Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Toward an Intelligence-based Nuclear Cooperation Regime

Toward an Intelligence-based Nuclear Cooperation Regime

At their recent Moscow summit, Presidents Obama and Medvedev articulated a common concern over what Medvedev called “negative trends in the world” resulting from the emergence of aspiring nuclear players in the Middle East and elsewhere. But other than Obama’s expressed goal of locking down all “vulnerable” nuclear materials on an accelerated timetable, there was little suggestion of a proactive common strategy to stem the global proliferation dynamic.[1] Developing such a strategy is an urgent nonproliferation priority and should be placed high on the agenda of a nuclear security summit meeting that the sides have scheduled for March 2010.

Russian-American collaboration against the spread of nuclear weapons needs to extend beyond conventional threat reduction programs underway in Russia and elsewhere for the past 15 years, to include the difficult and relatively uncharted area of sharing proliferation-relevant information, some of which may be sensitive. Our intelligence services, which now devote vast resources to spying on each other, could join forces by sharing information on states and terrorist groups intent on developing nuclear weapons, including their clandestine procurement attempts. This process could include sharing and comparing open-source information, information on the probable source of nuclear materials seized in transit, or clandestinely acquired information on groups and individuals involved in nuclear trafficking. While agreements exist committing the countries to exchange information on these matters, actual sharing remains woefully inadequate, both bilaterally and with international organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).[2]

Intelligence cooperation is vitally important, because the current nonproliferation regime is essentially reactive and containment-oriented. It is not well equipped to deal with the smuggling activities and nuclear procurement conspiracies of nation-states and terrorists. The nonproliferation treaty (NPT) and associated conventions and agreements obligate states in various ways. but of course do not bind sub-state actors or non-state entities: Besides, signatory states have been known to cheat, either maintaining covert weapons programs or helping those who do. Also, the ability of states to keep their nuclear houses in order has proved problematic in the past, especially in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse.

On a practical level, cooperative U.S.-Russian security measures such as material protection, control, and accounting (MPC&A) upgrades for direct-use materials and radiation monitors at border crossings offer limited protection against a range of unconventional proliferation threats: for example, collaborative thefts by well-placed insiders able to turn off alarms and defeat electronic surveillance systems; exports of highly enriched uranium and plutonium concealed in legal radioactive cargo; a decision by a senior state official to provide strategic nuclear wares to a an unauthorized end user (as Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan did with centrifuge enrichment technology for many years); and smuggling strategies that probe the sensitivity of radiation sensors with decoys or opt to circumvent official customs posts altogether.

Also, the modern safeguards technology the U.S. introduced in newly-independent states after the USSR’s demise were not yet widely deployed in the early-mid 1990s. This was a time of extreme malaise and prime proliferation risk in Russia’s nuclear complex, reflected in hundreds of thefts of nuclear and radiological materials. In fact, only last year was the gargantuan task of securing Russia’s vast stocks of fissile materials and warheads mostly completed. One wonders how much weapons-usable material has been stolen, secreted, or pushed onto the black market since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Similar concerns relate to the fate of the 21,000-plus tactical nuclear weapons deployed to the territory of the USSR just prior to its collapse. There have been persistent, if unconfirmed, reports in the Russian and international media that some Soviet-era tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) are held outside Russia or have simply disappeared. Russia and the international community need to address these troubling questions more forthrightly than they have in the past and collaborate in finding answers.

An immediate priority for the U.S. and Russia, along with other concerned countries, should be to detect and, where possible, disrupt smuggling chains for “loose” nuclear-related goods—that is to tamp down the shadowy networks that connect the sellers and ultimate end-users of these dangerous items. Not enough is known about such activities—how they are organized and financed; what front companies, criminal groups and other intermediaries are used; who the inside collaborators are; etc. Countries could jointly organize underground sting operations to flesh out buyer and end-user networks and possibly to recover nuclear material that has been removed from government inventories but has not yet fallen into the hands of our adversaries. Techniques such as offers of amnesty or even rewards for information on stolen caches also could be employed. Of course, it is inconceivable that a comprehensive interdiction and damage control strategy could be implemented successfully without cooperation of the security services, particularly those of the United States and Russia.[3]

Finally, cooperative intelligence strategies could help clarify the link between clandestine nuclear transfers and the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities. In cases where a consequential leakage has occurred, information sharing can identify the origin of the theft, where the material is headed, and who the likely customers are. In the most serious cases, such as the transfer of a nuclear weapon or sufficient material to make one, intelligence could help guide joint operations against suspected recipients, which might range from diplomatic pressures to emergency response exercises to actually disabling an adversary’s nuclear arsenal.[4]

Building an intelligence partnership with Russia will be no easy task. Russia and the United States have distinct, if overlapping, strategic interests as well as somewhat different assessments of the proliferation threat, particularly where Iran is concerned, so maintaining and expanding a unilateral U.S. collection capability is of central importance. Also, on the sensitive issue of nuclear leakage, Russia has in the past been reluctant to come forward with information on smuggling incidents, either out of embarrassment or out of fear of retaliation from the West. Surely some formula should be found to indemnify Russia, or any other country, against the possibility of nuclear security lapses such as those that may have occurred during the Yeltsin administration or in the chaos surrounding the break-up of the Soviet Union.

In any event, overcoming such obstacles is essential for Russia and the United States to prepare successfully for a post-proliferation world, maintaining vigilance against shadowy threats that may be waiting to strike in a time and place that we least expect.



  1. [^] White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Press Conference by President Obama and President Medvedev of Russia. The Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, July 6, 2009, pp. 2, 4.

  2. [^] Cristina Hansell, “Nuclear Terrorism Threats and Responses,” in National Academy of Sciences and Russian Academy of Sciences, Future of the Nuclear Security Environment in 2015, Washington D.C. National Academy of Sciences, 2009, p. 157.

  3. [^] The idea of an intelligence-based nuclear security policy is not entirely new. For example, Graham Allison more than 10 years ago recommended that the U.S., Russia, and other leading industrial powers set up a “Nuclear Interpol” to track and disrupt illicit nuclear activities. Yet the concept has carried relatively little weight in a nonproliferation approach that has overwhelmingly stressed building technological “lines of defense” against nuclear theft and smuggling. See Graham Allison, et al., eds., Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy: Containing the Threat of Loose Russian Nuclear Weapons and Fissile Materials, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1996, p. 175.

  4. [^] On weapons, such cooperation would benefit from a comparative baseline inventory checking Russia’s current stockpiles of different TNW categories against what the former Union Republics held on the eve of the Soviet demise Whether Russia would agree to such an exercise or to share the results with the West is problematic at this point.