Kremlin to pull out of Russia-US nuke lockdown program

Russia's plan to end the Nunn-Lugar program, in which the US aided Russia in handling post-Soviet weaponry, is just part of Russia's shifting policy regarding international cooperation.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
The Russian Foreign Ministry headquarters seen reflected in a shop window in Moscow on Oct. 4, 2012. This week, the Foreign Ministry gave UNICEF until the end of the year to end operations in Russia, and the Kremlin announced its intention not to renew the Nunn-Lugar program, in which the US aided Russia in locking down its nuclear weapons.

Russia will halt its participation in the $7 billion, 20-year-old Nunn-Lugar program that aimed to lock down post-Soviet nuclear materials and chemical weapons, in what some experts say is part of a wider reassessment by the Russian government of its cooperation with a wide variety of foreign organizations.

In recent weeks the Kremlin has accused the US Agency for International Development (USAID) of interference in internal Russian politics and ordered it to shut down operations in the country. This week, the Foreign Ministry announced that it has given the United Nations's children's agency, UNICEF, until year's end to wrap up its programs in Russia and move on to a new model of cooperation. The cases are all different, analysts stress, but the fact that they're happening all at once suggests a wider policy shift is rapidly coming into effect.

One reason for the change is that Russia is no longer the economically impoverished state it was in the 1990s, and is ready to part with some forms of humiliating development assistance that it can easily pay for itself, experts say.

But another reason, spelled out in a foreign policy manifesto issued by then presidential candidate Vladimir Putin last February, is that the Kremlin fears that foreign-based organizations bring instability and political subversion into Russia.

"In the 21st century, when the whole world is locked in financial crisis, Russia is doing relatively well. Why on earth would we still need America to pay for dismantling our nuclear weapons?" says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. "Same with USAID and UNICEF. There is simply no obvious case to be made for Russia receiving the kinds of aid that are designed for developing countries."

But Mr. Lukyanov argues the wave of terminations is unfolding right now, in some cases quite abruptly, in part due to domestic political reasons. Mr. Putin, he says, is moving swiftly to fulfill his election program.

"It's all there in Putin's article, about how he sees the outside world as a source of dangerous turbulence," he says.

"In Putin's view, the goal of Russian leadership is to protect the country from harmful outside influences....  He believes that Russia can remain a safe haven in an ocean of political instability, but it is necessary to limit the intrusion of outsiders into our internal processes," he adds.

The Russian Foreign Ministry announced the termination of Nunn-Lugar in a terse statement posted Wednesday that said there will be no renewal when it expires next June, despite US pleas to renegotiate. "Our American partners know that their offer is not in accordance with our ideas about the form and the basis of a future cooperation," it said. "For this, a different and more modern legal framework is needed."

The decision appeared to catch the US by surprise. In a statement posted on his website, Sen. Dick Lugar (R) of Indiana said that as recently as last August he'd been talking with the Russian side about extending the agreement with a few amendments.  "At no time did [Russian] officials indicate that... they were intent on ending it, only amending it," he wrote.

The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, largely financed by US taxpayers to the tune of about $7 billion over the past two decades, oversaw the removal of ex-Soviet nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan; deactivated almost 8,000 nuclear warheads; dismantled 33 atomic submarines; and cleared away thousands of tons of chemical weapons. Mr. Lugar insists that there is still plenty of work left to do, including helping the Russian Space Agency to destroy old Soviet-era SS-18 and SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Russia has signaled that whoever may win next month's US presidential election, the much-discussed "reset" of relations between the US and Russia, which was a centerpiece of the Obama administration's first-term foreign policy, is probably over.

"If we speak about the ‘reset,' it becomes clear, taking into account the computer-related origin of this term, that it cannot last forever, otherwise it is not a ‘reset’ but a program failure," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Moscow daily Kommersant last week.

Experts say the shifting policy toward international cooperation should be seen in connection with a changing domestic environment, in which it is becoming much harder for Russian civil society organizations to work with foreign counterparts or receive funding from abroad, particularly if their activities involve any friction with authorities. In June, the State Duma passed a law that will require any non-governmental organization that tries to "influence public opinion" and gets any amount of outside financing to self-identify as a "foreign agent." The Duma is currently debating amendments to the criminal code that will redefine "treason" to include almost any Russian who helps a foreign organization in any way seen by the Kremlin as harmful to Russian interests.

"Our authorities are not so interested in solving social problems, but they are keen on reducing all possible foreign funding or influence," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Duma's committee on international affairs.

"You have to see these developments as part-and-parcel with the legislative changes taking place. The technique here is first to try and discredit an organization publicly, and then to close it down," he adds.

Iosif Diskin, who heads the civil society committee of Russia's Public Chamber, a Kremlin-backed assembly of NGOs, says there is a long-term logic to what is happening, which includes a huge increase in governmental support for developing Russian civil society.

"Some of the cases are different, but I know that the Russian government has been negotiating with UNICEF since 2009 about changing the model of the relationship," he says. "Russia doesn't need financial support from UNICEF to work with children anymore, but we do need to maintain cooperation, especially in places like former Soviet Central Asia where we are nowadays sending Russian aid."

But he says he was surprised by the suddenness of USAID's withdrawal from Russia.

"We were cooperating with USAID, and were told just a few months ago that there was no problem," Mr. Diskin says.       

The bottom line, he says, is that Russian authorities are dividing non-political civil society – such as sports, cultural, and community groups – from those few that engage in "political activities" that bring them into friction with the state.

For the non-political ones, the Kremlin is tripling official funding next year to 3 billion rubles (about $100 million), he adds.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a veteran human rights campaigner and head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest human rights watchdog, says the Kremlin's main goal is to shut down independent activity and limit the funding options for all Russian civil society organizations to officially approved sources.

"Russia can't afford to finance all the projects that US foundations have helped, but that doesn't matter to our authorities," she says. "They're ready to leave humanitarian projects unfunded, if it helps achieve their purpose of silencing independent groups that get in their way."

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