Analysis & Opinions - Russia Matters

25 Years of Nuclear Security Cooperation by the US, Russia and Other Newly Independent States: A Timeline

The timeline below was compiled by Simon Saradzhyan and Mariana Budjeryn and the foreword was written by William Tobey (author bios below). As an accompaniment, Ms. Budjeryn has also interviewed Sam Nunn, the former senator whose efforts were key to securing U.S. funding to help a disintegrating Soviet Union dismantle and safeguard its nuclear weapons. The timeline authors would like to thank former RM student associate Andre Gellerman for his research support and Susan Koch for her insightful comments. This is an evolving draft, produced in cooperation with the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and with support from the center's Managing the Atom Project. A bibliography can be found at the bottom of the page.


Twenty-five years ago at the first U.S.-Russian Summit meeting in Washington, D.C., presidents George H. W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin sealed an unprecedented agreement, symbolizing and catalyzing the tectonic events at the end of the Cold War. Both presidents took significant—almost implausible—risks. The United States agreed to provide aid to institutions that had targeted America and its allies with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons—albeit to assist with the destruction or improved security of those arsenals. Russia agreed to admit its former enemies to its most sensitive facilities, once the heart of the Soviet Union’s defenses—literally its secret cities. 

In the retrospective glow of success, it is easy to see the June 1992 “Umbrella Agreement” establishing cooperative threat reduction programs between the United States and Russia as inevitable, but it was not. In broad terms, it required imagination from academics and experts who conceived it, courage from legislators and diplomats who enacted, funded and codified it and practical solutions from the scientists and technicians who implemented it. Had any one of these groups failed to step forward, the effort would have failed—with potentially catastrophic consequences. Moreover, all of the creators of the Umbrella Agreement acted in an era still fraught with mutual distrust and uncertainty.

Only five years earlier, in June 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan stood in a bisected Berlin, itself enisled within a divided Germany, and demanded of his Soviet counterpart: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Moscow denounced the challenge as war-mongering, but two years later, in November 1989, General Secretary Gorbachev acquiesced and did just that.

Only 10 months before the Umbrella Agreement was signed, the Soviet Union itself hung in the balance. In August 1991, a group of Soviet military and security officials launched a coup d’état against then Soviet President Gorbachev, detaining him and seizing his means to control Soviet nuclear weapons. Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin, standing on a tank outside the parliament building, courageously faced down the coup.  The events of 1989 and 1991 could easily have ended in cataclysm rather than cooperative efforts to dismantle and secure the Soviet Union’s most deadly arsenals.  Fortunately, they motivated leaders in both the United States and Russia to act with urgency.

During the 1992 Washington summit, President Bush summarized America’s new view of Moscow: “Our support for Russia is unshakable because it is in our interest. Success for Russian democracy will enhance the security of every American.” President Yeltsin responded, “[T]he treaties and agreements that we have signed today do not just pertain to the two countries of ours. They are a sketch for a future world. They are characteristic of the kind of features that we want to see in this world. This world is becoming more attractive, more humane, kinder than we see today.”

For over 20 years, the United States and the Russian Federation acted in close concert to improve the security of nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials at nearly 150 sites in Russia and in dozens of other countries.  They also improved border controls, redirected scientists with weapons expertise, shut down plutonium-production reactors and converted 500 metric tons of Russian highly enriched uranium to reactor fuel, which for years provided about 10% of American electricity, turning megatons to megawatts. It was a program of remarkable achievement, which indisputably made the world safer.

Moreover, these efforts enjoyed consistent support through leadership changes in both countries, and despite acrimony in other realms. President George H. W. Bush signed the initial cooperative threat reduction legislation authored by Sens. Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar. President Bill Clinton gave shape and detail to the effort, essentially outlining all of the programs that would eventually be implemented. After the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush doubled funding for the efforts, increasing their scope and pace. President Barack Obama further broadened the span of activities with the Nuclear Security Summits. 

Equally in Russia, successive leaders supported cooperative threat reduction efforts.  President Boris Yeltsin had the courage and foresight to sign the Umbrella Agreement.  President Vladimir Putin, with President George W. Bush, launched the Bratislava Initiative, which set December 31, 2008, as the deadline for completing physical security upgrades in Russia, and increased the number of facilities within the scope of work.  President Dmitry Medvedev attended the first two Nuclear Security Summits.

This constructive continuity broke formally in November 2014, when Russia informed the United States that it would curtail cooperative threat reduction efforts by refusing to approve any new nuclear security projects in 2015.  Moscow also announced a boycott of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit. To be sure, the considerable improvement in Russian nuclear security, and the need to transform what had been a donor-recipient relationship into a partnership of equals, argued for revamping cooperative efforts. Nonetheless, their effective end within Russia leaves both countries less secure than they otherwise would be. 

Russia’s seizure of Crimea and use of force in eastern Ukraine, and the resulting Western sanctions on Moscow, have also taken a toll on cooperation. Late last year, President Putin cited a “radically changed environment” and “the threat to strategic stability posed by the hostile actions of the U.S. against Russia” as reasons for suspending Russian participation in an agreement to dispose of 34 metric tons each of U.S. and Russian military plutonium. Thus, whether or not the once vibrant U.S.-Russian cooperation on nuclear security can be rebuilt remains highly uncertain.

What is certain is that the threats to nuclear security continue to be real and urgent in Russia and elsewhere. Al-Qaeda and Chechen rebels both plotted acts of nuclear terrorism, and members of both groups remain active. The Islamic State shares al-Qaeda’s nihilism, but managed to amass substantially more territory, people, expertise and resources, even if they are now under sustained attack. In about two dozen cases over as many years, weapons-grade fissile material has been seized outside of authorized control, including cases in 2003, 2006, 2010 and 2011—incontrovertible evidence of nuclear security failure. Organized crime and corruption continue to beset Russia, including at nuclear facilities, and there are reports of the spread of radical Islam to Siberia and the Urals region, home to many of Russia’s nuclear weapons sites.

To address these threats effectively will require that the current set of American and Russian leaders demonstrate as much courage and creativity as did their predecessors in the 90s and naughts. It will, moreover, be even more difficult because of considerably worse relations between the two countries.

Mariana Budjeryn and Simon Saradzhyan have created a useful timeline for scholars of cooperative threat reduction efforts. Such works are the skeletons of history, requiring additional work to add the sinew, intellect and personality necessary for lifelike portrayals. Moreover, they are, like all histories, vulnerable to subjectivity in judgment and characterization. In this regard, some may see the events recounted differently, which offers the opportunity for dialectic improvement. Still, the story of the bombs that did not go off and the terrorist attacks that did not occur deserves to be told and understood and thus the timeline is an important contribution.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Budjeryn, Mariana, Simon Saradzhyan and William H. Tobey.“25 Years of Nuclear Security Cooperation by the US, Russia and Other Newly Independent States: A Timeline.” Russia Matters, June 16, 2017.

The Authors