U.S. Officials Downplay Impact of Ukraine Crisis on Nuclear Security Efforts

Cossack men install a Russian flag and a Crimean flag on the roof of the City Hall building on March 17 in Bakhchysarai, Ukraine. Obama administration officials on Tuesday downplayed the impact the Russian annexation of the region would have on nuclear security initiatives.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
April 2, 2014, 10:03 a.m.

Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials on Tues­day sought to down­play the like­li­hood that the re­cent crisis in Ukraine would un­der­mine vari­ous arms con­trol and nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity ef­forts.

Dur­ing a Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials faced ques­tions re­gard­ing how Mo­scow’s con­tro­ver­sial an­nex­a­tion of the Crimea re­gion could af­fect ef­forts to lim­it the spread of nuc­le­ar weapons across the globe, along with ini­ti­at­ives to se­cure nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als in­side Rus­sia.

Law­makers also raised con­cerns about how Rus­sia — along with In­dia, Pakistan and China — did not sign onto cer­tain pledges to im­prove nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity at a glob­al lead­er­ship sum­mit in the Neth­er­lands last week.

Of the 53 na­tions that par­ti­cip­ated in the third bi­en­ni­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit, 35 signed a de­clar­a­tion aimed at inch­ing the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity closer to ad­opt­ing uni­ver­sal stand­ards for how to se­cure weapons-us­able nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al.

The nearly three dozen sig­nat­ory na­tions agreed to “meet the in­tent” of vol­un­tary guidelines for se­cur­ing nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als already draf­ted by the U.N.’s In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency.

This mul­ti­lat­er­al pledge and sev­er­al oth­ers that were not agreed to by all the coun­tries par­ti­cip­at­ing in the event were called “gift bas­kets,” in sum­mit par­lance.

Dur­ing Tues­day’s hear­ing, Sen­at­or Deb Fisc­her (R-Neb.) raised con­cerns that Rus­sia, In­dia, Pakistan and China did not sign onto the 35-na­tion pledge.

Fisc­her, the top Re­pub­lic­an on the emer­ging threats and cap­ab­il­it­ies sub­com­mit­tee, also down­played the sig­ni­fic­ance of a vow by Ja­pan to re­turn a por­tion of its plutoni­um stocks to the United States — a move that ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials cited as one of the ma­jor ac­com­plish­ments of the sum­mit.

“Did we get a good gift bas­ket from Rus­sia, China, In­dia and Pakistan?” Fisc­her asked. “Those are the coun­tries I would have the most con­cern with, rather than Ja­pan.”

Sen­at­or Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), the sub­com­mit­tee chair­wo­man, also sug­ges­ted she had some con­cern about these four coun­tries not sign­ing onto the ini­ti­at­ive, al­though she ac­know­ledged that she was not fa­mil­i­ar with the de­tails of the pledge.

Anne Har­ring­ton, the Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s deputy ad­min­is­trat­or for de­fense nuc­le­ar non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, told the law­makers she “would not gauge their in­terest or com­mit­ment to nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity on wheth­er or not they signed up for this par­tic­u­lar gift bas­ket.”

Har­ring­ton said the four coun­tries in ques­tion “are not very fond” of the gift bas­ket ap­proach to nuc­le­ar dip­lomacy, gen­er­ally speak­ing.

“But Rus­sia cer­tainly did sign up on the state­ment of com­bat­ing nuc­le­ar ter­ror­ism un­der the glob­al ini­ti­at­ive, and Pakistan and China have made a num­ber of their own uni­lat­er­al com­mit­ments to do oth­er things,” she said.

“We may have our is­sues right now,” es­pe­cially with re­gard to Rus­sia, the of­fi­cial from the semi­autonom­ous En­ergy De­part­ment agency said. But the sum­mit pro­cess — which Pres­id­ent Obama ini­ti­ated in 2010 — has been suc­cess­ful in part due to Rus­si­an as­sist­ance in re­mov­ing nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als from sev­er­al former East­ern bloc na­tions, she con­ten­ded.

Har­ring­ton said the United States and Rus­sia also have a his­tory, “even dur­ing times of high polit­ic­al ten­sion,” of re­cog­niz­ing the im­port­ance of work on which the two coun­tries col­lab­or­ate, in terms of se­cur­ing nuc­le­ar war­heads and weapons-us­able ma­ter­i­als with­in Rus­sia it­self.

Un­der the terms of a new agree­ment made last year, “our teams con­tin­ue to work with our Rus­si­an coun­ter­parts to im­prove the se­cur­ity of Rus­si­an nuc­le­ar and ra­di­olo­gic­al ma­ter­i­al in fixed sites and in trans­it, and to de­vel­op a strong and sus­tain­able nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity in­fra­struc­ture” in the coun­try, Har­ring­ton said.

Re­becca Hers­man, deputy as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of De­fense for coun­ter­ing weapons of mass de­struc­tion, said the Pentagon had also agreed with Rus­si­an of­fi­cials to un­der­take two pro­jects un­der the new agree­ment: The dis­man­tle­ment of cer­tain Rus­si­an stra­tegic sub­mar­ines, and the trans­port­a­tion of highly en­riched urani­um pre­vi­ously used as sub­mar­ine fuel “from a less se­cure to a much more se­cure loc­a­tion in Rus­sia.”

It was un­clear, however, wheth­er the two of­fi­cials were re­fer­ring to work that is already on­go­ing or to work that is planned to take place after the United States and Rus­sia hash out deals on how ex­actly to im­ple­ment last year’s new agree­ment.

The ac­cord was meant to re­place the now-ex­pired Co­oper­at­ive Threat Re­duc­tion um­brella agree­ment that had been in place between the two na­tions since the end of the Cold War. Last month, Har­ring­ton said the Ukraine crisis could fur­ther delay the rel­ev­ant ne­go­ti­ations.

In ad­di­tion, NNSA spokes­man Bill Gib­bons said in a state­ment last week that there is cur­rently an “on­go­ing in­tern­al re­view of Rus­si­an-re­lated activ­it­ies” across the board at his agency, in light of the Ukraine crisis.

Of­fi­cials at the nuc­le­ar agency did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment by press time.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials on Tues­day also sought to down­play the po­ten­tial for Rus­sia’s ac­tions in Ukraine to dis­suade oth­er coun­tries from giv­ing up — or not pur­su­ing in the first place — the pos­ses­sion of nuc­le­ar weapons. Shortly after the Cold War ended, Ukraine agreed to trans­fer its en­tire So­viet-era nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al to Mo­scow, in ex­change for a Rus­si­an, U.S. and U.K. pledge to re­spect its ter­rit­ori­al bound­ar­ies.

“I think the value of pur­su­ing a policy of non­pro­lif­er­a­tion and a re­jec­tion of nuc­le­ar weapons by coun­tries like Ukraine will con­tin­ue to be the best path for­ward for them,” Hers­man said. “It won’t really change their policy or ap­proach, des­pite some of these con­cerns from Rus­sia.”

Fisc­her was not con­vinced.

“I dis­agree with you,” the Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or said. “Ukraine was the third [ranked glob­al] power with re­gard to nuc­le­ar weapons. They signed an agree­ment with Rus­sia and the United States that I un­der­stand ba­sic­ally said, ‘Give up your [nuc­le­ar weapons] and we’ll take care of you forever.’ So is forever now 20 years? Is that the mark we’re go­ing to go by?”

In a re­lated mat­ter, Fisc­her did “com­mend the [En­ergy De­part­ment] for do­ing dif­fi­cult but ne­ces­sary pri­or­it­iz­a­tion in its [fisc­al 2015] budget” re­quest of its nuc­le­ar non­pro­lif­er­a­tion pro­grams. Un­der the pro­pos­al, “crit­ic­al work is sus­tained while less is asked of the Amer­ic­an tax­pay­er,” she said.

Hagan, however, said it was “not clear that the lower budget re­quest will fully sup­port the aims of [the Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit] and oth­er im­port­ant non­pro­lif­er­a­tion goals.”

She noted that, for fisc­al 2015, the De­fense and En­ergy de­part­ments pro­pose to spend “roughly $1.9 bil­lion for non­pro­lif­er­a­tion activ­it­ies to help stem the flow of weapons of mass de­struc­tion “¦ this is a 21 per­cent re­duc­tion from the $2.4 bil­lion ap­pro­pri­ated to both pro­grams” in fisc­al 2014, Hagan noted.

The com­mit­tee is ex­pec­ted to draft its ver­sion of the an­nu­al de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill, which au­thor­izes fund­ing levels, later this year.

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