Gottemoeller Warns Against Stopping Nuclear Security Work in Russia

U.S. Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller speaks in Moscow in 2012. Gottemoeller is warning against stopping U.S. nuclear security work in Russia amid the crisis in Ukraine.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
May 12, 2014, 9:42 a.m.

The State De­part­ment’s top arms con­trol of­fi­cial is stress­ing that it is in the best in­terests of the United States to con­tin­ue do­ing nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity work in Rus­sia — even as the Ukraine crisis rages.

The Re­pub­lic­an-led House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee last week ap­proved le­gis­lat­ive lan­guage that would pre­vent the U.S. En­ergy De­part­ment from us­ing fisc­al 2015 funds “for any con­tract, co­oper­a­tion, or trans­fer of tech­no­logy” between the United States and Rus­sia un­til the crisis has been re­solved. The pan­el in­cluded the lan­guage in its ver­sion of the an­nu­al de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill, which it passed last week.

Un­der­sec­ret­ary of State Rose Got­te­moeller sug­ges­ted on Fri­day that such a pro­hib­i­tion would be tan­tamount to shoot­ing “ourselves in the foot,” however. “At the heart of our ra­tionale for con­tinu­ing this work” is that it is “mani­festly in the na­tion­al in­terest of the United States to con­tin­ue “¦ min­im­iz­ing the danger that fis­sile ma­ter­i­als [could] fall in­to the hands of ter­ror­ists.”

Fis­sile ma­ter­i­als are those that could be used to make an atom­ic bomb. Ukrain­i­an au­thor­it­ies just last week an­nounced the seizure of ra­dio­act­ive ma­ter­i­al they feared could have been used to make a ra­di­olo­gic­al weapon.

“We ac­know­ledge and are gravely con­cerned with the crisis in Ukraine — there’s no ques­tion about it,” Got­te­moeller said in re­sponse to a ques­tion from Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire. “But we shouldn’t shoot ourselves in the foot in terms of stop­ping or halt­ing im­port­ant na­tion­al se­cur­ity work that pre­vents nuc­le­ar bombs from get­ting in the hands of ter­ror­ists be­cause we have oth­er grave con­cerns.

“I’m mix­ing meta­phors here, but we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Got­te­moeller ad­ded. “We must con­tin­ue to ad­dress our core na­tion­al se­cur­ity con­cerns while we ad­dress out grave con­cerns about this crisis in Ukraine.”

Ac­cord­ing to Got­te­moeller, cer­tain nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity and non­pro­lif­er­a­tion activ­it­ies have been “fenced off in this cur­rent crisis.”

Among them is im­ple­ment­a­tion of the New START arms re­duc­tion treaty with Rus­sia, which she said “is go­ing for­ward in a very prac­tic­al way without dif­fi­culties.”

Also in­cluded is the En­ergy De­part­ment col­lab­or­a­tion with Ros­atom, the Rus­si­an atom­ic en­ergy agency, which she said had so far been re­spons­ible for the re­mov­al of 3,000 kilo­grams of highly en­riched urani­um and plutoni­um from third-party coun­tries. The col­lab­or­a­tion also in­volves up­grad­ing the phys­ic­al se­cur­ity of build­ings in Rus­sia where sens­it­ive nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al is stored, DOE of­fi­cials have said pre­vi­ously.

Al­though lan­guage in the House bill sug­ges­ted this work had already been stopped and should re­main so un­til the res­ol­u­tion of the situ­ation in Ukraine, Got­te­moeller said it was her un­der­stand­ing it had been un­af­fected by the crisis. A spokes­man for the En­ergy De­part­ment’s Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion made a sim­il­ar state­ment to GSN earli­er last week.

Speak­ing at a De­fense Writers Group break­fast, Got­te­moeller ad­dressed oth­er ques­tions per­tain­ing to nuc­le­ar weapons and the Ukraine crisis, in­clud­ing wheth­er the former So­viet state should not have passed its atom­ic ar­sen­al back to Rus­sia as part of the so-called Bud­apest Memor­andum after the end of the Cold War.

Re­fer­ring to the agree­ment, un­der which Rus­sia was to re­spect the sov­er­eignty of Ukraine, Got­te­moeller told re­port­ers that “the doc­u­ment is not at fault.” The crisis is the fault of Rus­sia, which “blew past “¦ the in­ter­na­tion­al rule of law” with the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, she said.

“It would be a much worse crisis, in my view, if they had nuc­le­ar weapons,” Got­te­moeller ad­ded. She said it would be “dif­fi­cult to spec­u­late” what the pos­sible out­come might have been in that scen­ario, but sug­ges­ted fur­ther es­cal­a­tion of the con­flict might have been pos­sible.

In re­sponse to con­cerns over nuc­le­ar ex­er­cises Mo­scow ini­ti­ated re­cently, Got­te­moeller noted that Fri­day was Vic­tory Day — an an­nu­al hol­i­day dur­ing which Rus­sia cel­eb­rates the de­feat of the Nazis in World War II.

“This kind of demon­strat­ive activ­ity is not un­usu­al around this time,” Got­te­moeller said. “As far as I was con­cerned, I didn’t find it un­usu­al.”

Got­te­moeller also made an ap­par­ent re­sponse to par­ti­cipants at a U.N. meet­ing in New York last week who ar­gued that the United States and oth­er nuc­le­ar weapons na­tions are not dis­arm­ing fast enough.

“There’s a lot of arm wav­ing that goes on of­ten “¦ among cer­tain parts of the com­munity say­ing, ‘Oh, noth­ing’s been done, noth­ing’s been ac­com­plished,’” Got­te­moeller said while her staff passed out cop­ies of a graph show­ing that the U.S. nuc­le­ar weapons stock­pile — which cur­rently con­sists of 4,804 war­heads — is now more than five times smal­ler than it was dur­ing the Cuban Mis­sile Crisis.

“Is it enough? No, and the pres­id­ent said we want to get to zero,” Got­te­moeller ad­ded. “It’s go­ing to take time; it’s go­ing to take hard work.”

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