A documentation and critical oral history project on 20 years of the arms race in reverse, seeking lessons learned and unlearned for future cooperation on denuclearization.
The former Soviet Union in the 1990s achieved an unprecedented “proliferation in reverse” with the denuclearization of former republics and the consolidation of nuclear weapons and fissile material inside Russia. Notwithstanding the well-grounded fears of policymakers on both sides of the waning Cold War in 1990-1991, the dissolution of the Soviet Union did not result in a nuclear Yugoslavia spread over eleven time zones. Instead, the “doomsday clock” of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists marched backwards, in its largest leaps ever away from midnight.
Key to this extraordinary accomplishment was the U.S.-Russian Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, colloquially known as the Nunn-Lugar program after its two leading sponsors in the U.S. Senate, Sam Nunn of Georgia and Richard Lugar of Indiana. In fact, one could say that in the story of post-Cold War U.S.-Russian relations – so scarred with failures and missed opportunities and persisting animosity – the Nunn-Lugar initiative stands as a towering success.
Unfortunately, this success did not get major publicity at the time, and remains largely unknown today outside the expert communities in both countries. This lack of appreciation culminated in 2012 with Russia’s withdrawal from the program and assertion of independence from foreign aid. Yet below the radar the cooperation continued, for example with the February 2013 U.S.-Russian removal of enriched uranium from the Czech Republic – a signal of the continuing relevance of this two-decade-long experiment in joint work to reduce nuclear danger.
There are vitally important lessons to be learned from this pioneering experience of politicians, experts and civil society figures who saw the danger of uncontrolled proliferation of weapons and materials – and not least the “brains” behind those weapons – and decided to stop it. To do so required extraordinary vision and determination on the part of the early proponents of the idea – Senators Nunn and Lugar, and Congressman Les Aspin – to pass their legislation at a time when the United States was in economic recession and experiencing “end of Cold War fatigue.”
It also was no small feat to persuade the Soviet and later the Russian (and the Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Kazakh) politicians to join the program. The former superpower rival of the United States had to agree that the Americans (and the British) would come inside some of its most sensitive defense facilities and help destroy parts of its formidable potential. It took great skill, knowledge, diplomacy and determination on the part of the teams of American, British and European experts to visit Russian weapons sites and research institutes to assess the scope of the problems and to devise and carry out solutions in cooperation with their Russian counterparts. In this way, these teams were real pioneers stepping into the unknown of an unraveling nuclear superpower.
On the Russian side, it took a huge leap of trust and imagination to allow the former opponent into the heart of what used to be perceived as the key to the Soviet identity as a superpower – its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs. But late in the Gorbachev years when the principal decisions were made, and early in the Yeltsin years, the Soviet and then the Russian government succeeded in pulling back first the tactical and then the strategic nuclear weapons from the former republics, dismantling the Soviet biological weapons program, and securing Russian fissionable materials, to name just the most visible accomplishments. Russian foreign and defense ministry officials committed to radical arms control and non-proliferation had to overcome fierce resistance from “old thinkers” within their own ranks to bring about unprecedented transparency in the Russian defense industry.
A number of the participants in this grand experiment, along with astute observers like the Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist David Hoffman, have reported their understanding of the incentives and motives of the various parties, the political and institutional constraints, the actual fits-and-starts of the cooperative experience, and the model of expert teams working together to reduce threats. But so much underlying primary source documentation on the initiative remains secret on both sides that opening these files will require a sustained declassification effort in Washington, Moscow and elsewhere. And no one has brought together the experts and eyewitnesses for a systematic forward-looking review of the Nunn-Lugar experience in order to draw lessons and models for U.S.-Russian cooperation and future denuclearization efforts.
With the support of former Senator Nunn and his Nuclear Threat Initiative organization, the National Security Archive seeks to address the documentation deficit and the lessons-learned challenge through our research project focused on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program. Building on the existing research, the National Security Archive works on bringing together key evidence from documentary resources such as the Kataev papers at the Hoover Institution, the Volkogonov papers at the Library of Congress, the Energy Department’s OpenNet, the CIA’s CREST system, and the archives of the Russian Duma in Moscow. Archive staff has filed targeted declassification requests with the State Department for the extensive memcon and cable record of 1990s diplomacy, and with the Bush and Clinton presidential libraries, CIA and Defense and Energy Departments, among other U.S. agencies.
The project applied the method of “critical oral history” to bring together eyewitnesses, experts, scholars and documents in mutual interrogation about the recent history and the future lessons of CTR. The Archive has successfully used this method, originally developed by James Blight and janet Lang (at Harvard, Brown, and now the Balsillie School at the University of Waterloo), to produce remarkable revelations and insights (and multiple award-winning books and films) on topics ranging from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the escalation of the Vietnam War to the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe to current US-Iran relations.
We planned a series of “critical oral history” conferences (in the United States, Russia and perhaps Kazakhstan), that will develop lessons learned, enrich our understanding of the challenges of non-proliferation, and provide insights for further U.S.-Russian joint efforts to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The project will also publish a series of electronic briefing books in Russian and English to make widely available the documents from all sides. The transcripts of the “critical oral history” conferences organized by the Archive will likely provide the foundation for one or more books analyzing the Nunn-Lugar experience, and will guide further research both by the Archive staff and by the conference participants. Maintaining this expert dialogue about the CTR experience will also make a significant contribution to the ongoing challenge of U.S.-Russia engagement.
To date, the archive organized two major international critical oral history conferences, on U.S. decision making and the origins of Nunn-Lugar in September 2103 at Musgrove conference center at Sea Island [link], and on the Kazakhstan Nunn-Lugar story in 2015 in Astana[link], a seminar on Project “Sapphire,”[link] and a commemorative event with U.S. and Russian veterans of Nunn-Lugar Programs in the U.S. Senate building headlined by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar.