How to Batten Down Putin's Nuclear Loose Cannon

Vladimir Putin watches the launch of a missile during naval exercises in Russia's Arctic North onboard the nuclear missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky (Peter the Great) on August 17, 2005. Robert Litwak and Matthew Rojansky write that under circumstances where practically every Western leader has expressed condemnation of Russia’s behavior and of Vladimir Putin personally, Russia’s fear of a Western regime change strategy directed against his rule is, in effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy. ITAR-TASS/reuters

Citing "the hostile actions of the U.S. against Russia," President Vladimir Putin recently suspended a landmark agreement of the early post-Cold War era to dispose of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium, enough for 17,000 weapons.

It continues the downward trajectory that began in 2012 with Russia's decision to terminate the bilateral Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which worked for over two decades to prevent a post-Soviet "loose nuke" falling into the hands of a terrorist group.

The collapse of U.S.-Russia cooperation raises other questions, like whether the financially strapped Kremlin will continue to fund security upgrades at Russian nuclear sites.

This is no outdated Cold War era concern—in 2016 the Nuclear Threat Initiative's authoritative "Security Index" ranked Russia as having the worst "risk environment" among countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials.

Russia is far from indifferent to the risks of a terror group getting hold of sufficient fissionable material to construct a rudimentary nuclear device or a dirty bomb. After all, Russia has suffered terror attacks with overall civilian casualties comparable to those from the 9/11 attacks, the Boston Marathon bombing, or the San Bernardino attack.

The problem is that Russia perceives an even greater threat to its national security and vital geopolitical interests from the United States.

That threat perception begins with the Ukraine crisis. To most U.S. government officials, the problem in Ukraine is that Russia has stolen territory from a neighbor by force, and is continuing to foment an armed secessionist movement that destabilizes the country and inhibits its people's legitimate desire for domestic reform and Western integration.

Moreover, Russia's actions undermine the basic principles of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity that have been the basis of relative peace and stability in Europe since the middle of the last century. Thus, Washington has led an international effort to impose costs for Russia's bad behavior, including sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

Russia sees the conflict over Ukraine quite differently. To Moscow, Washington's support for Ukraine is not about Ukraine's development, but rather about expansion of a U.S. political, economic and military sphere of influence into territory that Russia views as part of its own strategic "buffer space."

The Kremlin also fears that successful democratic reform and Western integration for Ukraine could sow the seeds of revolution within Russia itself. Under circumstances where practically every Western leader has expressed condemnation of Russia's behavior and of Vladimir Putin personally, Russia's fear of a Western regime change strategy directed against his rule is, in effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Russian leadership therefore sees itself engaged in a struggle not to manage global threats in partnership with the United States and other Western powers, but to resist a U.S.-led campaign of attrition designed to weaken and remove it from power.

In this context, joint efforts to combat proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials that should advance the interests of both sides appear to be at best a distraction, and at worst a Trojan horse for insidious U.S. aims.

It should be no surprise that Russia is uninterested in cooperation, advice or even financial assistance from Washington on nuclear security and disarmament at a time when U.S. sanctions have cost the Russian economy billions, and when, in Russia's view, U.S. missile defense and conventional forces deployed in Eastern Europe threaten to degrade Russia's strategic deterrent.

This zero-sum perspective has not precluded discrete cooperation when it serves Russian interests. Russia did not withdraw support for the U.S.-led negotiations to limit Iran's nuclear program in retaliation for the West's imposition of sanctions on Russia after its annexation of Crimea.

Most likely, this reflected Russia's pragmatic interest in preventing the emergence of another nuclear-weapons state on its periphery.

Russia's backing of the Iran nuclear deal, and its cooperation on removing the Assad regime's chemical weapons from Syria, have set positive precedents. They suggest that Russia might still be open to revived multilateral nuclear diplomacy on North Korea, which is on the verge of a strategic breakout.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which Russia broadly supports, could be well positioned as a facilitator—for example, sharing best practices on nuclear security with other countries and repatriating U.S. and Russian-origin highly enriched uranium from foreign nuclear programs.

The United States could further promote revived nuclear security cooperation by broadening the agenda to include nuclear energy, offering an incentive for engagement to Rosatom, the state corporation that oversees Russia's nuclear complex.

But the hard reality is that Moscow has linked nuclear security to the broader U.S.-Russian relationship. Rather than fight this linkage, the next U.S. administration should consider initiating a security dialogue with Russia that includes nuclear non-proliferation cooperation, but also addresses related concerns, from nuclear force modernization to the implications of increasingly capable ballistic missile defenses, conventional forces and even space and cyber capabilities.

At minimum, as Americans are unnerved by Russian nuclear saber rattling and Russians fear a U.S.-backed regime change strategy, such a dialogue could reduce the risks of misperception and unintended escalation.

Robert Litwak is the vice president of the Wilson Center. Matthew Rojansky is director of the Kennan Institute.

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