Last week’s Nuclear Security Summit was supposed to bring the world community up to date on progress in preventing nuclear terrorism. And there has been progress, particularly in China’s response to new threats from North Korea. But the summit also drew attention to a potentially serious loss of ground in securing dangerous nuclear materials elsewhere, including Russia.
President Barack Obama, who hopes to count nuclear nonproliferation progress as a legacy of his administration, was able to hail China’s cooperation in addressing the North Korean nuclear program. As President Xi Jinping of China stood beside him the president declared that both nations are “committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and full implementation of U.N. sanctions.”
This marks an apparent and very welcome change by China away from its previous tolerance of North Korean nuclear and missile developments.
The summit in Washington was attended by the prime ministers of Britain, Canada, India, Italy, the Netherlands and Japan, and the presidents of Argentina, China, France, Kazakhstan, Mexico and South Korea.
But the absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin points to a serious problem that might only get worse in coming years.
As President Putin’s decision to boycott the nuclear summit showed, there is no longer U.S.-Russian cooperation in securing vast amounts of nuclear materials still lightly guarded in Russia. That is partly because relations between the Obama administration and Mr. Putin’s government chilled in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Now Moscow has developed its own ideas about how to manage global nuclear security and boycotts U.S.-led efforts.
If Russian nuclear materials were secure and internationally accountable this would merely be another diplomatic snit.
But they are not.
Last year The Associated Press documented four failed attempts to smuggle Russian nuclear material through Moldova between 2010 and 2015, including an effort last year by Russian criminals who “offered a huge cache of deadly cesium — enough to contaminate several city blocks — and specifically sought a buyer from the Islamic State group.”
Several Russian custodians of nuclear materials have been arrested for corruption, suggesting that there is good reason to be concerned about leakage from Russian stocks. Also, according to one report, about 5,000 to 7,000 Russian Muslims have joined the Islamic State, creating the potential for a smuggling network.
In short, U.S.-Russian cooperation on nuclear security should remain a top American priority. So, for that matter, should Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In remarks at the opening of the nuclear summit last week President Obama repeated a warning he first delivered in 2009, saying that the threat of nuclear terrorism remains large and that if al-Qaida or Islamic State were to obtain nuclear materials they would “certainly” use them to “kill as many innocent people as possible.”
“It would change our world,” he concluded.
True enough. That alone should make re-establishing Russian-U.S. nuclear cooperation a top priority.