STRATEGIC WEAPONS

State Dept. Official: Russian Nuclear Disarmament Must Continue (UPDATED)

3/22/2016
By Yasmin Tadjdeh
Russian convoy of nuclear missiles.

While the United States has made great headway reining in Russia’s stock of nuclear material, more work still needs to be done, said the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security March 22.

Approximately 138 metric tons of Russian highly enriched uranium has been permanently eliminated under an agreement with the United States, said Rose Gottemoeller. That would be enough to create 5,500 nuclear weapons. Concurrently, the United States “down blended” 29 metric tons of its own uranium, which could have created 1,100 weapons.

“We have been able to do quite a bit of very successful work with the Russian Federation on matters of both nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear arms control,” she said during a breakfast meeting with defense reporters in Washington, D.C.

She pointed to agreements such as the New START Treaty, which would require both the United States and Russia to alert the other about the movement of its nuclear forces.

“The Russians have to notify us every time they, for example, move an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] from deployment status to maintenance and back again,” she said. “We have to notify them whenever we move a bomber out of its deployment phase for more than 24 hours. So there are particular aspects in the New START Treaty that really lends predictability and mutual confidence to both capitals at a time of difficulty in our relationship.”

However, other agreements have been less successful, she noted. Russia is in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that requires the elimination of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, Gottemoeller said.

“We are concerned that Russia has violated the treaty with the development of a new very capable ground launch cruise missile that has been tested to intermediate ranges,” she said.

However, Gottemoeller noted that she has spoken with key Russian decision makers who have committed themselves to the renewal of the INF Treaty. “It’s important for security and that has … heartened me in terms renewing our diplomatic efforts.”

While the INF Treaty violation isn’t ideal, Russia has been a partner with the United States in removing nuclear material across the globe, such as in Uzbekistan and Iran, she noted.

However, Russia’s former foreign minister Igor Ivanov recently said there is a greater likelihood of nuclear weapons being used in Europe than there was in the 1980s.
“We have less nuclear warheads, but the risk of them being used is growing," Reuters quoted him as saying in Brussels.
Gottemoeller likened these comments to “saber-rattling.”

“I’ve been concerned and perturbed that there seems to be saber-rattling from time to time, most recently at the … Brussels Forum right over the weekend and to us that is simply unwarranted and does not make any sense whatsoever,” she said. She noted that the United States has deemphasized the importance of nuclear weapons in its own national doctrine and strategy.

“I’m a bit puzzled. You know, where does this come from? This sudden … threat of nuclear war is greater? I just don’t understand it,” she said.

Russia has declined to participate in the upcoming Nuclear Industry Summit in Washington, D.C., which is the fourth meeting of its kind, Gottemoeller said. The nation had taken part in the previous three summits, which took place in Washington, D.C., Seoul and The Hague, the Netherlands.

“Russia declined to participate in this summit. They made that very clear starting last fall. Well, that’s their decision. It’s up to them,” she said. “I don’t understand myself why they decided they didn’t want to come to the summit itself because we are continuing to work together.”

The fourth summit — which takes place in late March — is meant to place the issue of nuclear fissile material reduction at the forefront, she said.

“The president always wanted to bring his counterparts, presidents and prime ministers, to the table in order to raise attention to this nuclear security matter to the very highest levels of government,” she said.

Meanwhile, Gottemoeller said North Korea will need to be watched. The nation has recently engaged in a series of missile tests that have been a cause of worry among nations across the Asia-Pacific region.

“It’s clear that [the North Koreans] have been intensively responding and interacting recently with … a number of tests that have been launched,” she said. “This is in some sense predictable behavior because we do have our annual exercises going on right now. And so we’re used to that pattern of behavior.

“I don’t think it’s anything particularly surprising but we have been concerned about North Korean action now, well, for many years and particularly in my bailiwick. The intensification of work on their nuclear program and the intensification and work on their mission program including their long-range missile program is cause for a great, great concern.”

The United States, working alongside the United Nations Security Council, has imposed a series of sanctions that limits the nation’s ability to ship luxury items in and out of the country, affecting North Korean leadership. Additional constraints have been placed on the country’s banking and financial sectors as well as some areas of industry including mining.

“We have really in response to their intensified efforts ratcheted … up the response,” she said.

Gottemoeller was recently nominated by Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to fill the position of NATO deputy secretary general. Some Republicans in the House of Representatives have soured on the choice and have sent a letter to Kerry asking him to revoke the nomination.

In a statement, Congressman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, recently said: “We believe Ms. Gottemoeller has exhibited a pattern of behavior that suggests she may have repeatedly misled members of Congress and our NATO allies,” he said. “Given the important role NATO plays in bringing stability to both Europe and North America, it is imperative to have the right individuals selected to execute this role.”

The letter said Gottemoeller misled Congress about a newly disclosed Russian nuclear weapons system and her knowledge of it while she negotiated the New START Treaty.

Without commenting on the pushback, Gottemoeller said, “Being nominated for this position is an enormous honor. I am the first woman who would hold such a senior post at NATO,” she said. “I’m not presuming on the process. … It is a nomination but not a selection and I don’t want to presume.”

A State Department official who spoke to National Defense on condition of anonymity said the agency rejected the characterizations made in the letter.

"Any suggestion that Undersecretary Gottemoeller willfully gave false testimony or deliberately misled anyone about the scope of our knowledge of Russian conduct is both misinformed and an affront to the character and integrity with which she continues to serve this country," the official said.

This story has been updated to include comments from an anonymous State Department official.

Photo: iStock

Topics: International, Missile Defense

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