The US and Russia Have Plenty of Areas for Cooperation. Let’s Get to Work.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, shakes hands prior to their talks in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 12, 2017.

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

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US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, shakes hands prior to their talks in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 12, 2017.

We might start by taking Putin’s suggestion to create a bi-national advisory council to help guide engagement.

U.S. President Donald Trump is hellbent on engagement with Russia, so engagement is going to continue to occur. The question is at what level and on what topics that engagement will be.

This is a hard sell to most Americans, whose views of Russian President Vladimir Putin are highly unfavorable. Even Capitol Hill Republicans are shunning him. Anyone who has actually read the intelligence brief on Putin’s interference in U.S. elections distrusts him. But as President Trump rightly noted in the press conference following the Helsinki summit July 16, the countries do have shared interests.

Trump promised that “representatives from our national security councils will meet to follow up on all of the issues we addressed.” But who? Neither Trump’s heavy-handed National Security Advisor John Bolton nor some of the staff new to the National Security Council and diplomacy are the best choices for leading this work. President Putin — surprised? — has a better suggestion: seek positive “points of contact” for U.S.-Russian engagement, as he called them (at least in the English translation), assisted by “an expert council that would include political scientists, prominent diplomats and former military experts from both countries.” Such experts would know the history of Russian-U.S. engagement—the duplicity but also how the two countries can work positively together.

A full-fledged initiative on all fronts such as the Obama-era U.S.-Russia Presidential Bilateral Commission for broad-based bilateral government discussions – suspended after Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine – would not be appropriate. However, both presidents and the public can agree some areas desperately need joint work. In the run-up to Trump’s proposed autumn meeting with Putin at the White House, progress can be made in one area much deserving of joint efforts – the nuclear one.

In their Helsinki meeting, Trump called nuclear proliferation “one of the most critical challenges facing humanity.” Putin called it crucial to “fine-tune the dialogue on strategic stability and global security and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” Trump can take the lead in this area of security and potentially show that he truly not only does “think big” but also can translate that into good deals.

The process will be important, as will be getting the right people in the room. Here are a few ideas for ways President Trump can help advance those good deals he wants.

Nuclear Arms Control

Issue: Some existing nuclear agreements need attention as they languish or face alleged violations. Reducing stockpiles and new nuclear development can save money for both countries while preserving deterrence.

Approach: The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that limits U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons can be extended, as Putin (and others) have suggested. Ways to resolve alleged violations and improve the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty can be discussed. For existing agreements, government representatives could hold discussions that include mediators which both sides have approved – and perhaps include other key countries such as China in select discussions.

Issue: Short-range/low-yield nuclear weapons may present some of the highest risks;  some contend they may be more likely to be used and cross the threshold to use of larger nukes. Both Russia and the U.S. are further considering how and whether to invest in this area.

Approach: Discussions on tactical nuclear weapons can be started. Given Russian military reliance on such arms, new talks like these should include a broad range of participants. An expert joint study group of retired military personnel and political theorists could examine an array of possible approaches, some of which have already been studied including at military colleges and universities. Looking back at history for lessons for today’s wicked problems can help, too, as Harvard’s Applied History Project is doing.

Nuclear Disarmament

Issue: More than simply reducing classes of weapons, we need to work toward eliminating nuclear weapons. Presidents from Harry Truman, the only user of nuclear weapons, to Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama recognized the need for a nuclear-weapon-free world. Early attempts to work towards that were unsuccessful largely because the U.S. could not agree internally and the Soviets distrusted proposed approaches.

Approach: Trump needs to be aspirational, as he has been on the other side of the world, where he seeks a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. Joint discussions with the Russians on a range of world disarmament issues should be pursued via several joint public-private initiatives, with political scientists, experienced diplomats and military and weapons specialists engaged in discussion. Little success is likely to be found in the short term, given current world political conditions. However, getting some younger military officers together with equally young scientists and political thinkers – and equipping them with knowledge of early year attempts—could help forge ties so the next generation can make progress on these larger issues. Several groups might even tackle some of the same problems to develop alternatives.

Topic areas could include identifying:

  • In the short term, a few points for U.S.-Russian consensus at the Nonproliferation Treaty 2020 review conference
  • More broadly, areas the two countries should prioritize in disarmament discussions based on what they see as most important for reducing nuclear risks and what is achievable. In that sense, the U.S. may not need to prioritize ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – as the norm of non-testing is almost universally in effect, and efforts around the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and in the Conference on Disarmament could evolve with new rules.

Ultimately though, the result should be joint Russian-U.S. positions on selected issues (with dissenting notes allowed) and include ways the two countries could help persuade their allies on these issues (e.g., what could be sufficient to replace the nuclear umbrella?).

Iran and North Korea

Issue: Iran’s development of nuclear weapons was supposedly stymied, or at least delayed, by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. Israel recently released some documents it stole, in a raid worthy of a major motion picture, showing Iran’s intent to maintain technical knowledge for future nuclear developments – although some point out that at least Iran is still abiding by the terms of the JCPOA. The U.S. has withdrawn from that agreement, which causes some complications, including for businesses. The UN Secretary General, in his recent June report on Iranian actions, reported Iranian compliance with the JCPOA based on International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection work. It is unclear if the Israeli documents will affect further IAEA assessments as the IAEA report notes ongoing assessments. The JCPOA is only one part of the UN Security Council resolution affecting Iran. The Secretary General’s report noted some concerns about Iran’s compliance with other parts of the resolution, e.g., missile-related transfers, that might or might not have occurred before the resolution went into effect in 2015.

Approach: Russia has supported the JCPOA. America has larger expectations of Iran’s behavior, including in the region, which is a complicated morass of interests. Putin and Trump noted some good collaboration in Syria and discussed pursuing more. That might be the path for further discussions in the region, of which Iran is but one piece. Professional, official channels should be used to continue/expand military and selected intelligence discussions and coordination of humanitarian efforts. But some topics such as longer term visions for the region would benefit from new approaches to discussions, such as by including knowledgeable recent refugees/expats (and let many of them be women) and/or the next generation of innovative thinkers (who were all women in a recent IAEA contest).

Issue: North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nonproliferation Treaty, permitted under treaty terms, and its subsequent nuclear and missile testing, deemed a threat to international security by the UN Security Council, have continued to trouble members of the international community (Japan, South Korea and the United States most of all, with China and Russia also somewhat concerned). Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held direct talks June 12 in Singapore and issued a joint statement. However, progress toward denuclearization and better relations appear mixed. North Korean trust of the U.S. is low, especially when the U.S. has been slow to deliver on past Korean agreements and withdraws from current ones, like the JCPOA and Paris climate accords.

Approach: Russia may share just 11 miles of a border with North Korea, but has a potential interest in helping forge an agreement that works to bring peace to the peninsula, something Putin sounded willing to do. China wants a stable Korea on its border and to ensure that has already backed some harder calls for good behavior from North Korea, where sanctions were appearing to have some effect. North Korea’s Kim recognizes autocrats stay in power longer – and Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping likely have more sway with Kim than an American president. North Korea is one area where official dialogue needs to be the primary focus.

Nuclear Security

Issue: Former President Obama launched a series of four summits to focus on nuclear security. Unlike proliferation issues affecting state development/diversion of fissile material, nuclear security generally worries about non-state actors obtaining and using fissile material or sabotaging nuclear sites. With relations being contentious, Russia did not participate in the last – the 2016 – summit, which primarily addressed civilian stocks of material. Follow-on work from the summit series was entrusted to five international institutions. Much was accomplished but much remains to be done, as noted in a recent report from the Fissile Materials Working Group and Arms Control Association. The amount of plutonium and highly enriched uranium available, not just in civilian but also in military stocks, is high and may not be well protected – including in the United States, where a national lab recently lost a small amount. Russia’s continued progress on nuclear security is also a question. Meanwhile, Russia is chagrined at the U.S. abandoning its part of the two countries’ agreement to dispose of surplus plutonium stocks, which the U.S. deemed too costly to continue.

Approach: The good news here is that Russia and the U.S. have recently successfully worked together against nuclear terrorism, including lobbying enough countries for the amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material to go into effect. This is significant because it establishes international legal requirements for material protections against diversion and sabotage. The two countries can further work together to develop an agenda for the 2020 IAEA ministerial meeting on security, which should include an agreement to have a regular review and reporting process for that treaty’s implementation, instructions for more cohesive IAEA guidance and peer-review missions (right now, despite the overlaps between safety and security, there are separate safety and security best practices and review missions). A Track 1.5 group can discuss recommendations from the summit process and which ones the two countries should prioritize, including how to get support from significant other stakeholders and organizations, as well as the need for broader IAEA reforms. Ways to expand cooperation at the working level can be explored directly as Russia and the U.S. co-chair the Global Initiative Against Nuclear Terrorism.

New Areas for Cooperation

Issue: Nuclear attribution. If you think relations are rocky now, consider how things would slide if a nuclear or radiological event occurred, and one country accused the other of purposely or inadvertently losing control of its dangerous materials. The IAEA has established some good forensics practices, but there are few political mechanisms for agreeing on attribution outside the IAEA safeguards process. In the chemical-weapons area, where we have a Chemical Weapons Convention, we have seen the attribution challenges in Syria. We have also seen the diplomatic fallout as a nerve agent poisoning case has continued to plague a small British community, with questions about the formal attribution process.

Approach: The U.S. and Russia can establish a joint study group of scientists and policy experts to explore the political and scientific lessons learned from past inspections for alleged violations under international conventions and safeguards agreements. The group could also review new attribution approaches, such as the French one for chemical attribution, and recommend process steps that go further than existing IAEA guidance.

Issue: New challenges are emerging from the broader uses of outer space to the cybersecurity of nuclear weapons and of facilities, with the Department of Homeland Security revealing new information on Russian cyber intrusions into U.S. critical infrastructure, including nuclear power plants. Disruptive technologies such as additive manufacturing challenge traditional export control mechanisms for controlling proliferation while cryptocurrencies challenge controls over the financing of illicit transfers.

Approach: Establishing joint expert groups of to consider some of these challenging areas would help in moving us toward developing agreed norms of behavior that could help avoid future deadly conflicts. Other countries are already moving forward fast in some areas, such as space issues and anti-satellite weaponry. Discussions including former military officials, experts and diplomats are needed, with NTI being a good example of one taking the lead in the area of weapon cybersecurity.

The American public supported U.S. talks with North Korea and is somewhat undecided over the Iran nuclear agreement. The Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which had great success, was started by Democrats and Republicans working across the aisle; after the mid-term elections, perhaps they will be able to do so again. At least in the nuclear area, where the dangers are evident and growing, one hopes the rhetoric and divisions can be pushed aside and good work can begin between two battling parties and countries.

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