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Vladimir Putin Exits Nuclear Security Pact, Citing 'Hostile Actions' by U.S.
Saying relations with the United States have deteriorated in a "radically changed environment," President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia withdrew Monday from a landmark nuclear security agreement, in a troubling sign that the countries' cooperation in a range of nuclear areas could be threatened.
The treaty, on the disposal of plutonium, the material used in some nuclear weapons, was concluded in 2000 as one of the framework disarmament deals of the early post-Cold War period.
It required Russia and the United States to destroy military stockpiles of plutonium, a deal that represented another encouraging step away from nuclear doomsday and an insurance policy against the materials falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue states.
The deal has no bearing on the numbers of nuclear weapons deployed by Russia or the United States. Instead, it concerns 34 tons of plutonium in storage in each country that might go into a future arsenal, none of which has yet undergone verifiable disposal.
Still, the abrogation signals that the nuclear agreements that accompanied the breakup of the Soviet Union and were to lead the world back from the hair-trigger brink of atomic conflict could be open to revision, as Russia's relations with the West sour on a range of disputes today, including Syria and Ukraine and the Kremlin's interference in the domestic politics of Western democracies.
The Kremlin had signaled previously that it planned to cut back on mutual efforts with the United States to secure nuclear material on Russian territory.
Times have changed, Mr. Putin wrote in the decree signed on Monday. "The threat to strategic stability posed by the hostile actions of the U.S. against Russia, and the inability of the U.S. to deliver on the obligation to dispose of excessive weapons plutonium under international treaties" forced Russia's hand, he wrote.
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said the administration was disappointed by the Russian decision since "both leaders in Russia and the United States have made nonproliferation a priority."
"We've also been quite disappointed by a range of Russian decisions both in Syria and inside of Ukraine," Mr. Earnest said, adding that the decision on the plutonium deal was part of a problematic pattern.
Russia will withdraw from the original pact and subsequent amendments, the decree says, meaning that the country will no longer be treaty-bound to destroy its plutonium stockpiles. But the decree also offers an assurance, backed by no bilateral agreement, that the plutonium will not be used for military purposes.
"These agreements were designed to limit and circumscribe the future chances of getting back into a competition over nuclear arms," James Collins, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a telephone interview. "It was an important step in defusing the strategic nuclear arms race."
Mr. Collins, who was the United States' ambassador to Russia when the agreement was signed, called the abrogation a "strange move," given the extraordinary danger, not least to Russians, should plutonium fall into terrorist hands. He added that it was "in my understanding the first time they have withdrawn from a specific nuclear agreement," highlighting the slide in relations lately.
Russia and the United States had reaffirmed the plutonium disposal agreement in 2009, as President Obama pursued the "reset" policy with Dmitri A. Medvedev, then the Russian president.
Russia had viewed the agreement as rendering disarmament irreversible by destroying the fissile materials accumulated during the Cold War. In this light, the Russians had interpreted the treaty as requiring that the plutonium be irreversibly transformed into nonexplosive materials by using it in civilian nuclear power plants as a type of fuel, called mixed oxide fuel, or mox. Russia is pressing ahead with that.
But glitches and cost overruns in the mox plant at Savannah River, S.C., delayed the American program. This year, Mr. Obama proposed canceling the program in the 2017 budget and instead sending the plutonium for long-term storage at a nuclear waste site in Carlsbad, N.M.
The State Department has said the move complies with the treaty, but the Russians have said it does not, as Mr. Putin reaffirmed on Monday.
As ties with the West have frayed under Mr. Putin, analysts in Moscow have floated the prospect of a Russian pullback from an array of disarmament agreements dating from a period of greater friendliness. Two years ago, for example, the Obama administration accused Russia of violating another bedrock security agreement by testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile.
In Mr. Putin's second term in office, Russia pulled out of a treaty governing conventional forces in Europe in retaliation for the Bush administration's abrogation of the antiballistic missile treaty that prohibited missile defense systems.
Russia and the United States last signed a nuclear disarmament accord in 2009, when both sides agreed to a new limit on delivery vehicles such as bombers or cruise missiles of 500 to 1,100, and a limit on deployed warheads as low as 1,500.
In the chaos surrounding the end of the Cold War, the United States embarked on a sweeping program to secure the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal and fissile materials by returning them to Russia from former Soviet states and upgrading security at storage areas.
The Soviet nuclear program was so entwined with the economy and society that slowing the Cold War military machine took years and cost United States taxpayers billions of dollars.
In several cities, specialized nuclear reactors, for example, continued to pump out plutonium because they were also used to heat water for residential use in showers and space heating in nearby towns.
A 1993 agreement allowed Russia to sell blended-down uranium bomb cores to American utilities for use as fuel rods in civilian power plants, in a swords-to-plowshares program called Megatons to Megawatts. This program generated about 10 percent of all electricity in the United States for 20 years, until 2013. The plutonium program, while smaller, held the potential to also yield energy for civilian electrical networks.
It seems unlikely that the two countries will resume cooperation on plutonium soon. The Kremlin first wants the removal of all economic sanctions and compensation for the damage they have caused; the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, which allows Americans to freeze the assets of Russian officials thought to have been involved with human rights violations; and reductions in the American military presence in countries that joined NATO after Sept. 1, 2000.
[Source: By Andrew E. Kramer, International New York Times, Moscow, 03Oct16]
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