On October 3, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered to suspend the bilateral Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PDMA). The decision is explained by «the US hostile actions against the Russian Federation and Washington's failure to observe the terms of the deal.» The suspension decree has come into force.
The presidential executive order states that the Russian fissile material, which was subject to it, would not be used for any military purpose, be it production of new weapons or research.
The PDMA was signed in 2000 to allow both nuclear powers to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium from their defence programs, a move seen as a key step in the disarmament process.
Each country was required to dispose of over 34 tons of fissile material, enough to produce 17,000 nuclear bombs, by turning it into so-called MOX (mixed oxide fuel) and burning it in nuclear reactors. The two countries recommitted to the deal in 2010.
The decision to suspend the agreement had been expected. The US was supposed to fabricate MOX fuel from its plutonium costs for building a facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina but costs spiraled out of control. It prompted the administration to use a cheaper reversible process instead – a «dilute and dispose» alternative that would simply mix the plutonium with inert materials and store underground making it more difficult to recover and dispose of it as waste.
According to the «downblending» method, the Savannah River Site facility would be used to dilute plutonium and dispose of it at the waste isolation pilot plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico, instead of transforming plutonium into nuclear fuel. There is a problem here – the disposal approach would not change the mix of isotopes in the plutonium to make it more difficult to reuse in weapons. Changing the disposition method requires formally amending the agreement, which cannot be done without Russia's consent. In an open breach of the agreement, Moscow has not been consulted.
Unlike the United States, the Russian Federation has carried out its obligations. Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom has already started producing MOX fuel. A MOX fuel facility in the city of Zheleznogorsk in Eastern Siberia. BN-600 and BN-800 fast neutron reactors have been built to use MOX fuel made of weapons-grade plutonium and ensure it is unusable for nuclear warheads.
Russia had warned the United States about the violation. The Russian president expressed its concern over the US unilateral move in April, shortly after a nuclear security summit held in the US.
Back then, he noted that that the United States was not honoring the agreement by disposing of plutonium in a way that allowed it to retain its defence capabilities. Washington was warned.
This event is part of a broader process. In 2002, the United States abandoned the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty – the cornerstone of the strategic weapon limitation process for the previous thirty years. Washington no longer accepts any restrictions on its missile defense deployments to put into question any prospects for further progress in the field of arms control.
The US has not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) twenty years (September 30) after the negotiations concluded.
Washington has violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) by using Hera intermediate ballistic missile for missile defense tests and deploying Mk-41 Aegis Ashore launchers, capable of firing ground-launched cruise missiles, in Romania and Poland. The deployment of Mk-41-launched medium-range missiles on the territory of US allies in Europe enables the US to strike deep into the Russian territory thanks to NATO’s expansion eastward.
A US mid-range missile launched from Poland or Romania would require only a short flight time to reach beyond the Urals. It creates a serious strategic imbalance. When deployed in Europe, US unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or armed drones such as the MQ-1 Predator also constitute a violation as they fall under the INF Treaty’s definition of intermediate range cruise missiles with the range of 1100 km.
According to the B61 Life Extension Program, the B61-12 warheads will make US aerial tactical weapons deployed in Europe acquire new capabilities. These plans are perceived as a threat by Russia. Stationed near its borders and boasting high accuracy, the weapons could be used with the efficiency of strategic nuclear weapons. Besides, the tactical nukes are to be operated by US NATO allies. It constitutes a violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968, which prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons from nuclear weapons states to other countries.
The United States enjoys a lead in long-range offensive non-nuclear weapons and is working on the Prompt Global Strike concept to acquire the capability to knock out Russia’s military and industrial infrastructure without resorting to nuclear weapons.
The erosion of arms control and non-proliferation regime is taking place against the background of NATO expansion, the worldwide and regional destabilization, the buildup of military infrastructure around Russia and boosting military presence in the proximity of its borders under the pretext of holding exercises and the militarization of outer space.
Recently, Washington has failed to comply with the terms of the Russia-US agreement on the cessation of hostilities in Syria.
On October 3, it suspended the bilateral contacts on Syria in a sharp deterioration of relations. It was the US, not Russia, who pulled out to dash the hopes that cooperation in stabilizing Syria and combating the Islamic State group could provide a new opportunity to make Russia-US relationship more functional, facilitating efforts to tackle bigger problems.
The prospects of renewing the peace talks are bleak. It applies to almost all aspects of the broader Russia-US relationship at present. There is a very dangerous trend to confrontation. It could not be otherwise with the NATO expansion and the US pulling out of the concluded agreements (the 1972 ABM Treaty) or violating them demonstrating reluctance to treat Russia as an equal partner.
There are too many issues that divide the two states and too few to bring them together. Syria is a chance to grab. This opportunity is fading away but it’s not lost as yet. The contacts can be renewed. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said he plans to consider an alliance with Russia against Islamic State.
In a broader sense, each of the specific issues is an expression of a larger strategic one. Any effort to improve relations and solve the present logjam must include a dialogue about the emerging world order, the trends shaping it, the challenges posed to both Russian and US national interests, the roles each country wants to play in shaping the emerging global architecture and the prospects for finding ways to reconcile the differences. It means leaving behind the typical Washington’s think tank groupthink influenced by neocons that has defined the US policy on Russia to shun any serious effort at building inclusive security architecture.
It includes the ability to see problems from the other side’s perspective. Could the US administration officials imagine that Russian forces were stationed «on rotational basis» near the US border, and Russian missile defense installations deployed in the neighboring countries like Canada or Mexico? Or could they imagine themselves in the shoes of the one who has concluded an agreement with the other party which has taken on the responsibility for separating the opposition groups in Aleppo, failed to live up to the commitments, shifted the blame on the other side and then…suspended the contacts on Syria at all?
Nobody wants to balance on the brink of conflict. Both sides benefit from reduced tensions and arms control and non-proliferation agreements in place. But it takes two to tango.
There is not much time left till the US has a new president in office. Time will show if he or she will be able give peace a chance. Many things could be rectified. For instance, the plutonium agreement is suspended but not dead. It contains certain provisions to revive it if the US changes its stand and keeps its side of the bargain.