Russia’s Gamble With Nuclear Security

Report: Written by Mauro Orrù.

In his latest showcase of political grandeur, Vladimir Putin demonstrated this week that nuclear security is a bargaining chip for the freshly elected Duma.

Willing to shelf decades of progress on nuclear disarmament, co-operation and research with the US, the Russian President signed a decree on Monday to suspend the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA) between the Kremlin and the White House, blaming “the threat to strategic stability posed by America’s hostile actions.”

In what appears to be a reference to the recent divergences over the collapsed ceasefire in Syria – namely Washington’s killing of Syrian government soldiers mistaken for IS fighters near Deir Ezzor airport and Moscow’s probable bombing of a UN aid convoy in Aleppo – Putin’s quest for power in the international arena is relentless.

In a patriotic address to the Duma on Wednesday, the Russian President said that “every nation and every country has the right to be powerful. Our power is in ourselves, our nation, our people, our traditions, our culture and our economy.”

Ilya Bykov, Professor of Political Sciences at Saint Petersburg State University, told The Conflict Comment that strengthening his authority in domestic policy and pursuing a role of power in foreign policy are indisputable priorities for Putin.

“The suspension of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement with the US is a confirmation of a strategic path to confrontation,” he said.

The deal – engineered in 2000 by Bill Clinton and Putin himself during his first term as President – came into force in 2010 after Russia’s Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered their signatures.

The two superpowers agreed that the disposal of their respective 34 tonnes of plutonium would begin by 2018. However, exorbitant costs halted the construction of facilities at the South Carolina’s Savannah River Site, where the Obama administration was to convert its plutonium into nuclear fuel. Environmental concerns raised by the state’s governor, Nikki Haley, in the form of a lawsuit earlier this year, also pushed the US Department of Energy to store the plutonium at The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

For Putin, the move served as a pretext to suspend the PMDA through a decree, citing that “US plans to dispose of plutonium by burial, and not by irradiation, as established by the named Protocol” do not honour the agreement, adding that “Russian specialists objected to this approach as it does not guarantee the irreversibility of the materiel.”

The decree – which reads more like a wish list – calls on the US to fulfil five conditions to reinstate the PMDA: the reduction of US troops in NATO member states near the Russian border; the abrogation of the Magnitsky Act, passed in 2012 to prevent at least 18 Russian officials involved in a tax fraud investigation from entering the US and accessing its banking system; the end of all sanctions, including those imposed for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014; compensation for financial damages wrecked by sanctions; and a clear plan from the US to irreversibly dispose of plutonium in respect of the PMDA.

Alex Nice, Russia expert at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told The Conflict Comment: “The fact that the Russian leadership has made reinstatement of the PMDA conditional on a range of issues that have nothing to do with nuclear security appears to be a signal to the US that it cannot ignore Russia and that it should not abandon dialogue on Syria and other issues.”

The Russian President has a flair for stirring up surprise and annoyance in the western establishment. Displays of unpredictability, namely the withdrawal of troops from Syria this March, are what many analysts consider the indisputable mark of a skilled tactician.

“The nature of political decision-making in Russia indicates the possibility of adopting the most unexpected tactical moves in the shortest time frame,” added Mr Bykov.

On Wednesday the Kremlin issued a written notification, bearing the signature of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, to suspend a 2013 agreement on nuclear and energy-related scientific research between the US Department of Energy and Russia’s State Corporation for Atomic Energy Rosatom.

Russia’s blow to nuclear security, the second in one week, suggests that the Kremlin has a sprinkle of hope the US could grant its wish list of demands. But as far-fetched as that fantasy may be, it signifies that Putin is serious about asserting Russia in the world stage. The West would do well not to take him lightheartedly.

Indeed, the Russian Ministry of Finance released an amendment on Monday, outlining changes to the state budget, including the allocation of an extra $10bn to defence. Moreover, on Friday, Deputy Defence Minister, Nikolai Pankov, hinted at plans to restore operations at Cuba’s Lourdes signals intelligence base and Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay naval base which mostly ceased in 2002.

US and EU authorities should “pay the utmost attention to Russia’s behaviour in the international arena,” says Mr Bykov, stressing that “Russia relies on a considerably large arsenal of resources in foreign policy: from military power to significant influence in the Middle East.”

In light of this week’s turbulent developments, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, justified the Kremlin’s stance on Russian state TV’s First Channel today: “We have seen a fundamental change in circumstances when it comes to the aggressive Russophobia that lies at the heart of US policy. It’s not just rhetorical Russophobia but aggressive steps that hurt our national interests and threaten our security.”

Political and economic pressure is mounting: at home, Putin’s United Party secured 343 out of 450 seats in the September 18 legislative elections but a turnout of 47.8 per cent is a sign that malcontent is on the rise. Abroad, the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team presented “irrefutable evidence” that Russia provided separatists in eastern Ukraine with the BUK 9M38 missile that brought down flight MH17.

However, exploiting nuclear security to compromise on his own miscalculations while pretending diplomatic superiority to dictate conditions is untenable. Mr Nice defines the suspension of the PMDA as “troubling, because once again we see that Russia’s response to disagreement and conflict with the US is to raise the stakes and in this case it is implying that it is willing, if necessary, to end co-operation on nuclear proliferation and security.” It is imperative that the West takes a firm stance.