Journal Article - Nonproliferation Review

Nuclear Security in Russia: Can Progress Be Sustained?

| May 08, 2018

At the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit, the assembled leaders—including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev—agreed that “nuclear terrorism is one of the most challenging threats to international security, and strong nuclear security measures are the most effective means” to prevent it. The effects of a terrorist attack using a nuclear explosive would reverberate throughout the world, giving all countries an interest in ensuring that states with nuclear weapons, weapons-usable nuclear materials, and major nuclear facilities protect them effectively. Unfortunately, however, much of the world knows little about how Russia—the country with the world’s largest nuclear stocks, dispersed throughout the world’s largest number of facilities—is fulfilling its nuclear security responsibilities.

Such information is no longer being made available as part of US–Russian nuclear-security cooperation, as since 2014 there has been a cutoff of all but a few elements of that work. Russia’s December 2014 decision to suspend nuclear security cooperation followed an earlier US suspension of nuclear energy cooperation as part of its response to Russian actions in Ukraine. The Russian decision had multiple causes, including US–Russian political tensions, Russian concerns over US experts visiting sensitive Russian nuclear sites, and Russia’s rejection of the overall framing of the cooperation as US “help” to Russia (putting Russia in the position of a weak state needing US assistance to manage its nuclear stocks). To help fill the resulting information gaps, this article uses publicly available documentation and interviews to explore the status of nuclear security in Russia in 2017, and its plausible future evolution. While it is difficult to assess the actual effectiveness of nuclear security on the ground, the information available is sufficient to assess key factors that drive the nuclear-security system.

Nuclear security in Russia improved dramatically in the two decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, as a result of Russia’s cooperation with the United States and others, Russia’s own efforts, and Russia’s economic recovery. The Russian government has repeatedly asserted that nuclear-security systems in Russia are now highly effective. But these security systems must protect against substantial and ever-changing threats. Russia suffers from significant terrorist activity, with Islamic extremism spreading from the Caucasus to many other areas of Russia, corruption (including in the nuclear sector), and organized criminal activity, all of which could increase both outsider and insider threats to Russia’s nuclear stockpiles and facilities.

Nuclear security can never be considered “done.” In the face of evolving threats, changing technologies, and newly discovered vulnerabilities, nuclear-security managers must focus on continual improvement. Yet security must constantly compete for resources and attention with other organizational priorities. Complacency about the threat and the effectiveness of existing security systems can erode nuclear security over time, particularly when organizations are under pressure to do more with less. In 2000, Jens Rasmussen and Inge Svedung argued that accidents are “the effects of a systematic migration of organizational behavior … under the influence of pressure toward cost-effectiveness in an aggressive, competitive environment.” The same could be said for security vulnerabilities.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bunn, Matthew and Dmitry Kovchegin. Nuclear Security in Russia: Can Progress Be Sustained?.” Nonproliferation Review, (May 8, 2018) .

The Authors