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Moskau Russische Interkontinental Rakete Atomwaffen Russland
Image: Getty Images/AFP/N. Kolesnikova

Moscow's Plan B

Roman Goncharenko
October 18, 2016

Russian parliament is voting to suspend a treaty with the US over the destruction of weapons-grade plutonium. Moscow has accused Washington of breaking the deal. What is behind their decision?


Russia's Duma will vote Wednesday on a bill that is causing a stir abroad. At issue is the suspension of an arms control agreement between the United States and Russia that calls for the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the step in early October. The bill seems certain to pass Russia's lower house of parliament, where the Kremlin party "United Russia" holds a constitutional majority. It could even pass unanimously. Getting through Russia's Federal Council seems just as certain, in which case the bill could become law as early as next week.

The original agreement between Russia's Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation and the United States Department of Energy was negotiated in the late 1990s and signed in 2000. The deal called for the disposal of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium by both parties. Besides being exorbitantly expensive to maintain, these stockpiles of highly radioactive Cold War leftovers became redundant after both countries agreed to reductions in their respective nuclear arsenals.

Moscow blames Washington

Putin gave two reasons for the decision: one formal, one geopolitical. Firstly, he says that Washington has not abided by the methods of disposal outlined in a 2010 protocol. That agreement stipulated that weapons-grade plutonium be incinerated at nuclear facilities, thus rendering it unusable.

Russia, for its part, built a facility at which weapons-grade plutonium could be mixed with uranium. That mix was then to be used to produce energy at a nuclear facility located beyond the Ural Mountains. The US has no such facilities, and made the decision to store its plutonium underground. That is a problem from Russia's point of view because the material could theoretically be reused.

Putin Portrait Symbolbild NGO-Agenten-Gesetz Russland
The fault lies with the US - that is how Putin justifies his decisionImage: AFP/Getty Images/A. Nemenov

Putin said that a "cardinal change" in relations between the US and Russia was the second reason for the decision. In an additional explanation to the proposed bill, the Kremlin boss listed a number of negative developments: These range from an increased US and NATO military presence in Eastern Europe to Western sanctions imposed after Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.    

Russia's Foreign Ministry said that Moscow would be willing to reinstate the plutonium disposal agreement as soon as the aforementioned problems are resolved. Russia not only insists that the US lift its sanctions, but, according to Moscow, expects financial compensation for economic damages.

However, Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, denied any direct correlation, saying that it would be wrong to speak of Moscow making "demands." Putin, he says, was just laying out in detail the backdrop against which his decision was made.

Following up the import ban

The announcement was met with approval in Russia, with most politicians seeing it as a logical step. Some expressed the opinion that the plutonium was necessary in light of the threat posed by the US. That directly contradicts Moscow's official position, however. Russia has sworn that it will not use plutonium scheduled to be disposed of for military purposes.

Russland Atomkraft Wiederaufbereitungsanlage in Osjorsk
It remains unclear what will happen to the weapons-grade plutonium in RussiaImage: Imago

Some experts believe that the suspension of the agreement is Moscow's second big answer to the current crisis in its relationship with the United States. They say it represents a kind of "Plan B" to follow the counter-sanctions that it imposed in the summer of 2014. Back then, Moscow enacted an import ban on food from countries that had imposed sanctions on Russia for its role in the crisis in Ukraine.

No military consequences

Yet there are those who see the move as a purely symbolic gesture. "I really don't see any consequences, neither technically, nor militarily," said Moscow security expert Alexey Arbatov when speaking with the news agency Interfax. The fact is the agreement has been invalid and lost all relevance long ago, he added. Vladimir Dvorkin from the Carnegie Moscow Center sees things similarly, he thinks that the decision is "primarily a political step."

It is currently unclear what will happen to Russia's weapons-grade plutonium. Moscow has given no specifics on the subject. The only thing that is clear is that it is irrelevant to Russia's military strength. According to estimates, Russia is sitting on some 130 tons of weapons-grade plutonium - much more than any other nuclear power, and 40 tons more than the United States.

Russia is not engaged in "saber rattling" and is not trying to scare anyone, wrote the Russian government daily "Rossiyskaya Gazeta." But the paper went on to write that there was no point in unilaterally disposing of 34 tons of plutonium: "That might tempt the adversary to get its toys back out."     

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