RD Interview: Russia‘s chief diplomat for non-proliferation and arms control, Mikhail Ulyanov, discusses the most important problems that could impact future nuclear security talks involving Russia and the United States.

A worker assembling fuel elements (cartridges) for nuclear reactors in a facility of Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant (NCCP). Photo: TASS / Yevgeny Kurskov

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) convened last week in Vienna for a major international gathering on nuclear security. The previous such conference was held three years ago.

Since 2010, though, regular Nuclear Security Summits have been held, which have helped to raise international awareness regarding the threat of nuclear terrorism and other misuse of nuclear materials as well as increased ways to prevent them from proliferating. Apart from physical protection of nuclear materials, increased attention has been paid at the Vienna conference to the cyber security of nuclear facilities.

All in all, the International Conference on Nuclear Security brought together more than 2,100 participants from 139 countries, including 47 delegates at the ministerial level. Early this year, Russia refused to participate in the Washington Nuclear Security Summit. At the time, Russian officials emphasized that the IAEA is the best platform to discuss nuclear security and that this December conference would be one such opportunity. Despite such high pronouncements, the Russian delegation to the conference was led not by the foreign minister, but by the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Mikhail Ulyanov.

Once the conference drew to a close, Ulyanov sat down with Russia Direct to discuss its results as well as the reasons behind Russia’s refusal to participate in the Washington Nuclear Security Summit, the suspension of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement and why advocacy for total nuclear disarmament does not make Moscow happy. He also shares his views on the prospects for the new Trump administration changing the atmosphere around disarmament talks with Moscow.

Mikhail UlyanovRussia Direct: What are the results of the IAEA conference on nuclear security, where you headed the Russian delegation?

Mikhail Ulyanov: It is already possible to say that the conference was a success. The ministerial segment is over and a declaration has been adopted that is fully satisfactory for us. The conference allowed to once again highlight the importance of nuclear security, which is becoming more and more prominent on the international agenda. The discussions, both at the political and technical levels, build a solid base for the IAEA’s future work in this field.

I would note two points that are crucial for us. First, the Russian thesis that full responsibility for nuclear security on their territories rests with the states appears to have once and for all taken root in the international discourse. Practically all who have spoken during the ministerial segment emphasized that.

Secondly, the opinion of many countries that nuclear security has to apply not only to peaceful use nuclear materials, but also to military use, did not sound very prominently here. We categorically disagree with bringing the issues of nuclear disarmament into the IAEA agenda – it is not part of the IAEA statutory tasks. Making this link between nuclear disarmament and the IAEA is counterproductive – it will not help to advance the cause of nuclear disarmament while creating additional obstacles, including those in the work of the agency.

It is important that, due also to our efforts, the declaration includes the thesis that nuclear disarmament will “continue to be addressed in all relevant fora” – I emphasize “relevant” here. It is a veiled recognition that these problems are not part of the agenda of this conference. For us it is an important point, because as of late, the nuclear disarmament issue is being heavily promoted everywhere. It has gone as far as the UN General Assembly adopting a decision, which was supported by many countries, to begin in 2017 negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban convention. It is a rather nonsensical, impracticable initiative, because Russia and, I think, other nuclear weapon states, have no intention to take part in such negotiations.

RD: Do I understand you correctly that the attempt to expand the problem of nuclear security to military use materials was one of the reasons why Russia refused to participate in the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in March this year?

M.U.: No, there were other reasons behind that. First of all, the U.S. without consulting other participating states, including Russia, changed the rules of the game. They structured the preparatory work in a way that only they themselves as well as two other states that had hosted such summits – the Netherlands and South Korea – knew all that was going on. Other states were limited to working in subgroups, on one of five areas. It turned out that we would be totally unaware about what was going on in other subgroups. The final documents were supposed to be adopted at the summit by all participants. Russian leaders don’t usually sign documents that have been drafted without Russian participation. Moreover, we know from the results that some of the documents adopted there have serious flaws. But today some states are trying to transfer the conclusions of the Washington Summit to international organizations such as the UN, Interpol and the IAEA.

Our position on this is very clear: Nothing can be done automatically here. Those decisions were made by 54 states, while there are 168 members of the IAEA. Each idea must be considered individually, taking into account its importance and relevance. We are ready to support everything reasonable that was adopted at the Washington Summit. And all that causes doubts for us, we will reject or amend.

There is another reason why we did not go to the Washington Summit. The first such summit in Washington in 2010 was useful for attracting attention to the issue of nuclear security at the top political level. The goal was achieved. It was further achieved at the second Summit, where the idea was fixed. Then there was the third summit. The one in Washington this year was the fourth. It is too much. The issue is specialized, requires expertise, there is no need whatsoever to discuss it four times in a row at the high political level. The political impetus was given. Now the work has to be taken over by experts. The IAEA is the only international organization that has such expertise, and the IAEA will play not a leading, but central role in this process.

That’s why we support the IAEA and this conference in particular. There is a large Russian delegation here, including more than 10 experts from the Rosatom state atomic energy corporation and the Rostechnadzor regulatory body, who are speaking in various sections.

RD: I don’t want to underestimate your role and status – you are a key Russian diplomat in this field. But why is there such disconnect between the high prominence Russia was giving to this conference earlier and the fact that neither the minister nor the deputy minister has come?

M.U.: It is a purely working moment. The minister has a huge load of responsibilities. Around these days he is taking part in the OSCE Ministerial Council in Hamburg. But here, up to the very end it was not clear, whether the ministerial declaration would be agreed upon or not. It was approved, after a long debate, at the last moment on Dec. 2. It is impossible to plan the minister’s or even deputy minister’s participation with such a risk and on such a short notice. There is nothing unusual about it – many countries were represented even at the level of Ambassadors. At the same time, the Russian delegation here is one of the largest and includes top experts.

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RD: When you insist that the responsibility for nuclear security rests with the states, what do you mean?

M.U.: Responsibility for nuclear security on the territory of the states rests with the states. They themselves determine how the system is supposed to work and nobody is supposed to impose on them anything. It is a highly sensitive area, which has to do with national security, and no dictate from the outside can take place. What can take place are recommendations that would be useful to take into account while developing national rules and regulations. Such recommendations are developed by the IAEA.

By the way, we disagree with those, who during the Washington Summit were proposing to consider such recommendation materials as binding. It doesn’t work that way. They were developed at an expert level as recommendations. If the parties knew that those would be binding rules, the entire drafting work would have been structured in a completely different way, involving proper consultations at the state level. To turn recommendations retroactively into binding documents doesn’t work. This part of the Washington Summit portfolio of ideas is absolutely unacceptable for us.

RD: Then what stays in the international competence? Trans-border transportation of nuclear materials and that’s it?

M.U.: It is about all issues of international cooperation. All that has to do with anti-terrorism, incident management etc. All of this is covered by two documents: the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, which had been proposed by the Russian Federation, and has come into force already; and the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material including the 2005 Amendment which came into force earlier this year. If the Convention on physical protection has to do with international sphere – trans-border transportation etc. – then the Amendment has to do with what is happening on national territories. The states have voluntarily agreed to assume additional obligations. That is normal. Nobody is imposing anything on anyone. New standards are set.

As far as the Russian role in this is concerned, I would like to note the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism that was put forth in 2006 by Russia and the United States. It gains influence, numbers already more than 80 states, while five international organizations have observer status. United States and Russia are co-chairs. It is welcomed by all participants who consider it important that two great nuclear powers are interacting so closely on this track.

I can say that in this specific field, despite all the difficulties in our relations with the U.S., our cooperation is very fruitful and constructive. The cold background of our current bilateral relations does not apply to this field.

RD: However, when Russia withdrew earlier this year from the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), commentators said that the agreement was probably doomed anyway, and it was not a crucial part of the system of arms control treaties, but it was dangerous exactly because it broke the wall between nuclear and non-nuclear compartments in Russia-U.S. relations.

M.U.: It is not exactly that way. First of all, we did not withdraw from the agreement, but suspended its application. It is allowed by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Circumstances have fundamentally changed since 2011 when it was ratified. Back then, there was hope for the “reset” in Russia-U.S. relations. Now we live in a situation that reminds us of the Cold War era. There is no trust on both sides. And it becomes more difficult to cooperate in such a sensitive area as the disposition of weapons-grade plutonium.

There are two aspects here. Firstly, the political aspect. It is an abnormal situation, when the United States, on the one hand, calls us adversary, aggressor, occupier and other bad words and, on the other hand, where it concerns non-proliferation, the tone is completely different: Russia is a very important partner, we need to cooperate regarding Syria and Iran, it is important cooperation etc. It turns out that here we are friends and there we are adversaries. And we are adversaries where it is fitting for the American side and we are friends also there, where it is comfortable for the U.S. It is unnatural. For all intents and purposes, we wanted to send a political signal that it doesn’t work that way when you sign sanctions with one hand and stretch out another for a handshake. Americans need to determine where they stand and be more consistent.  We never promised them a comfortable life.

We have measured our steps. The analysts who are saying that nothing terrible is going to happen are right. According to many experts, mainly in the U.S., this agreement could not begin to be implemented within 20 or 30 years. Americans were not ready and said they need as many as 20 to 30 years. That was said by some members of the present U.S. administration.

The second reason why we did it is because we agreed on one thing – to dispose by converting plutonium into MOX fuel. [Mixed oxide fuel, commonly referred to as MOX fuel, is nuclear fuel that contains more than one oxide of fissile material, usually consisting of plutonium blended with natural uranium, reprocessed uranium, or depleted uranium. - Editor's Note] No immobilization, diluting and packaging for geological depositaries - none of that is prescribed by the agreement. No other method of disposition is cited. It says that the method of disposition can be changed with the consent of the both parties. Americans never applied to us regarding the change of method. Their actions, especially last year, often raise eyebrows. They are not very professional to say the least. Without any consultation with us, they decided themselves to change the method of implementation. It doesn’t work that way in the international law. They stopped construction of the plant along the Savannah River that would make MOX fuel. They changed everything without even trying to notify us officially. We learned about all these changes from U.S. media. That is totally abnormal.

All of that was happening while we fulfilled our obligations. Our plant that would make MOX fuel is completed. It was not cheap or fun, but we fulfilled our obligations. And the other side de facto dropped its obligations.

There probably was a reaction in the press. But at international fora – no. I headed the Russian delegation at the First Committee of the UN General Assembly [that deals with security and disarmament – Editor’s Note] and spoke there about the decision several hours after it was published. And during the entire Committee session, which lasted throughout October, nobody said a bad word about it. Americans sometimes tried to defend their decision, and then tried to launch a counterattack. But what is most important is that Russia had strong arguments. It was accepted rather normally. Another reason for that, probably, was that the decree by President Vladimir Putin says clearly that the plutonium that was meant to be disposed of in the framework of the agreement will continue to remain outside the military programs.

RD: U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced here at the conference that the U.S. will “dilute and package” 6 tons of plutonium on top of the 34 tons that it is supposed to dispose of under the treaty with Russia. How would you comment on that?

M.U.: It has no effect on our agreement. It is a unilateral U.S. decision. They have the right to make such decisions. They clearly want to use it at the international arena to prove their constructive position. I don’t see anything bad about this decision. I don’t know how many tons of plutonium the U.S. has altogether, but I am convinced that quite enough to satisfy the most ambitious military plans. Six tons hardly play a decisive role here.

Secretary Moniz also said that the process will be subjected to the IAEA monitoring. It is also the right of the U.S. to do that.

As far as we are concerned, obviously, given the suspension of the agreement, the IAEA will play no role with regard to Russian weapons-grade plutonium. For us, it will be our national decision how to treat this plutonium – to dispose of it or not, how to dispose of it. If the decision is made to keep it untouched because money will be needed for some other pressing needs such as paying pensions etc. – so be it. It will be the decision of the Russian leadership and nobody has the right to interfere and impose on us any decisions.

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RD: How do you see the motives of the countries that advocate a nuclear weapons ban? Austria is one of the enthusiasts in this campaign.

M.U.: Yes, it’s Austria, Ireland, Mexico, South Africa, Brazil – many countries, with whom we maintain very good relations. Kazakhstan is also one of the advocates of an expedited nuclear disarmament. We have respect for their position. It is clear that non-nuclear weapons states would like the threat of nuclear war to disappear. We support the goal of building a world without nuclear weapons – generations of Russians leaders, including recently, have stated that. The question is how to be moving towards that goal.

What the enthusiasts of an expedited nuclear disarmament are proposing is far detached from reality. Whether we like it or not, nuclear weapons play a very important deterrence role in the modern world. When I speak to my opponents on this issue, I pay their attention to the fact that in the first half of the 20th century, there were two bloody world wars. Since 1945 there were many regional conflicts, but no world wars. To a large extent, due to the nuclear weapons, which make the states have a highly responsible attitude to its use. Everybody understands that there would be very dramatic consequences.

Our partners say to this: We understand your position, but we will nonetheless insist on total nuclear disarmament, because we cannot do otherwise. Probably that is true – there is such public opinion in their countries. That does not cause any animosity on our side. We understand it. But we consider such an approach to be harmful, because it leads the discussion aside from what Germans call Realpolitik.

In fact what we need today is to create conditions for advancing nuclear disarmament. It is clear that no country, including Russia, will act to the detriment of its security. But we see growing international threats. First of all, threats created by the anti-ballistic missile system that is being built by the U.S., by Washington’s refusal to agree on banning the placement of weapons in outer space, absence of any progress at the talks on conventional weapons in Europe. We are concerned by the concept of Prompt Global Strike (PGS) with the use of precision-guided conventional weapons.  There are many things that undermine the strategic stability and make the world less secure. The Russian approach is to concentrate on these real problems and not on the artificial ones. If the real problems get solved, that will create conditions for moving forward. Nuclear disarmament doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is a complicated world around, in which a simple – or, one can even say, simplistic – approach doesn’t work.

To sum up, we consider these efforts as naïve romanticism, which is not helpful to maintain security in today’s world. And I have to say that on this issue the positions of Russia and the United States are very close to each other. For a long time, our U.S. colleagues tried to flirt with anti-nuclear radicals. We had warned them that by doing so they were only encouraging the growth of radicalism. Now Americans apparently understood that they can no longer act in that way and at the First Committee of the UN General Assembly in October we spoke on this matter in unison.

RD: With the upcoming change of U.S. administration, do you have any hopes for a change of climate in the field of disarmament?

M.U.: There is always hope for the better. President-elect Donald Trump’s statements that he would like to set up cooperation with Russia in certain areas give us some grounds for that. But how it will actually happen – nobody knows. Not only journalists are asking what kind of policy the new administration is going to pursue – the same questions are being asked on the margins of international conferences such as this one. And nobody, including our American colleagues, has a clue. Time will show.

We would certainly wish for a change, because objectively we have a lot of coinciding interests in the field of disarmament and, especially, non-proliferation. Trump’s statement that he would like to work with Russia on the fight against ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria - Editor's Note] gives us hopes, including in this area.

Back in February of this year, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to develop an international convention to suppress acts of chemical and biological terrorism. Today the majority of the 66 states that take part in the Conference on Disarmament are ready to support this initiative – within an agreed agenda. But this agenda cannot be agreed upon for 20 years already. Our initiative was meant to help overcome this stupor, to introduce a fresh idea, because within the traditional setup nothing worked.

Some influential countries, such as India and China, actively support us. Others are saying that they are ready to support us if a consensus is on the horizon. It is ultimately up to the U.S. administration, which has blocked this initiative to this day. Our attempts to understand the reasons behind it have not been successful. Americans are citing arguments that are easy to dispel. They are saying that no new instruments are needed, one should implement what we already have. But it doesn’t work that way – the existing instruments do not cover the whole range of this problem and the convention could help. So, we hope that the new administration will have a fresh pragmatic look at this issue. I am convinced that it is in no way damaging to the U.S. interests, but will play a positive role for the United States, Russia and the entire international community.