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What good could possibly come from the Petersburg summit?

ASK THIS | July 08, 2006

National security expert Graham Allison writes that success in preventing nuclear terrorism and stopping Iran from acquiring a bomb requires deep, sustained cooperation with Russia – and the upcoming G-8 summit offers an opportunity to engage Russia to advance our most vital interests.

By Graham Allison

Q. What will the major issues be at the G-8 meeting next month in St. Petersburg?

As the host of the G-8, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that the major topic will be energy security. At the same time, democracy activists say the meeting shouldn’t even take place unless Putin ends his crackdown on internal dissent.

But there’s a more urgent and more fertile area for productive discussion. Because success in preventing nuclear terrorism and stopping Iran from acquiring a bomb requires deep, sustained cooperation with Russia.

Q. Can anything reasonably be accomplished at St. Petersburg?

The most promising issues about which the leaders could actually make an operational difference are in the nuclear arena. Initiatives could include agreement on civil nuclear cooperation, specifically storage in Russia of spent nuclear fuel from countries in Europe and Asia; offers of fuel-cycle guarantees, including spent-fuel management, to countries that agree not to build enrichment and reprocessing facilities of their own; and, if bold, announcement of a G-8-endorsed "gold standard" to which all nuclear weapons and materials will be secured.

Q. What’s that got to do with Iran?

The promise of peaceful nuclear energy is hostage to the safety and security of dangerous atoms. For peaceful nuclear power to prosper, dangerous nuclear materials must be secured. Given the growth of global demand for energy to fuel current and future economic growth, civilian nuclear power plants should become a larger source of supply. In order to guarantee to the world that "peaceful nuclear programs" will not be used to make bombs, Presidents Bush and Putin have each proposed programs to make nuclear energy accessible to countries that want it, without spreading the infrastructure for nuclear weapons. States must be able to buy and build nuclear power plants with reliable assurances of nuclear fuel and its disposal (including the plutonium encased within it).

Q. What is Russia's obligation regarding its nuclear arsenal?

Because nuclear weapons lay at the heart of the Cold War, many regard it as unfair that this threat was not buried with that era. But the brute fact is that the old arsenals of that war did not disappear with it. The United States and Russia still possess nearly 30,000 nuclear warheads and hundreds of thousands of weapons-worth of fissile material—material with a half-life of at least 24,000 years. Americans and Russians have a special obligation to address this problem, since they created it—and since they still own 95 percent of all nuclear weapons and materials.

Q. What is Putin's record on nuclear safety and non-proliferation?

Putin has begun taking the threat of nuclear terrorism quite seriously. Liability disputes that had threatened to derail U.S.-Russian cooperation have been swept away. In a joint statement with President Bush in February 2005, Putin recognized that, "The United States and Russia…bear a special responsibility for the security of nuclear weapons and fissile material, in order to ensure that there is no possibility such weapons or materials would fall into terrorist hands." Indeed, who could have imagined that 14 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, not one single nuclear bomb from the entire Soviet arsenal would have been found outside Russia? Recall that in December 1991, Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense, appeared on "Meet the Press." In that interview, he warned: "If the Soviets do an excellent job at retaining control over their stockpile of nuclear weapons—let's assume they've got 25,000 to 30,000; that's a ballpark figure—and they are 99 percent successful, that would mean you could still have as many as 250 that they were not able to control."

Q. What's the likelihood of terrorists getting hold of one of the weapons from the Soviet Union's arsenal?

Russia will be the most likely source of a terrorist's nuclear weapon or material—not because the Russian government would intentionally sell or lose them, but simply because Russia's eleven-time-zone expanse contains more nuclear weapons and materials than any other country in the world, much of it still vulnerable to theft. Although security at Russian nuclear facilities has increased dramatically since the early 1990's, only about half of the potentially vulnerable nuclear material in Russia has received comprehensive security upgrades.

Q. Should Russia's backsliding from democracy cause the U.S. to boycott the G-8 in St. Petersburg? Or suspend Russia from the G-8 until Putin's government "ends its assault on democracy and political freedom," as Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman have suggested?

Relative to our grandest hopes, Russia disappoints. Compared to our darkest fears, who could have imagined Russia today? Who could have imagined the evil empire disappearing without war? Who could have imagined a stable Russia after years in which further disintegration of the former Soviet Union seemed as likely as stability? Who could have imagined that a communist, totalitarian dictatorship would be becoming a "normal" middle-income transitional society analogous to Brazil, Venezuela, Indonesia, or Nigeria? Who could have imagined a Russian economy growing at over 7 percent per year since Putin came to power in 2000? Or international lenders stampeding to put money into Russia rather than take it out, just seven years after the August 1998 financial crash?

Ostracizing or isolating Russia will only add fuel to the country's backsliding. The U.S. must engage Russia to advance our most vital interests and our longer-term hopes for a healthy democracy in Russia.

Q. Why has Russia chosen energy security as its focus for the upcoming summit?

For several reasons, most importantly because it underlines Russia's role as an energy superpower. Who is the #1 supplier of oil and gas to the world today? Russia.

Q. What does Putin mean by energy security?

When consumers like the U.S. talk about energy security, they mean security of supply: assured supply of energy at affordable prices. Through the suppliers' end of the telescope, energy security appears quite a different matter. Suppliers like Russia focus on security of demand. They recall vividly 1999, when, after an excess of new production, prices dropped to $10 per barrel.

Q. What can we hope will be accomplished in St. Petersburg?

G-8 meetings are principally photo-ops in which leaders from the 8 richest nations congratulate each other on their status as heads of state. Unfortunately, most G8 meetings produce mostly hot air. Most communiqués express lofty objectives at a level of generality that allows each of the parties wide latitude for interpretation and requires no specific actions. The Petersburg communiqué is sure to be long on windy generalities.

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