U.S. should move cautiously in isolating nuclear Russia

By Chris Brown

A vote on March 24, 2014, by leaders from the U.S. and six other nations to remove Russia from the G8 may well serve to isolate Vladimir Putin’s administration from a key economic and political forum. But Western allies should be careful in just how far away they aim to push Putin.

With what may be about half of the world’s nuclear weapons under Putin’s control, according to estimates from the Federation of American Scientists[1], it is arguably in the West’s best interest to keep Russia within diplomatic reach. Ties between security initiatives in the U.S. and Russia, particularly the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program created by the 1992 Nunn-Lugar law, contribute significantly to reducing the likelihood of nuclear mishaps by securing and dismantling weapons of mass destruction.

In addition to securing nuclear warheads through CTR programs, nuclear stability in Russia—like in other nuclear countries—also depends in part on positive control mechanisms operated by rationally behaving states. In best-case scenarios, those controls should be under the purview of civilian authorities. Keeping a watchful eye on Russia is especially important, then, given its increased show of military might. Aggressively annexing Crimea from Ukraine may suggest that the Russian government is growing less risk-averse and more militarily focused. More importantly, it could also be a marker of organizational behavior that could lead to an accidental or deliberate war. All of this echoes theorist Scott Sagan’s important concerns over nuclear weapons proliferation.[2]

If the world hopes to continue moving toward net reduction of nuclear weapons, it is crucial to maintain open dialogue between countries with nuclear capabilities. Four G8 members—the U.S., United Kingdom, France and, until today, Russia—are among the nine nuclear-weapon states and collectively hold more than 95 percent of all nuclear fire power. It is within this group of nations that measures aimed at confidence-building and mutual weapons cache reductions must flourish if they are to succeed at all. Though the international community needs to send a strong message to Putin over illegal land grabbing, any consequences Western powers impose in response must consider the world’s ability to calculate correctly Russian nuclear weapons activities and facilitate continued nuclear stability.


Image Credit: Yahoo.com

[1] “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” Federation of American Scientists (FAS), accessed March 24, 2014, https://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/nuclearweapons/nukestatus.html/.

[2]Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed (New York: W.W. Norton & Company New York, 2003).

Chris Brown is a PhD candidate in biodefense at George Mason University. He holds a Master of Public Health in biostatistics and epidemiology from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and received his undergraduate degree in biology with a minor in Spanish from the University of Louisville. Contact him at mcbrown12@gmu.edu or on Twitter @ckbrow07.

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