The collapse of Soviet power 17 years ago triggered the growth of a multitude of cooperative security arrangements between the United States, Russia, and other newly independent states of the former USSR. These programs enjoy tremendous symbolic importance, and they have provided an anchor of stability in U.S.-Russian relations even as the relationship has turned sour on other fronts. At a recent Kennan Institute lecture, however, Rensselaer Lee, President, Global Advisory Services, McLean, Virginia, and former Title VIII-Supported Short-term Scholar, Kennan Institute, questioned the threat reduction value of these programs, asking how much safer Americans should feel because of them.

According to Lee, the various protective regimes that have been introduced in Russia and other new states do not, in themselves, add up to an effective defense against threats of nuclear leakage and proliferation. "A prevailing consensus holds that nuclear security conditions have improved in Russia in recent years," Lee stated. Infusions of U.S. technology and grants to underemployed scientists might help explain this trend, but so can other important changes which occurred during the Putin era, Lee argued, such as the improvement of the Russian economy, the centralization of executive power, and an increased presence of human watchdogs in Russia's strategic nuclear facilities. A better-functioning economy equates to better pay and better conditions for nuclear workers, which equate to fewer incentives to steal and sell the materials to which they have access, Lee explained. Now, however, the global economic downturn could work to increase incentive and opportunities for employees to transfer sensitive materials, components, and technology to inappropriate buyers. Some Russian nuclear enterprises are already laying off workers, an ominous sign.

Additionally, Lee noted, "it is very hard to build protective systems for nuclear facilities that can defend against conspiracies to steal or divert stocks of fissile materials." Russian nuclear experts report that it takes the collaboration of just four to five well-placed insiders to accomplish the steps necessary to pull off a successful theft. Furthermore, Lee observed, "it is hard to see how a few hundred radiation monitors strung out along Russia's 12,000-mile long border will do much to stop serious smugglers with sufficient knowledge of the terrain from moving their wares covertly and circumventing customs controls." To compound matters, the current generation of monitoring equipment is not sensitive enough to detect even moderately well-shielded Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU), which is not very radioactive and which experts believe is the material most easily fashioned into a terrorist bomb.

"It is encouraging that our efforts to secure Russia's vast stockpile of nuclear warheads and weapons-usable material were more-or-less completed by the end of last year, but we have to face the possibility that our programs might not have closed the proliferation window quickly enough," Lee warned. Dangerous material may already be outside whatever fences, barriers, and monitoring systems were installed under the cooperative security programs and in private hands outside of authorized government control. For this reason, Lee suggested that the United States begin considering post-proliferation scenarios and illuminated what role intelligence should play in nuclear security policy in Eurasia.

Currently, available data on nuclear smuggling is incomplete and not necessarily representative of the wide universe of illegal nuclear transactions, especially the sophisticated schemes likely to escape detection. To elucidate the situation, Lee distinguished between the visible black market, which consists of trafficking incidents recorded in official accounts and international databases, and the shadow market of incidents that go unreported. While Lee described the black market as anemic, disorganized, and supply-driven, he hypothesized the existence of an unobserved, true market, which is demand-driven as opposed to supply-driven, and whose interested buyers include state and sub-national groups who intend to fashion stolen nuclear materials into weapons. In this hypothesized shadow market, Lee theorizes that buyers and sellers connect in ways that are not apparent to Western intelligence and security officials.

Lee identified good intelligence as a necessary component of nuclear defense, "complementing the essentially reactive and stationary risk-management systems that the United States introduced throughout former Soviet territory." Better intelligence, he argued, is needed to penetrate the uncertainty that surrounds the workings of the nuclear black market, and to collect information about adversaries – who they are, what material and weapons they seek, and how they intend to obtain these items. Better intelligence can identify and disrupt adversaries' procurement chains, including the front companies, criminal groups, financial institutions and other intermediaries that are used, as well as their collaborators inside nuclear enterprises.

Intelligence can also clarify the link between clandestine nuclear transfers and the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities, as well as guide responses and emergency preparation in cases where reasonable certainty exists that leakage of nuclear material or weaponry has already taken place.

Lee concluded that intelligence could also prove to be the key to sustaining the U.S.-Russian nuclear security relationship. Several U.S.-funded programs—such as Department of Energy's Materials Protection Control and Accounting Program, and Department of Defense's Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and the Second Line of Defense on Russia—will be phased out over the next five years. "Intelligence cooperation to target the Weapons of Mass Destruction programs of developing countries and non-state actors," he maintained, "could be a promising basis for a new global security architecture."

Written by Sarah Dixon Klump