Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

Laura Holgate on US-Russian Relations

Aug. 25, 2016

Andrei Zolotov at Russia Direct (RD) has published an interview with U.S. Representative to the IAEA and former National Security Council Senior Director for Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism and Threat Reduction, Laura Holgate (LH). I have posted some excerpts. 

RD: What is the place of Russia in your priorities regarding the IAEA and other organizations as well? How do you see possible cooperation in this field?

L.H.: For someone who spent the bulk of my career looking for ways to cooperate with Russia, I am certainly hoping to find new opportunities here in Vienna. The U.S. and Russia share many non-proliferation goals.

Most prominent is the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is the agreement on the guarantees of the exclusively peaceful character of Iran’s nuclear program signed in July 2015 in Vienna by Iran and the P5+1 — Editor’s note].

As someone who has not followed that issue in my Washington job, coming here and sitting on the sidelines of the recent Joint Commission meeting in July, it was really remarkable to see the common approach of the P5+1 in that process, and Russia in particular. That was gratifying to see up close how that manifested itself.

The U.S. and Russia were also able to cooperate in bringing the 2005 amendment to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material into force. [By May 8, 2016 two thirds of signatories of the 2005 document ratified it, so the legally binding amendment came into force — Editor’s note]. We worked together last fall on some parallel demarches. Not everybody understands that. But that was in the middle of the difference of views we had on the Nuclear Security Summit.

And yet we could agree that it was an important instrument of nuclear security — summit or no summit — and we had a common interest in pursuing it. I think we can both claim some credit for the entry into force in May of that amendment and strengthening the legal foundation for nuclear security.

I look forward to finding additional ways to work here with Russian Ambassador [Vladimir] Voronkov [Russia's Permanent Representative to the International Organizations in Vienna — Editor’s note] and his team in support of activities in the IAEA, but also elsewhere. Obviously, in Mr. Yuri Fedotov [Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime — Editor’s note] we have a strong Russian partner, and I know Russia takes a great interest in that organization as well.

There is much that U.S. and Russia can and should be working on together here in Vienna, and I look forward to building those opportunities.


RD: You were one of the key organizers of the Nuclear Security Summit. Russia did not participate in the last summit in Washington, but at the same time made the statement that now is the time to move the center of activities in this field here to the IAEA. I interviewed Ambassador Voronkov ahead of the summit and I know the Russian perspective on this issue. In your opinion, why that was the case? Why did Russia choose not to participate in the last summit?

L.H.: I think the Russian statements speak for themselves. I’ll just point out that they were factually incorrect. The Russians have raised some concerns about some proposed procedural approaches in 2014. Those concerns were shared by other countries, and the procedures were adjusted.

For Russia to continue to highlight those procedural concerns where they had been resolved I thought was unfair and unnecessary. I had remained in close touch with Ambassador Grigory Berdennikov [Ambassador at Large, Russia’s representative on the IAEA Board of Governors — Editor’s note] even after Russia had indicated privately that they would not participate in the summit. I continued to engage him and let him know how the summit preparations were proceeding.

But once Russia came out in public and mischaracterized the summit and the status of Russia vis-à-vis the summit, I had no choice but remove Russia from visibility on the preparatory process. That having been said, all the outcomes of the summit are perfectly visible.

I continue to think that it was a missed opportunity for Russia. I think the leaders who were present at the summit found it an extremely useful conversation. Russian leaders know from the previous three summits that this is not a venue to pick on a particular country — no one is exposed or attacked in the course of the conversation. The leaders did have an excellent meeting.

And there has never been a debate about the central role of the IAEA to say, “Now is the time.” It has always been the time for the Agency to play the central coordinating role [on the issues of nuclear security]. That has been requested by the member states for years now — through the nuclear security resolution of the General Conference and many other consensus documents. We certainly agree that the IAEA has the central coordinating role. But it does not have the exclusive role.  

The UN has important components to play — including Resolution 1540 and the Convention on Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, which is a Russian-launched convention. [UN Resolution 1540 establishes legally binding measures on all UN member states to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — Editor’s note] Interpol has an important role to play in the law enforcement relationship, which doesn’t happen in Vienna for legitimate reasons. The Global Partnership Against the Spread of Materials of Mass Destruction and the Global Initiative Against the Spread of Nuclear Terrorism also have important roles to play.

So, for the IAEA to update and make more substantive its current set of coordination meetings is something that member states have asked the Agency to do, and we certainly would welcome Russia’s support and involvement in improving that capability of the Agency.


RD: What do you expect of the ministerial conference on physical protection of nuclear material in December of this year?

L.H.: We have high expectations for that conference. First of all, it’s an opportunity to broaden the conversation to 169 countries. We also see it as the logical keeper of this high-level engagement that the summits brought about. It also has its value by allowing each country to select which minister is appropriate to send from their own governance point of view.

The U.S. will send Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. For us, he is the perfect package because he has responsibility not only for large amounts of U.S. nuclear material and the security thereof, but his department also does the bulk of our international cooperation on nuclear security and he himself has a strong personal interest in this issue.

But other countries will send other ministers and we really would like to see a significant representation of ministers to maintain this high level visibility and engagement on nuclear security issue. We also hope that the ministerial conference will continue in the summit tradition of bringing forward deliverables, that the national statements are not simply the rote recitations of “we ratified this treaty and we implement these laws,” but rather to say: “Here are things we have just completed or things we are planning to do in tangible implementation of our nuclear security responsibilities.”

We also hope that the ministerial conference will be a chance for the Agency to highlight its new responsibilities with the entry into force of the CPPNM Amendment that asks a lot of the member states, but it also asks a lot of the Agency. [The CPPNM is the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material — Editors’ note] We have waited for a decade for this amendment to enter into force.


RD: Your past experience has been much related to U.S.-Russia cooperation in disarmament, nuclear threat reduction and related fields. Now that the Nunn-Lugar program seems to be over, everything that had been started in the early 1990s is completed. What is the current status in the field? Has it just passed or is there some sort of follow up, something coming in its place?

L.H.: I am not going to accept your premise of Nunn-Lugar being over. [The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which sought to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in the post-Soviet republics — Editor’s note] The problems that it was conceived to solve — yes, we have largely solved them.

To the degree that we have concerns about Russian compliance with arms control — it’s not because of the lack of funding. We have succeeded with the single nuclear successor state to the Soviet Union. We have addressed many of the concerns that we had at the time about nuclear material security, although it continues to be a rich area of cooperation that is not necessarily associated with inadequacy, but just with continued improvement.

And in that regard we are very sad that Russia had chosen to truncate the good work that we were doing there, that had matured significantly from being a desperation-based relationship to one of peers and respected colleagues, who were sharing information, ideas, techniques, technologies and best practice on a peer to peer basis. And we established a legal arrangement on that basis that, unfortunately, Russia has chosen not to implement.

That having been said, we are still finding ways to work together in third countries to address the challenge of nuclear material security — in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, some other countries where Russia had provided material or where Russia has technology and equipment that is suited to managing those concerns. There is more to do in that respect that I hope we can continue to work appropriately on it.

But if you take the capital letters off Cooperative Threat Reduction and treat them as three words and a concept, I think it is far from history, it’s our future, and it is embedded in a lot of things that we do. Certainly, the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons was a particularly timely and challenging example of how the U.S. and Russia worked together with 20+ other countries to cooperatively reduce the threat. And we see that in our ongoing work in Libya to address the chemical weapons issue there.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Laura Holgate on US-Russian Relations .” Nuclear Security Matters, August 25, 2016,