Even during the low point of the Ukraine crisis, Russia and the U.S. honored their commitments to nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation. But now Russia has shown that it is willing to scrap an important nuclear deal.

Some experts believe that Russia's decision to withdraw from the plutonium deal was likely done to preempt the U.S. government’s decision to suspend cooperation with Moscow on Syria. Photo: AP

On Oct. 3 Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to suspend the implementation of the Plutonium Disposition and Management Agreement (PDMA) between Russia and the U.S. citing unfriendly actions by the United States and conditioning the program on a whole list of Russian grievances regarding U.S. policies outside of the nuclear field. This was a dramatic step marking a new low in Russia-U.S. relations. According to experts, this decision will have far-reaching consequences if the trend to dismantle the system of bilateral treaties in the security field persists.

Under the 2000 agreement (later modified in 2010), the parties committed to dispose each of at least 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium and convert it into so-called mox fuel for fast breed reactors. The implementation of the agreement has run into trouble on the U.S. side of the deal, when Washington decided to pursue another method of disposing of the surplus plutonium than the one prescribed in the treaty.

Yet the language that Putin chose to describe the Russian demarche came as a surprise to the expert community and was taken in the context of escalating tension between Moscow and Washington over Syria. Putin’s decree, which sets a clearly unrealistic set of demands such as lifting the economic sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine conflict, compensating the losses caused by Russia’s counter-sanctions, repealing the Magnitsky Act and reverting the NATO deployment in the Baltics, was published just hours before Washington declared that it had stopped cooperation with Russia on Syria.

Some observers pointed out that, although a negative decision on the actual program could have been forthcoming anyway, for the first time in recent history the decision was made to dissolve the perceived boundary between the “nuclear” and “conventional” compartments in Russia-U.S. relations. This compartmentalization of issues was seen as a guarantor of strategic stability despite the tensions between Moscow and Washington that have increased since 2014 as a result of the Ukraine crisis.

“This decision has debunked the myth that the nuclear field, disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation are a separate sacred track in Russia-U.S. relations that exists separately from what is happening on other tracks. It was like this in Soviet-U.S. relations, then in Russia-U.S. relations. Now this boundary has been wiped away,” said Andrei Baklitsky, director of the Russia and Nuclear Nonproliferation Program at PIR Center in Moscow. He stressed, however, that the least important agreement was chosen to make that point. It was not the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty or the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction) treaty – scrapping them would have meant a serious new arms race.

“This plutonium is excessive, no one is going to make anything out of it. It is quite possible that Russia will be gradually utilizing it by making mox fuel. There will be no direct terrible consequences,” Baklitsky said. “But it means that Russia is no longer ready to abide by the arms control agreements because they are somehow sacred. We can no longer take for granted that the INF treaty will keep functioning and everybody will be looking for a mutually satisfactory solution – maybe it will in fact cease to exist one day. It makes everybody in the arms control community feel more nervous,” he added.

As Baklitsky notes, it is important to keep an eye on the bigger picture: “But it is also a signal to the rest of the world, which is following Russia-U.S. relations in the nuclear field. There are very few Russia-U.S. treaties left, so, cutting yet another tie in this field means that even less is left in common between the two countries.”

Petr Topychkanov, associate in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program, also thinks the reasons cited as those standing behind Putin’s decision can negatively affect the process of arms control, because Moscow’s decision may be interpreted in Washington and other Western capitals as a desire to introduce the nuclear factor into the political confrontation between Russia and the West. “Such precedents are increasing the mistrust between the sides and complicate further negotiations on the future steps of nuclear reductions,” he said.

Richard Weitz, director and senior fellow at the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute in Washington agrees. “The immediate consequences will be minimal since the Russian Federation will probably continue to eliminate unneeded military plutonium or transform it into civilian nuclear fuel. The President’s decree affirmed that Russia would not use the plutonium to make nuclear weapons. The main practical consequence could be reduced IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] supervision of the process,” he told Russia Direct.

Over the longer term, however, the consequences could be grave. “The long-term consequences could be severe if Russia will apply the conditions that the government laid down before the Duma for resuming the agreement to other arms control issues; they would be hard to meet,” Weitz notes.

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Unlike her colleagues, Laura Rockwood, director of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nuclear Non-Proliferation (VCDNP), doesn’t think that Putin’s move breaks any new ground by blurring the line between the “nuclear” and “conventional” tracks of Russia-U.S. relations. “I am not sure about that, “ she said, answering a question on whether the important boundary has been destroyed. “But it does bode ill for any immediate joint efforts by Russia and the United States to engage in the discussions on further arms control initiatives,” she said.

According to Rockwood, the suspension itself was not as surprising as the tone of the decree that was issued by President Putin. ”It is clearly not the language that would normally be used in diplomatic discourse if it were simply a difference of opinion, of interpretation of the agreement. The language is somewhat shrill and the tone is surprising and worrying,” she said.

President Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov warned on Oct. 4 against making any far-reaching interpretations of Putin’s decision. “We are talking about stating what is considered an unfriendly action by the United States regarding Russia… In order to explain these reasons, the paragraphs of the federal bill were used,” Peskov said.

One immediate consequence will be an increased pressure on the part of non-nuclear weapons states on both Russia and other nuclear weapon powers to engage in disarmament - the reasons that had stood behind the development of the PDMA.

“Clearly one of the things that are motivating the non-nuclear-weapons states is a frustration with a lack of movement on the part of the nuclear-weapons states to take further disarmament efforts,” Rockwood said.

Baklitsky pointed to the NPT review conference scheduled to take place next spring in Vienna. “The refusal of two nuclear weapons states to implement this treaty is bound to cause a negative reaction from the countries that insist on nuclear disarmament,” he said.

The decision has generated a wave of interpretations from political experts both in Russia and outside the country, including suggestions that it was meant to affect the presidential election in the United States. Arms control experts, however, were reluctant to speculate on political issues.

“It is addressed to the Obama Administration. But it may contain some signal for the U.S. electoral campaign. Yet it is hard for me to evaluate whom it will help – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton,” Baklitsky said. In his opinion, it could be a way of shaming Obama’s proclaimed efforts to further nuclear disarmament and demonstrating that these efforts actually led to a rollback rather than any breakthroughs.

“Maybe there is a perception that these issues are more important for the Americans than for the Russians and that such a move can be painful for them. But, in fact, it would be good for both parties to get rid of this plutonium because neither side needs it for anything,” Baklitsky said.

Weitz stressed that there was no reason related to nuclear disarmament why the Russian government had to suspend implementation of the agreement on that particular day. “It was likely done to preempt the U.S. government’s decision, which came a few hours later, to suspend efforts to negotiate with Moscow an agreement on military cooperation in Syria,” he said.