Russia Withdraws From Nuclear Agreement

Caitlin McLaren - 4A Chemical
Posted on: October 11, 2016

Russia withdrew from a sixteen-year nuclear cooperation agreement in early October, with President Vladimir Putin citing a “radically changed environment” in Russian-American relations. This is only the latest part in a series of increased tensions between America and Russia, who have been butting heads over the war in Syria. Recently, a fragile ceasefire negotiated between the various factions broke down, with the main causes being two major violations. First, US strikes killed over 60 Syrian soldiers, which was blamed on faulty intelligence; only a few days later, a UN aid convoy was bombed, and the US accused Russia of being responsible—a charge which Russia denied. The fragile ceasefire broke down shortly afterwards.

Russia has now announced their withdrawal from the Plutonium Disposition and Management Agreement (PDMA), which concerned the disposal of approximately 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium stockpiles from the Cold War in each country. Both the United States and Russia have stockpiles of weaponized material, which under the agreement were to be converted to mixed-oxide fuel usable in nuclear power plants.

However, what would have been America’s only mixed-oxide plant, at the Savannah River site in Georgia, suffered from delays and problems over the last two years, and President Obama’s proposed budget for 2017 called for cancellation of the project. Instead, the facility would be used to dilute the plutonium, which would then be placed in long-term storage at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. While America argues that this change in plan is within the bounds of the agreement, the Kremlin disagrees.

The agreement was first signed in 2000 and renewed in 2009. However, Putin cites “the emergence of a threat to strategic stability and as a result of unfriendly actions by the United States of America towards the Russian Federation” as the reason for the withdrawal. Putin’s decree states that Russia does not intend to weaponize the plutonium; Russia does currently, in fact, make use of mixed-oxide fuel.

The decree also outlined several demands, including a demand that the economic sanctions against Russia over their conflict with the Ukraine over the Crimea be lifted. It also called for reverting NATO deployment in the Baltic states and repeal of the Magnitsky act, which was intended to punish officials responsible for the 2009 prison death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who had previously been investigating fraud involving Russian officials. The withdrawal came shortly before the American announcement that the US would no longer cooperate with Russia in Syria, and was likely planned to preempt the statement.

These demands broke with longstanding precedent that nuclear-related negotiations be kept separate from other issues in US-Russia negotiations, an unwritten rule that has stood since the Soviet era. While the plutonium itself is unlikely be made into weapons, at least in the immediate future, this situation shows that Russia is now willing to bring the nuclear issue into other political conflicts, which causes concern for the future of disarmament efforts.

After the announcement James Collins, who was the US ambassador to Russia when the agreement was signed, called Russia’s decision a “strange move”, saying that there was a possibility that the plutonium might fall into terrorist hands. Condemnation also came from Europe; German chancellor Angela Merkel called for the withdrawal of Russian troops in Syria, calling the actions of Assad’s Russia-backed regime a “horrible crime”. Some German politicians also called for further sanctions against Russia. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed anti-Russian statements as “rhetorical Russophobia” and stated that “the treaty was concluded when relations were normal, civilised, when no one … was trying to interfere in the [other's] internal affairs.” He further said that Russia was in Syria at the request of Syria’s legitimate government.

One thing is very clear: the conflict in Syria is not just about Syria. The US and Russia have longstanding political baggage that is preventing them from agreement and cooperation in the Middle East, and these conflicts are preventing the situation from reaching any resolution. While Russia and America place their own political difficulties over the need to end the Syrian civil war, ISIS remains undefeated and Syrian factions continue to tear their country apart. There is no winner in this environment and the Syrian people continue to suffer.