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The Gradual Decay of Post-Cold War Arms Control

On October 3, the Kremlin made public an official decree from Russian President Vladimir Putin announcing the suspension of Russia’s participation in the bilateral Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA) it had signed with the United States in 2000. The death of the PMDA, a relatively little-known but nonetheless important part of the post-Cold War arms control architecture, came the same day the United States announced it was pulling out of the ceasefire negotiations with Russia in Syria, where Moscow and Washington support different sides in the nearly six-year civil war.

As if to emphasize this, Putin’s decree cited a “radically changed environment” in relations between Washington and Moscow as the reason for the Russian pullout. It stated that “the threat to strategic stability posed by the hostile actions of the U.S. against Russia, and the inability of the U.S. to deliver on the obligation to dispose of excessive weapons plutonium under international treaties” were the reasons for the Russian pullout.

Beyond the Middle East, the United States and Russia remain at odds over Ukraine, while tensions have risen lately over Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election.

So just what is the PMDA, and why does it matter? Signed in 2000, the PMDA required the United States and Russia to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium (it was updated in 2010 to be more compatible with Russia’s 2006 nuclear energy strategy), and contained a raft of monitoring and inspection provisions designed to ensure the process’ transparency and irreversibility. The disposed plutonium was to be irradiated as mixed oxide (MOX) fuel in each country’s respective nuclear reactors, beginning in 2018.

The deal came with mechanisms designed to enhance cooperation; Washington agreed in the amended PMDA to build three technical buildings at the Savannah River Site to facilitate faster and easier disposal of the plutonium, as well as to provide as much as $400 million to Moscow for its half of the program. The planned upgrades to the Savannah River facility, however, have run into financial roadblocks, leading Washington to float the idea of transferring the plutonium to a waste area in Maryland which Moscow seized upon as a violation of the agreement’s spirit and intent.

Obama meeting with Putin at the beginning of his presidency. (Pete Souza)
Obama meeting with Putin at the beginning of his presidency. (Pete Souza)

The disposed plutonium, enough between both countries to produce roughly 17,000 nuclear weapons, was slated for conversion into fuel for civil reactors to generate electricity. Russia has stated its plutonium previously scheduled for destruction will be put into long-term storage and will not be used to produce weapons. Notably, and a little sadly now, the agreement also included a provision for future cooperation like transparency standards established in the PMDA which would serve as a template for future reduction pacts.

On its surface, Russia’s withdrawal from the PMDA is but the latest escalatory tit-for-tat in its wider competition with the West. It certainly is that, but it also represents something more; the move is another example of the sad and gradual decay undermining the arms control foundations established in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse to ensure a peaceful framework for arms control with the new Russia.

This arms control regime has for decades been organized around three core agreements that set new standards for declaration, inspection and verification: the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, updated in 2009 with New START, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe; a number of bilateral and multilateral cooperation-based pacts like the PMDB and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Nuclear Fuel Bank in Kazakhstan have for years reinforced this foundation.

Since invading Ukraine two years ago, Russia has routinely touted its offensive nuclear capability and outlined plans to move nuclear-capable missiles to its enclave at Kaliningrad, the heavily fortified wedge of strategic territory between Poland and Lithuania, and threatened repeatedly to do the same in Crimea, all in the midst of a major, long-overdue modernization drive of its conventional and strategic weaponry.

Beyond this, the Kremlin has threatened to withdraw from New START, endangered the integrity of the INF Treaty through several apparent violations and threats to withdraw, and terminated Russian participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe last year (though observation of the treaty had ceased years before). Russia’s abrogation of the PMDA is a regrettable step back from the ideals of non-proliferation, but it should not have been unexpected. Russia, for its part, regularly accuses the United States of harming this architecture as well and has for years cited America’s 2002 withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty as a seminally destabilizing moment in relations between the two.

Simply put, the current Russian leadership sees value in using nuclear weapons as a tool to advance other geopolitical interests in its dealings with Washington. By contrast, the United States regularly emphasizes its view that nuclear arms control and non-proliferation are subjects of such transcendent importance that agreements pertaining to them should be above the tensions and competitions of state interaction, regardless of how relations deteriorate.

To some, the unceremonious end to an obscure nuclear pact that most Americans and Russians probably couldn’t name won’t seem like that big of a deal. It is. Admirable goals of reducing plutonium stocks and the potential for non-state actors like terrorist groups to acquire a nuclear weapon aside, pacts like the PMDA provide cooperative mechanisms in sensitive areas where cooperation is vital. They highlight an area of common interest that the United States and Russia are uniquely placed to act on, as well as the importance of keeping nuclear-issues conflict free. More than that, when implemented and observed, they serve as proud testaments to the worth and importance of international law.

While Russia has been quick to state, through state-sponsored propaganda organs like Sputnik News, that effectively dissolving the PMDA is not being done to seek further confrontation with America and its allies, the body of Russian behavior in and out of the nuclear sphere strongly suggests otherwise. Russia’s withdrawal from this treaty highlights once more the sad decay of the post-Cold War arms control architecture that has done so much, for so long, to keep the horrific potential of nuclear war in the past where it belongs.