Letter to the editor: Do more to manage the nuclear risk from sanctions

Steffan Puwal, Contributor

One month into the war, NATO and the United States seem committed to sending military equipment to Ukraine and imposing significant sanctions on Russia.  Press briefings, official statements, and countless editorials have emphasized limits to the military assistance we will provide and assured us that sanctions are the safest response.  The inherent implication is that a failed Russian economy will not risk nuclear consequences.  History suggests otherwise, and so we must be prepared to do more as we impose sanctions.

We’ve been here before

On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear device.  In the remaining forty-two years of the Cold War, they would produce nuclear weapons in numbers that bore no relation to military necessity or even economic ability.  Indeed, the peak of their stockpile, some 45,000 weapons, would be reached moments before the Soviet Union collapsed.  The Russian state that emerged was littered with the remnants of a vast nuclear program, racked by hyperinflation, and unable to pay its soldiers and nuclear workers.  It is not surprising, therefore, that a black market for nuclear materials emerged.

The list of attempts at trafficking Russian nuclear material is long.  In 1998 individuals in the Ministry for Atomic Energy attempted to steal fissile materials.  In 1999, security services in Bulgaria arrested individuals attempting to sell highly enriched uranium.  In 2000, sailors in Kamchatka stole the catalysts for the reactors on a nuclear submarine.  The next year, four more submariners were arrested after having stolen radioactive material.  In 2001, security services in Paris arrested individuals attempting to sell highly enriched uranium.  And it would happen again in Moldova in 2010.  The list goes on and on.

The United States was so concerned by this nuclear black market that it began to work in coordination with the Russian government to stop it.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a field office in Moscow, and the two governments established partnerships to account for nuclear material.  In one such program, Megatons to Megawatts, the Russian government decommissioned warheads and the United States purchased the uranium for use in nuclear power facilities.  When you turn on a light today, part of the energy may be produced by the same nuclear material that once caused our grandparents to practice duck and cover drills.

Sanctions are necessary

In the weeks since the Russian Federation began its war in Ukraine, its leadership has been referred to the International Criminal Court for investigation.  The President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom have referred to Vladimir Putin as a war criminal.  Each day provides new evidence of crimes.  It would be unthinkable to economically engage with a regime so committed to lawless aggression.  Severe sanctions are the obvious response and are both legally and morally justified.

As we impose these sanctions we must understand and manage the risk.  We are targeting the Russian economy with the intent to create economic harm.  Some forecasts project a double-digit contraction in its economy and foreign business are likely to avoid investment in Russia for years to come.  We will not see a nuclear weapon used in this war, but that is not the only nuclear threat we face today.  Already, there are reports of nuclear and radioactive materials being stolen by Russian forces in Ukraine.  A new black market for nuclear materials is a very real possibility if Russia’s economy collapses.

Manage the risk

In spite of the risk, sanctions should remain in place and be made stronger.  We should encourage a brain drain in the Russian Federation.  Doctors, nurses, and IT specialists should be encouraged to leave Russia in large numbers.  To prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology to rogue states, the United States must be prepared to welcome Russia’s disaffected nuclear scientists and physicists.

Congress has a role to play.  If Russia’s economy continues to worsen, new legislation will need to be written.  Programs will need to be developed that account for nuclear material across Eurasia.  Programs like Megatons to Megawatts, but for a new, less cooperative era.  Federal law enforcement agencies will require additional legislative support as they work to stop the illicit sales of nuclear materials on a resurgent black market.  Partnerships with law enforcement agencies across NATO will need to be strengthened.

Finally, lifting sanctions must require more than just a withdrawal of forces.  If that is our only precondition, it would wrongly say to the Russian people that we are okay with their living under a regime built on violence and theft as long as that violence and theft isn’t directed towards us.  Our preconditions for lifting sanctions must include firm commitments to human rights within Russia.  This is the only way to ensure a lasting peace.

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