Little noticed amid the U.S.-Russian disagreement over Syria’s civil war, Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin reached a last-minute agreement Monday that may prove more vital to long-term global security.
They salvaged the historic Nunn-Lugar threat reduction program that has been keeping us safe by keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of would-be terrorists.
For months, a proud and resolute Putin had seemed willing to let the program expire this month. Indeed, it was Obama who announced the agreement in their joint news briefing. Putin, who spoke first, didn’t mention it.
The two leaders met for two hours in Northern Ireland at the annual summit of the Group of 8 industrialized nations.
At issue: the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, more widely known by the names of the two former U.S. senators — Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind. — who sponsored it two decades ago. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Nunn and Lugar concluded its weapons of mass destruction were poorly secured and vulnerable to theft. The Nunn-Lugar program has funded the safeguarding and often the dismantling and destroying of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons around the world. Eventually, Nunn and Lugar worked to extend the program’s reach to other nations.
So far, for about $500 million a year, Nunn-Lugar has: deactivated more than 7,600 nuclear warheads; destroyed 902 intercontinental ballistic missiles; destroyed 33 submarines capable of launching missiles; removed nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus; and destroyed 2,900 metric tons of Russian and Albanian chemical weapons agents.
But last autumn, Putin began an aggressive effort to show the world Russia no longer needed or wanted to receive international aid. He expelled workers for the U.S. Agency for International Development, UNICEF and various nongovernmental organizations. Russia then announced it would not extend the Nunn-Lugar program. Russia said it wanted to secure its weapons arsenals, but didn’t need foreign aid to do it. Also, Russia was concerned about sharing nuclear security information. Putin said any future cooperative program would require a new, unspecified framework.
Yet U.S. sources said that inside the Russian government, key atomic energy officials had strongly urged a continuation of the Nunn-Lugar effort.
On Monday, Putin sat silently, staring straight ahead as Obama announced, “We’ll be signing here the continuation of the cooperation that was first established through the Nunn-Lugar program to counter potential threats of proliferation and to enhance nuclear security.”
Obama chose his words carefully, because the program that is being extended with Russia will not have a number of the provisions of the original Nunn-Lugar program. Chemical and biological weapons will no longer be in the program, officials said, and the extensive defense cooperation will be vastly reduced.
Still, Nunn told me he was pleased by the extension — which he looks at as a new starting point. “Overall, I’m very positive on it,” Nunn said. “But this has to be built on.” Nunn said a number of influential Russians remain concerned about the need to safeguard chemical and biological weapons. He added that cybersecurity safeguards need to be included in the new framework.
Meanwhile, Nunn has been looking at a new generation of questions that go far beyond just an extension of his Nunn-Lugar safeguards and the comparatively minor squabbles that occupied Obama and Putin Monday. For the past two years, Nunn has worked with former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and more than two dozen military, security and political experts from the United States, Russia and Europe on a report titled “Building Mutual Security in the Euro-Atlantic Region.”
The report cuts through the usual geopolitical blather and warns:
“The blunt truth is that security policies in the Euro-Atlantic region remain largely on Cold War autopilot: large strategic nuclear forces are ready to be launched in minutes; thousands of tactical nuclear weapons remain in Europe; a decades-old missile defense debate remains stuck in neutral; and new security challenges associated with prompt-strike forces, cybersecurity, and space remain contentious and inadequately addressed. This legacy contributes to tensions and mistrust across the Euro-Atlantic region and needlessly drives up the risks and costs of national defense at a time of unprecedented austerity and tight national budgets.”
That alone should convince our leaders to focus on the tomorrow they are creating today by their every action — and mainly, inaction.