Warnings from Moscow that cooperation on nuclear arms control could be reduced in the future could at some point lead to results that both Russia and the United States would prefer to avoid.

President Barack Obama speaks during aе the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, Netherlands, on March 25, 2014. Photo: AP

In response to continued U.S. pressure and sanctions, as well as Russia’s deepening economic challenges, Russian government officials have been making various statements threatening to curtail cooperation with Washington on Iran, North Korea, and nuclear arms control. Making these threats does remind Western policy makers that they should not take Moscow’s collaboration for granted, but actually carrying them out would be self-defeating, hurting Russian as well as global interests. Given the historically preeminent Russian and U.S. roles regarding the issues of nuclear proliferation and disarmament, their continued collaboration is critical for making progress in these domains.

Last year, both governments managed to keep their proliferation cooperation separated from the broader downturn in relations. The Ukraine conflict did not overly harm the March 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, which saw further progress in building defenses against nuclear terrorism. The two governments firmly demanded that the Syrian government eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal.

Russian and U.S. diplomats continued to partner effectively in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, while Moscow stood firmly with Washington in continuing to demand that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons program.

The two governments even conducted several joint nonproliferation projects in Kazakhstan, Poland, and other locations where dangerous nuclear materials had to be moved to more secure locations. These nuclear “take-back” projects built on a long legacy of productive Russian-U.S. cooperation in making fissile materials, such as highly enriched uranium, more secure.

Russians have been the beneficiaries as much as anyone else from the success of these projects. For example, Russia-U.S. collaboration helped remove the last large stockpiles of fissile material from Ukraine in 2012, thereby depriving that country of an easy near-term option for developing nuclear weapons, which could have precipitated a preemptive Russian invasion of that country or made the prospects of an escalation of the Ukrainian conflict much more worrisome. Although Russians may not welcome Western efforts to strengthen Ukraine’s conventional capabilities, such steps are far less dangerous for everyone than encouraging Ukraine to pursue nuclear weapons.

Upending U.S.-Russia nuclear collaboration

Toward the end of last year, however, the Russian government indicated that it would not attend the Nuclear Security Summit scheduled to occur next year in Chicago. This announcement, foreshadowed by the Kremlin’s decision in 2013 not to renew the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, was justified by Russia as due to the limited value of further summits as well as concerns that the United States and other countries were using the process to dominate decision-making on an issue - nuclear materials security - where Russia rightly demands a major decision-making role. One suspects then, that an effort to retaliate against a major Barack Obama administration priority also motivated the Kremlin’s decision.

In any case, Russia has now regrettably ceased participating in any future activities related to the summit process. Even before the boycott decision, the Ukraine conflict had upended plans to extend Russian-U.S. threat reduction activities to other areas despite the expiration of the original Nunn-Lugar program. The U.S. Congress, while legitimately concerned about not indirectly funding Russian military activities or providing money without adequate congressional oversight, has compounded the damage by cutting support for nuclear security projects in Russia.

Whatever its reasons, the effect of the Russian decision to abandon the summit process will be to make it more difficult to create a strong follow-on architecture to sustain high-level leadership attention to the issue of countering nuclear terrorism after the summit’s end. Moscow may be correct that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has the potential to become a suitable replacement, but it would have been better for the Chicago summit attendees to make a unanimous decision, under joint Russian-American leadership, in favor of such a transfer, and then for the attendees to adapt an action plan to support such a transition.

Russia and the United States need to cooperate with other countries to ensure that nuclear materials security defenses remains active and robust even after the nuclear summits end next year.

In addition to fortifying the IAEA, Moscow and Washington must decide how to continue their co-leadership of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction despite the suspension of the Group of Eight process following the annexation of Crimea. Unfortunately, we now have competing post-2016 nuclear security visions, whose likely result is to create nuclear security gaps and redundancies for terrorists to exploit.

The New START Treaty at risk?

A new proliferation danger has also arisen. On Jan. 14, for the first time, a senior Russian official threatened to reconsider Moscow’s implementation of the New START Agreement to reduce Russian and U.S. nuclear warheads to a maximum of 1,550 and their deployed nuclear delivery systems (strategic missiles and bombers) to a maximum of 700 each by 2018.

In an interview with the RIA Novosti news agency, Mikhail Ulyanov, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Security and Disarmament Department, said, “So far we have not taken any particular steps in this direction, but I cannot exclude that in the future Washington would force us into taking them, into making corrections to our policies regarding this direction.”

Moscow and Washington are already deadlocked on how to make further progress in strategic arms control. The United States wants to reduce the number of warheads below 1,000, place limits or apply transparency and confidence-building measures to other types of tactical and non-deployed warheads, and make further cuts in U.S. and Russian strategic delivery systems. But Moscow insists on including other states with nuclear weapons in any further negotiations as well as constraining non-nuclear strategic systems such as missile defenses, prompt conventional strike systems, and other possible threats to Russia’s strategic deterrent.

The Russian position, repeated in the new Military Doctrine released last month, is logical in theory but hopelessly impractical in execution, not least because China and the other nuclear weapons states refuse to join any strategic arms cuts until Moscow and Washington make further cuts. Controlling dual-use strategic conventional systems would also require very intrusive forms of verification and monitoring, which Russian policy makers would themselves resist.

What hampers the new vison of the world's nuclear security

The lack of progress in this regard is likely to become a major topic of concern at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference that will occur in New York in April and May 2015. Whereas the 2010 NPT Review Conference went surprisingly well, this year’s meeting is likely to prove much more contentious. In addition to censuring the nuclear weapons states for their stalled progress regarding nuclear disarmament, the delegates will probably attack their failure to convene the envisaged international conference on establishing a free zone of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East.

The Russian occupation of Crimea, which violated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum whereby Russia, Britain and the United States pledged to uphold Ukraine’s security in return for its joining the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state, has also triggered a widespread demand from stronger security assurances to non-nuclear weapons states.

The latest edition of the Russian Military Doctrine released last month still cites nuclear proliferation as a potential danger to Russia’s security, but less emphatically than the previous versions of the Doctrine. Indeed, Russian government officials have also recently warned that they might break with Washington on the nuclear talks regarding Iran and North Korea due to U.S. sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine and its human rights policies.

These threats have come at an extremely inopportune time since both rounds of talks are at an exceptionally delicate stage. The tensions between Russia and the United States over Ukraine and other issues have already made Iran and North Korea bolder in resisting international calls to accept robust safeguards ensuring that they do not seek nuclear weapons.

Fortunately, the Russian government’s bark has been worse than its bite. Russia is fully implementing the 2010 New START Agreement, has remained in solidarity with Western countries in demanding that Iran and North Korea eschew nuclear weapons options, and has not lobbied other countries to also boycott next year’s Chicago Nuclear Security Summit. But Russian statements and actions to the contrary, even if designed primarily for domestic propaganda or to deter further U.S. sanctions, could at some point lead to results that both Russia and the United States would prefer to avoid.

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

Richard Weitz is Director of the Hudson Institute Center for Political-Military Analysis. The author would like to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for supporting his nonproliferation research.