Bryan Bender, who joined the Globe's Washington Bureau in 2001, covers the US military, global terrorism, the international arms trade, and government secrecy.
Accord worked to keep stockpiles secure
WASHINGTON — The private diplomatic meetings took place over two days in mid-December in a hotel overlooking Moscow’s Red Square.
But unlike in previous such gatherings, the sense of camaraderie, even brotherhood, was overshadowed by an uncomfortable chill, according to participants.
In the previously undisclosed discussions, the Russians informed the Americans that they were refusing any more US help protecting their largest stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium from being stolen or sold on the black market. The declaration effectively ended one of the most successful areas of cooperation between the former Cold War adversaries.
"I think it greatly increases the risk of catastrophic terrorism,” said Sam Nunn, the former Democratic senator from Georgia and an architect of the "cooperative threat reduction” programs of the 1990s.
Official word came in a terse, three-page agreement signed on Dec. 16. A copy was obtained by the Globe, and a description of the Moscow meeting was provided by three people who attended the session or were briefed on it. They declined to be identified for security reasons.
Russia’s change of heart was not unexpected.
The Globe reported in August that US officials were concerned about the future of the programs, because of increased diplomatic hostilities between the United States and Russia. The New York Times reported in November that it appeared likely many of the programs would end.
On hand for the Moscow meeting were nearly four dozen of the leading figures on both sides who have been working to safeguard the largest supplies of the world’s deadliest weapons, according to the three-page agreement.
The group included officials from the US Department of Energy, its nuclear weapons labs, the Pentagon, and the State Department, and a host of Russian officials in charge of everything from dismantling nuclear submarines to arms control.
Specialists said the final meeting was a dismaying development in a joint effort that the United States has invested some $2 billion in and had been a symbol of the thaw between East and West and of global efforts to prevent the spread of doomsday weapons. An additional $100 million had been budgeted for the effort this year and many of the programs were envisioned to continue at least through 2018.
Since the cooperative agreement began, US experts have helped destroy hundreds of weapons and nuclear-powered submarines, pay workers’ salaries, install security measures at myriad facilities containing weapons material across Russia and the former Soviet Union, and conduct training programs for their personnel.
Officials said estimates of how much bomb-grade material has either been destroyed or secured inside the former Soviet Union is classified but insist the stockpiles are enough to make many hundreds of atomic bombs.
The work has been driven by deep concern that large supplies of nuclear material could be stolen by terrorists seeking weapons of mass destruction or diverted by underpaid workers susceptible to bribes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision last year to invade the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and then back an armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine prompted a series of US and EU sanctions against Russia, which stirred fears that the era of nuclear cooperation was at risk.
Now security upgrades have been cancelled at some of Russia’s seven "closed nuclear cities,” which contain among the largest stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, according to the official "record of meeting” signed by the sides in December.
The Russians also told the Americans that joint security work at 18 civilian facilities housing weapons material would cease, effective Jan. 1. Another project at two facilities to convert highly enriched uranium into a less dangerous form also has been stopped.
Lack of US funding and expertise also jeopardizes planned construction of high-tech surveillance systems at 13 buildings that store nuclear material, as well as a project to deploy radiation detectors at Russian ports, airports, and border crossings to catch potential nuclear smugglers.