangible results to show for this work. This may explain why the U.S. administration has opted to resort to the pre-emptive use of force. Speaking about U.S. priorities with regard to budget allocations, Cirincione showed that the Counterproliferation Program has become the leading source of expenditures – it now totals $8 billion, in contrast to $1.5 billion earmarked for non-proliferation programs. 1

Moscow has also developed new policies toward counterproliferation, which was manifest at the Second Moscow International Nonproliferation Conference held on September 18-20, 2003. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, speaking at a major conference of leading Defense Ministry officials attended by President Vladimir Putin, contemplated the theoretical possibility of pre-emptive non-nuclear strikes against WMD offenders.

All these factors are indicative of Moscow’s and Washington’s drift from non-proliferation policies, which relied on the control and observance of the existing non-proliferation regimes, toward more practical steps to prevent WMD ending up in the wrong hands.


In order for the NPT to remain effective, it is not so important for the United States and Russia to necessarily conclude treaties to reduce strategic offensive arms; what is important is that they actually reduce them, even if this means unilaterally. Analysts have been quoting the statement that five nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China) agreed upon in early May 2000, in which they pledged to take further unilateral measures to reduce their nuclear arsenals. 2 Such unilateral moves are crucial for keeping the NPT operable at a time when bilateral or multilateral negotiations have stalled.

In this sense, the Moscow Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) may be regarded as a treaty in its original meaning only with certain reservations. This is because the Russian and U.S. presidents had put their signatures to unilateral strategic arms reduction plans long before the new treaty was ready for signing. Nevertheless, it has been continuously emphasized that START is a mandatory, albeit insufficient, condition for the NPT to remain active.

Non-strategic nuclear arms reductions are no less important for attaining this goal. Official statistics about the number of non-strategic warheads that Russia and the United States possess are not available; unofficial statistics on the types and overall number of warheads vary considerably. In 1991, the Soviet Union was said to have 15,000 to 21,000 such warheads and the United States, around 10,000. Under the 1991 initiatives, the nuclear warheads were removed from operational status and transferred to central storage facilities. According to the same sources, Russia presently has 3,500-3,800 warheads, and the United States has 1,100-1,670 non-strategic nuclear warheads.3

However, non-strategic nuclear arms control would invariably encounter obstacles incommensurate with those that the sides had surmounted in the process of START negotiations. The main obstacle is the complexity of exercising non-strategic nuclear arms control. The STARTs are based on regulations of counting and control, above all, of the number of delivery vehicles with warheads deployed in specific areas. With non-strategic weapons, this rule is hardly workable since the delivery vehicles employed in this case are basically dual-purpose ones; they have no distinguishing features or permanent locations.

The issue of non-strategic nuclear arms control was last brought to a focus in 1997, when the U.S. and Russian presidents met in Helsinki. Ever since, the differences over the ABM treaty have kept the issue suspended, although Moscow has never shown reluctance to continue the dialog.

Russian defense and foreign ministry officials have repeatedly stated that the main obstacle to non-strategic nuclear arms control remains the U.S. nuclear arms deployed in Europe. The United States is the sole country that has nuclear arms deployed in other countries, with the safety of those arms being much lower than the nuclear arms located on the territory of the United States.4

Over a brief period of time, the arguments for preserving the U.S. non-strategic nuclear arms in Europe underwent a considerable transformation, which certainly did not go unnoticed by Russia. In 1994, former U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary John Deutch explained this transformation by arguing that, due to the economic crisis and changes in its domestic policy, Russia was unlikely to restore its conventional weapons to the level of the Cold War period; its return to a more aggressive nuclear policy would be less costly. Thus, if the situation in Russia deteriorated, the U.S. was most likely to counter a nuclear threat.5

It is noteworthy that such policies toward non-strategic nuclear arms have met with more elaborate criticism in the United States than in Russia. The critics argue from the belief that, due to the end of the Cold War, non-strategic nuclear arms have lost their relevance. In the event of a hypothetical worsening of the situation in Europe, the risk of nuclear arms being used against U.S. allies will be fully outweighed by the strategic nuclear forces of the United States, as well as by French and British nuclear forces.

The Director of the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, William Potter, believes that a withdrawal of the U.S. tactical weapons from Europe will in no way weaken the U.S. guarantees. On the contrary, this measure will enhance the deterrence effect as provocative weapons will be removed from the region, thereby widening the gap between conventional and nuclear armaments.6

Efforts to strengthen the NPT may suffer a considerable setback from a relatively new trend in the U.S. nuclear policy, which is currently the focus of discussion by Russian government officials and analysts. This setback concerns the R&D efforts to create low- and extra low-yield nuclear warheads. These weapons would be capable of piercing soil, concrete and rock structures in order to destroy WMD storage facilities in so called ‘rogue states’ where there is a threat of WMD employment against the United States or its allies. Opinions have been voiced in the United States about the possible termination of the 1994 law banning the creation of nuclear warheads with yields under five kilotons. Such low-yield warheads would actually erase the borderline between nuclear and conventional arms. For example, Paul Robinson, Sandia Laboratory Director, said in March 2000 that nuclear armaments that are leftovers of the Cold War era are much more powerful than is required by the deterrence policies which were adopted in the contemporary multipolar world due to the growing threat of WMD proliferation.7

The lack of advanced decisions and transparency in matters concerning Russian and U.S. non-strategic nuclear arms reductions, as well as the presence of this class of U.S. weapons in Europe, will most probably remain on the agenda at all levels for quite some time. This factor can by no means facilitate nuclear non-proliferation efforts. The potential emergence of extra low-yield piercing warheads will provoke further drifts in the positions of the countries involved.

The expert communities in Russia and the United States share an understanding that the current threats to the NPT are rooted in the uncertainty over the nuclear status of Iran and North Korea. Furthermore, there is evidence that Saudi Arabia may acquire a nuclear capability. The news has been leaked to the media that Saudi Arabia is prepared to buy nuclear warheads; this possibility looks quite realistic. Some analysts maintain that Saudi Arabia will never agree to remain without a nuclear potential. If Saudi Arabia’s relations with Washington are disrupted, Saudi Arabia will not be able to stay without a nuclear umbrella. Relations with the United States have been worsening ever since Sept. 11, 2001. Fifteen of the nineteen terrorists who attacked New York and Washington were Saudi citizens. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Feisal admits that “the growing misapprehension of his country by the U.S. may create an unsurpassable abyss in the relations between the two countries.”8

As concerns Iran, Russia and the United States are unanimous in the conviction that it must not be permitted to acquire a nuclear capability. However, their positions differ with regard to Russia-Iran cooperation in commercial nuclear energy programs and the sale of conventional weapons.

Work is already underway in Iran to create what may eventually prove the region’s most powerful missile potential. It would enable Iran to produce ballistic missiles of different types. The fact that missile programs are pegged to the development of weapons of mass destruction is fairly obvious to experts and relevant not only to Iran.

The main reason is that ballistic missiles feature low target accuracy, particularly at long ranges; so their use with conventional warheads is not feasible in terms of cost-efficiency. Even advanced U.S. and Russian missiles, having far greater accuracy, are not regarded as delivery vehicles for conventional warheads. Effective use of ballistic missiles can be ensured only by equipping them with WMD warheads, above all nuclear ones. This is the main incentive for acquiring nuclear arms by third world countries.

The attitude of the Russian and U.S. leaders to the creation of a nuclear power industry in Iran has proven very hard to coordinate and will largely depend on Iran’s policy. If Iran does not suspend its uranium enrichment program, as was stated by the Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi, by the excuse that this country is surrounded by nuclear powers (India, Pakistan and Israel) which have abstained from signing the NPT, Russia and the United States may take closer positions to resist Teheran’s plans.

Similarly, controversies between Moscow and Washington may be minimized if the October 2003 meeting of the Iranian, British, French and German foreign ministers in Teheran proves fruitful. At that meeting, Iran signed a declaration containing a pledge to fully cooperate with the IAEA and sign the IAEA Additional Protocol.9

Indeed, Iran was reported to have suspended its uranium enrichment program on November 10, 2003; later that day it addressed the IAEA declaring its consent to sign the IAEA Additional Protocol.

As regards North Korea, Russia and the United States have coordinated their approaches within the framework of the Beijing agreements, but these attitudes will most likely drift apart if the negotiations fail and North Korea declares itself a nuclear state.


Moscow and Washington strictly follow their commitments under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR); however, the scale of such control varies, while both countries have equally retarded measures that could have made the MTCR more effective.

Russia focuses on the observance of missile technology non-proliferation by domestic manufacturers under a diversified export control system that President Vladimir Putin supervises personally. After President Putin approved the Regulations on the Statute of the Export Control Commission of the Russian Federation on January 29, 2001, the mass media described him as “the initiator of an export control system in Russia.”

As he discussed non-proliferation and export control issues with U.S. National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, Putin said: “Russia has convincingly demonstrated its commitment to enhancing export controls and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction… However, to our great regret, the U.S. sanctions imposed on a number of Russian enterprises and institutes remain the issue of the day. I do hope it will be resolved soon.”10

The United States, in addition to controlling its own corporations, exercises global monitoring of all transfers of missiles and missile technologies and puts on record hundreds of violations, or suspected violations, of the missile technology control regime.

Analysts believe that more detailed information is required about the industrial potential and missile programs of Iran and North Korea. This includes the current state of research and development, missile characteristics, their equipment, progress in flight tests, and prospected dates for adopting the missiles for service.

It is believed that the highest quality of information may be achieved if Russian and U.S. information and intelligence systems are used comprehensively. In this respect, the policies of former and current Russian and U.S. administrations look incredibly lacking.

In 1998, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton made a joint decision for establishing a center in Moscow for exchanging information about missile launches. The center was intended not only to provide warnings of unintentional launches from both countries, but also to monitor missile launches made from the territories of other countries, as well as from sea and ocean areas. Such measures would have permitted the exercise of impartial control over missile programs, first and foremost in unstable regions, and concerted action. A venue for the center was chosen, human resources needs identified, and functional duties of its staff and equipment described. However, for over five years now, the center has been unable to start operation.

Russian Foreign Ministry officials explain the halt in the project by a lack of agreement concerning civil responsibility for possible damages, as well as certain tax questions.

Another, more serious but less obvious, obstruction is the resistance of Washington and, to a certain extent, of Moscow, to the joint analysis of potential missile threats from the third world countries.

A few years ago, the CIA reported that missile threats to the United States from the so called ‘rogue states’ might become a reality not earlier than 2015. This projection practically coincided with the opinion of Russian specialists. However, not everybody in the United States was eager to agree with this assessment. Soon thereafter, in July 1998, a commission under incumbent Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld delivered a report which said that these threats may become real as early as 2005. President George Bush Jr. used this assessment as a powerful argument for withdrawing from the 1972 ABM treaty and escalating efforts to start full-scale work to develop plans for deploying anti-ballistic missile defenses.

Repeated proposals for setting up a joint group for assessing nuclear threats received the cold shoulder. Anti-ballistic missile defense advocates in the United States rejected the idea as unacceptable, while Moscow was afraid that the joint assessment of nuclear threats would be tantamount to the recognition that missile threats to the United States were real; this would undermine stability of the ABM treaty.

A missile threat to the United States cannot emerge overnight. There has to be a long period of preparations and flight tests – something that is impossible to do covertly. The year 2005, predicted as the time when a threat to the U.S. mainland will materialize, is quite near. Therefore, it would be appropriate to address Mr. Rumsfeld and his team with a question: “Where are the intercontinental ballistic missiles in North Korea, Iran and other countries that the Untied States calls ‘rogue nations’?”

In the meantime, a center for the exchange of information about missile launches could have provided unbiased, technically confirmed data about missile and missile technology proliferation, especially since Russian early warning systems deployed in the south are capable of providing real-time information about missile launches from the ‘belt of instability.’ No other system or means available to the United States can do that.

As for missile technology proliferation, the MTCR has largely coped with its role of missile technology transfer from one country to another. However, the MTCR is not a legally binding agreement, so it cannot create a universal legal regime in the sphere of missile technology similar to that existing in the sphere of nuclear weapons non-proliferation. As long as the MTCR remains legally unbinding, the implementation of its principles in the domestic legislation of the participating countries will continue to be of critical importance. Russia is believed to serve as an example: since August 2001 it has been implementing Presidential Decree No. 1005 On the Authorization of the List of Equipment, Materials and Technologies That Can Be Used to Manufacture Missile Weapons and to Which Export Control Applies.

There has been no support so far for the idea of creating a global system of missile technology control, which Russia proposed at the G-8 Summit in June 1999. This global system would restrict and deter missile proliferation and establish a set of rules for countries possessing missile weapons and related technologies.


Chemical weapons are believed to be more dangerous when used by international terrorist organizations than as weapons of conventional warfare. Therefore, the disposal of chemical weapons is regarded as a key measure for preventing these armaments from falling into the hands of terrorists.

In March 1996, the Russian government adopted a federal program, Destruction of Chemical Weapons Stockpiles in the Russian Federation, which provided for the disposal of nearly 40,000 tons of chemical weapons by the year 2009. However, economic difficulties made the program unfeasible. Its revised version set the chemical stock disposal deadline at 2012.

The cooperation between the United States and Russia in the area of eliminating Russia’s chemical arsenals began in 1990 with the signing of the U.S.-Soviet Agreement on Destruction and Non-Production of Chemical Weapons and on Measures to Facilitate the Multilateral Chemical Weapons Convention. American assistance began to arrive in real terms after the endorsement in 1991 of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program and the enactment of the 7-year agreement between the U.S. Department of Defense and Russia’s presidential Committee on Conventional Problems of Chemical and Biological Weapons on safe, reliable and ecologically sound disposal of chemical weapons. At the time, the U.S. side did not put forward any conditions that could stall the agreement’s implementation. The U.S. assistance was declared to total $286.5 million. It was later that political restrictions were imposed and special requirements set.

For all its usefulness, the program had a few weaknesses, namely:

1.  The size of the assistance is approved by the U.S. Congress annually, which hampers long-term planning due to the danger of a sudden stoppage in the project.

2.  The assistance is provided in the form of equipment supplies and payments for U.S. companies’ services, not as direct funding of the Russian program. U.S. companies engage Russian organizations on a contractual basis.

3.  The assistance does not cover the real expenses incurred on the territory or in the interests of Russia. Between 1992 and 1999, Russian organizations received a total of $25 million. A sizeable part of the funds was used to cover U.S. administrative and other technical expenses.

Such deficiences are characteristic also of other programs, above all, those related to the scrapping of strategic offensive arsenals. U.S. experts refer in this case to U.S. legislation. Notwithstanding regrets about the United States’ increased spending on Russia’s chemical weapons destruction program, the efficiency of the U.S. assistance can be objectively assessed only after the work is completed.

A far more serious barrier to U.S. assistance was put in place by the October 1999 decision by the U.S. Congress to freeze the funding of chemical weapons destruction projects in Russia; the decision appeared to be the major reason for a halt in the Schuchye facility construction. This happened in early 2002, after the Bush administration declined to confirm that Moscow had been stringently abiding by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Apart from bringing to a standstill a number of old programs, the decision by the U.S. Congress stalled action on several new projects aimed at reducing the threat posed by existing WMD arsenals.

Debates over the reasons behind the situation around the Schuchye facility, for which the blame has been alternately laid on Russia and the United States, continue unabated. The problem was discussed during George Bush’s visit to Russia in May 2002. In January 2003, President Bush signed special orders to release frozen funds to help Russia in implementing its program for the elimination of its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Earlier, the U.S. Congress had approved a bill giving the president the right to circumvent legislative restrictions on financial assistance to other countries, including Russia.

The president’s right to circumvent legislative restrictions is only temporary – in respect of the Nunn-Lugar program it is valid for three years. As regards U.S. assistance to Russia in the destruction of its chemical weapons, the right is valid for one year only (it actually expired on September 30, 2003). Richard Lugar maintains that for the project to be implemented successfully it is necessary to extend the right before the end of the year. He welcomed President Bush’s special orders to free the funds as they provide for both completing many ongoing projects and launching new ones. In his view, Bush’s special orders mean that the elimination of Russia’s nuclear, biological and chemical arsenals can now continue.11

Moscow appreciated President Bush’s decision to release more than $310 million in frozen funds to continue financing the construction of the Schuchye facility. Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the State Commission on Chemical Weapons Destruction and the Russian president’s plenipotentiary representative in the Volga District, has pointed out that during his visit to the United States on a mandate from Vladimir Putin in 2002, he reached agreement with the U.S. side that a decision to unfreeze funds would “unlock that year’s allocations together with the unspent balance of the previous years.”12

Therefore, the resumption of Russian-U.S. cooperation in the destruction of chemical weapons inspires optimism, albeit limited by the U.S. Congress’ recurrent debates over the feasibility of providing a new tranche.

*   *   *

Over the past two to three years, Russian-U.S. cooperation in the WMD non-proliferation sphere has grown particularly close due to the rapprochement of the two countries in the assessment of new challenges and threats, and the emergence of the G-8, with the United States playing the decisive role in assisting Russia to implement its WMD destruction programs.

Whatever differences the United States and Russia may have, coordinating the practical steps of the two nuclear superpowers which possess the world’s largest chemical and biological weapons stockpiles, is a must because there is no alternative to their cooperation. To overcome the differences, strenuous efforts will have to be made by the Russian and U.S. governments, scientists, and expert communities. Critical issues will surely require the political will of the two countries’ top leaders.

1 Joseph Siricione. Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: Problems and Perspectives. Report at the Second Moscow International Nonproliferation Conference, September 2003, Moscow.

2 NTP/CONF documents. 2000/21.

3 SIPRI Annual Report, 2002. Armaments, Disarmament, and International Security, Moscow: Nauka, 2003.

4 A. Borisenko, L. Chumachenko. Problems of and Prospects for the Negotiations on Tactical Nuclear Weapons. Yaderny Kontrol, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2002

5 John Deutch. Comments at Press Conference. News Released by the Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense, September 22, 2003, p. 7.

6 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Vol. 53, No. 3, May/June 1997, p. 13.

7 Robert N. Nelson. Low-Yield Earth-Penetrating Nuclear Weapons. FAS Public Interest Report, Vol. 1, 2001.

8 Will Saudi Arabia Acquire Nuclear Weapons? Le Temps, September 19, 2003

9 Judith Perera. Report on a Ministerial Meeting in Teheran.

10 An excerpt from President Putin’s conversation with S. Berger, ABN., May 19, 2000.

11 George Bush Releases Frozen  Funds to Support Former Soviet Republics. USA Today, January 14, 2003.  

12 Yadernoye Nerasprostranenie, Vol. 46, Carnegie Moscow Center, Moscow, 2003

Last updated 13 april 2004, 19:35

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