Russia may have missed a unique opportunity to help shape global policy around nuclear terrorism. Will the Kremlin continue to work constructively with the West on other strategic nuclear issues?

President Vladimir Putin (center) during a meeting of Russia's Security Council on the nuclear and radiation security policy. Photo: RIA Novosti

For a very different take read: "Why is Russia skipping the Nuclear Security Summit in 2016?"

As global leaders converge on Washington, D.C. from Mar. 31 to April 1 for the fourth Nuclear Security Summit, conspicuous by its absence was Russia. The Kremlin's official spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, cited a lack of cooperation between Russia and the United States as being the reason for Moscow's absence.

In response to Russia's announcement that it would not participate in the summit, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes described Russia's abstention from the summit as a "missed opportunity" and stated that Russia was isolating itself.

Since its inception in 2010, the main focus of the Nuclear Security Summit has been preventing nuclear terrorism. This year's nuclear summit comes at a time when the world is reeling from the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium and Pakistan. The possibility that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) could obtain and use a "dirty bomb" is high on the agenda for this meeting. Yet, despite the summit's focus on nuclear terrorism, it appears that strategic issues between Russia and the U.S. are playing a major role in Russia's decision to abstain from the meeting. 

In early February of this year, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov announced that Russia would not participate in further bilateral talks with the U.S. over nuclear security until the U.S. showed greater consideration for Russia's own needs and interests. Ryabkov specifically cited U.S. proposals such as the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea as a destabilizing factor in international security.

One complicating factor in the Nuclear Security Summit is the visit to the U.S. by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. According to Taras Chonovil, a former Ukrainian politician, one aspect of Poroshenko's agenda is to highlight the potential for Russia to deploy nuclear weapons to Crimea.

Earlier this month, Poroshenko asserted that the Russian military has already positioned missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads in Crimea. Poroshenko, therefore, will likely take the opportunity to highlight Russia's own military posture to U.S. defense officials, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

In response to Rhodes's comments on Russia "isolating" itself, Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's arms control bureau, downplayed the notion that Russia was isolated, citing the fact that for the past decade Russia and the United States have spearheaded the global initiative on combating nuclear terrorism. Indeed, Russia and the United States have engaged in several participatory initiatives to counter the threat of nuclear weapons, including the US-Russia Initiative To Prevent Nuclear Terrorism.

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

In testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives, Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, asserted that neither the Russian government nor policy analysis community has offered a comprehensive list of vital national interests. In his own assessment showing areas of convergence and divergence between Russian and U.S. interests, there were several areas of convergence, as well as areas where Russian and American interests did not necessarily intersect.

One area where there was a particular mutuality and convergence of interests is preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Saradzhyan noted, however, that there was a difference in opinion between Moscow and Washington as to how to go about securing this interest.

Indeed, analysts and observers must take care not to exaggerate the implications of Russia's absence from the meeting. Electing to stay away from one particular meeting does not signal a wholesale drawdown of Russian engagement with the outside world on nuclear security.

With all of the thorny issues in U.S.-Russia relationship over the past few years, Russia may have been more willing to participate in the summit if it were held somewhere other than Washington. By way of comparison, past summits took place in Seoul and The Hague.

While Russia is likely not "isolating" itself completely, unfortunately for Moscow, Russia's absence from the summit likely constitutes a missed opportunity for Russia to assert its political and diplomatic clout in an aspect of international security that many countries are concerned about. This of course is to say nothing of the threat of nuclear terrorism to Russia and the security benefits that Russian participation may have entailed.

One possible solution for Russia is a greater level of "compartmentalization" in Russian nuclear policy between nuclear terrorism and strategic issues. While Russia and the U.S. will likely disagree on missile defense for a long time, Russian officials would do well to seek ways in which Russia can cooperate with the U.S. on nuclear terrorism as separate from broader missile defense issues.

Obviously, this is much easier said than done, but if Russia is to continue its engagement with the outside world on nuclear security, it will likely have to attempt to separate these two issues in its broader nuclear security agenda.

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