It remains to be seen if Moscow and Washington can work together to formulate concrete programs and initiatives for dealing with the risk of nuclear terrorism.

President Barack Obama at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, March 31, 2016. Photo: AP

The Russian decision to boycott this week’s Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. will probably not have much of an impact, negatively or positively, on the future of the nuclear nonproliferation architecture. After all, Russian experts continue to contribute helpful insights to nuclear security studies and dialogue.

Meanwhile, the Russian government has not tried to sabotage the summit by encouraging (or coercing) other governments to skip the session — as the Soviet government did in 1947, with the conference that launched the Marshall Plan.

Read Q&A with Russia’s Permanent Representative in Vienna: "Don't read too much into Russia's absence at Nuclear Security Summit"

Yet, the Russian absence has not made it noticeably easier to achieve better results at this meeting — unlike Moscow’s boycott of the UN Security Council in the summer of 1950, which allowed the United States and its allies to use the United Nations to support their military defense of South Korea from the Soviet-backed invasion.

The participating governments, while unsurprisingly expressing their opposition to nuclear terrorism, still struggle over how to apply that general imperative into concrete programs and projects that achieve sustained and measurable progress.

Hopefully, this is a good indication that, however bad the Moscow-Washington relationship, we are not in the early stages of a new Cold War. The Russian government, while reaffirming its opposition to nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation, has said that the summits are no longer necessary, that the previous summit hosts are arrogating for themselves key decisions and that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should take the lead in the nuclear security domain.

That said, the Russian government’s boycott, however justified in Moscow, in Washington looks like petulant retaliation against one of Obama’s favorite projects. As Russia boycotts EU food and other goods to punish Europeans for their Ukraine-related sanctions, so the Kremlin has seemingly tried to besmirch Obama’s nuclear security legacy, a genuine achievement even if it has not met all the goals the president set out in Prague in 2009.

Both Russian and U.S diplomats agree that the two governments continue to cooperate well on important nuclear nonproliferation and security matters. Obama has singled out Russia for praise in helping secure the Iran nuclear deal, while Russia has so far played a positive role in trying to manage the North Korean crisis, though Moscow has as little influence in Pyongyang as anyone else.

Furthermore, through the Russian Research Reactor Fuel Return program and other measures the two governments continue to fill their responsibilities for trying to take back the most dangerous nuclear material and technology they excessively doled out during the Cold War to genuine and hoped-for partners.

Given their leading roles in supplying nuclear materials and technologies to other countries, their large stocks of nuclear weapons, their large civilian and military nuclear complexes, and their expertise in many nuclear and terrorism-related areas, their nonproliferation cooperation is especially important for countering threats from terrorists and other non-state actors.

But now we face a major crossroads. Will Moscow try to work with Washington in generating a strong post-summit architecture that provides the needed authorities and capabilities to counter what remains perhaps the greatest immediate danger to international security, the threat of nuclear terrorism?

That some Russians are claiming that the United States is trying to exploit the threat of nuclear terrorism to prevent countries from developing peaceful nuclear power programs is a bad sign. It is true that the United States would like to prevent a world in which dozens of countries can manufacture their own enriched uranium, and for good reason given the increased risks of accidents and opportunities for misusing enrichment and reprocessing capabilities to make fissile material, the fuel that powers nuclear explosions.

But this effort has been proceeding along a separate track than the counter-nuclear terrorism campaign. After the George W. Bush administration proved unable to secure a consensus even among the limited number of countries that were exporting nuclear technologies that they would not provide sensitive technologies to new nuclear aspirants, the United States and other countries have been relying on diplomacy, market principles, and other voluntary measures to discourage their spread.

On the one hand, U.S. diplomats profiled the United Arab Emirates as a “model” new nuclear power player for its voluntary agreement not to make its own nuclear fuel. On the other hand, the United States (and Russia) have pushed to create an international nuclear fuel “bank,” which will begin operating next year in Kazakhstan, from which countries could voluntarily eschew the costs of building national nuclear fuel cycles and simply “borrow” the uranium reactor fuel from the bank and then return the plutonium-rich spent fuel for safe storage.

The main exceptions to this approach have been the sanctions and threats made against Iran and North Korea, where there was genuine fear that both regimes sought nuclear weapons to use against the United States or its allies.

Meanwhile, the nuclear security summits have focused exclusively on preventing non-state actors like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) from acquiring direct use fissile material and, less comprehensively, radiological sources like the cobalt-60, strontium-90 and caesium-137 found in hospitals and other civilian facilities, which can be used to make so-called “dirty bombs” in which terrorists combine radioactive material with a regular bomb and thereby contaminate large areas like the Kremlin or Wall Street.

As during past nuclear security summits, the attending governments will later today make legally nonbinding commitments to increase their nuclear materials security, to reduce their civilian use of fissile materials, to strengthen measures against nuclear and radiological smuggling, and to promote a nuclear security culture through training and sharing best practices. These commitments will again appear in unilateral national statements.

Also read: "Nonproliferation requires more cooperation between Russia, the West"

Furthermore, the Summit will issue nonbinding “Action Plans” for the nuclear security agendas of the United Nations, the IAEA, INTERPOL, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. Russia will, as allowed by the institutions’ mandates, be able to participate or block implementation of any of these plans.

It is simply untrue to describe the nuclear terrorism threat as a myth. Russians have already experienced nuclear terrorism first hand when, in November 1995, Chechen separatists placed a dynamite bomb combined with cesium-137 in Moscow’s Ismailovsky Park, though apparently as a warning rather than with plans for an actual detonation. 

Russia contributed to the early nuclear security summits and was offered, though declined, an opportunity to host the second summit in 2010. Russians still see the summits as helpful in countering nuclear terrorism. There are plans, if on hold since the Ukraine crisis began, to intensify Russia-U.S. threat reduction cooperation in other countries after that the original Nunn-Lugar program in Russia expired a few years ago.

But now the summits are over and unlikely to be resumed anytime soon. So Russia will need to work with the United States and other countries to build up one or more of these other institutions to lead the charge against nuclear terrorism.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

Dr. Weitz would like to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for supporting his non-proliferation research.