Matthew Gordon-Banks

Fission for Fuel in a MAD World:


Disarmament Strategies between United States and Russia as Cooperative Nuclear States 

During the period of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) beginning in 1991 and the Agreement Concerning Disposition of Highly-Enriched Uranium Extracted from Nuclear Weapons (referred to hereafter as the Megatons to Megawatts Program) from 1993, Russian and U.S. collaboration facilitated respectively in the reduction of tens of thousands of both active and inactive nuclear warheads, as well as the dismantling of older Russian weapons whose downgraded uranium content was converted into nuclear energy used in the U.S.

How did international cooperation between the U.S. and Russians succeed despite their long-standing adversarial relationship, and the uncertainty of the early 1990s during which these agreements were implemented? The slowdown in disarmament and overall weapons dismantlement since the end of Megatons to Megawatts in 2013 has led to observations into the efficacy of the New START agreement and the future of the U.N. Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The resulting removal of low-enriched uranium from nuclear warheads to the United States for conversion into nuclear fuel being used for civilian energy represented a diplomatic and international achievement in itself, and the wider implications of bilateral disarmament are a useful precedent for both the U.S. and Russia to continue pursuing their nuclear dismantlement goals, as well as for other nuclear states to follow suit.

After the bilateral arms race commenced in after World War II, the prospect of nuclear conflict helped lead to the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and followed by the NPT in 1968. Cooperation between the United States and Russia over strategic arms disarmament and reduction in the 1990s represented a new phase in the two states’ relationship. Beyond the aims of the SALT agreements of the 1970s, the START treaty set into motion the exchange between Russia and the U.S. of downgraded nuclear uranium, and more substantively the dismantling of each state’s overall weapons stockpiles. The establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1957, tasked with overseeing peaceful uses of nuclear energy and ensuring non-proliferation throughout the world, is an example of another international institution overseeing the nuclear weapons world order.

The United States had become the sole superpower with the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. However, as the global hegemon the U.S. became responsible, both intentionally and inadvertently, for intervening in global security issues and territorial changes which occurred in the 1990s and 2000s alongside their economic ascendance brought about by globalization. The economic turmoil which the Soviet government wrought during reforms in the 1980s crippled their ability to remain the second superpower in the world. The reformation of Soviet territory carved into the new states of eastern Europe and central Asia also represented a significant loss of space and economic resources. More significantly, however, was the inheritance of several thousand nuclear weapons in the newly independent states of Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine; the presence of several new states in the “nuclear club” was another impetus for disarmament cooperation between the U.S. and Russians to proceed.

The establishment of the United States-Russia Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement (Megatons to Megawatts) in 1993 set about converting excess highly enriched uranium of Russian nuclear warheads into low enrichment nuclear fuel for civilian energy use in the United States. Its success enabled the ratification of the New START treaty in 2010 between the U.S. and Russia to advance the disarmament strategies between both countries, reducing their active weapons stockpiles to fewer than 1,600 warheads each. How can these programmes be replicated to continue the effort of multilateral disarmament in the twenty-first century? Despite the large achievements made in reducing global stockpiles from a peak of more than 32,000 U.S. warheads in the 1960s and more than 45,000 Soviet warheads in the 1980s, to a combined global stockpile of fewer than 16,000 warheads today, there appears to be a gradual departure by both the U.S. and Russia to continue to a conclusion their disarmament agreements.

If the diplomatic success of test ban treaties and non-proliferation agreements in the 1960s, the dialogue of détente and non-proliferation in the 1970s, and a final crescendo of the bipolar arms race in the 1980s represented gradual harmonization of relations during the intense rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States, the cooperative dismantlement of nuclear warheads and active weapons capacity in the 1990s was a culmination of years of diplomatic negotiations and political endeavour. Issues of cooperation decisions in the nuclear weapons sphere continue to develop and progress nearly thirty years after the end of the Cold War and the arms race which proliferated hundreds of thousands of weapons.

Chief sources of theoretical literature include articles from the 1980s and early 1990s, during the final stages of the Cold War and just before the START agreement and Megatons to Megawatts came into effect. Lipson’s 1984 essay on international cooperation over security and economic matters mentions the mutual interest in preventing nuclear war which existed between the United States and the Soviet Union. At the time of Lipson’s writing, the Reagan administration was pursuing its ambitious “Star Wars” missile defence systems during what would be the last phase of the U.S.-Soviet arms race. President Reagan at the same time was pursuing his government’s “shadow of the future” into the long-term goal of a nuclear missile-free world. Apart from the ubiquitous doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD), both the United States and Soviet Union recognized the natural flipside to MAD in the form of a less static Prisoner’s Dilemma in which both states could reduce their arms as quickly as they could increase their stockpiles.

Lipson goes on to examine the circumstances in which cooperation can occur given the relatively higher strategic importance of security over economic affairs. If the prospects of “unreciprocated cooperation” are even moderately high, it is also likely that greater suspicion will exist between both parties. There had been a great deal of mistrust and unknown intentions between both the U.S. and Soviets even after the negotiations which brought about the Partial Test Ban Treaty, SALT dialogue, and the eventual START treaty. Both countries had to rely on the dogma of MAD but were still able to facilitate reductions in arms testing and warhead stockpiles from the early 1960s onwards. Lipson mentions a quote from Khrushchev who, when referring to his dealings with President Kennedy, the Soviet premier came to regard as both his partner and adversary. This relationship casts a better light on the diplomatic and strategic balances which are required between competing countries if they seek to achieve détente: both states were actively pursuing increased weapons systems, competing in proxy wars to mutually contain each other’s spheres of influence, all while attempting to keep the world away from the brink of a third world war. Ultimately the United States and Soviets achieved this balance when they undertook START in 1991, no longer relying on arms races and proxy wars, instead focusing on domestic reforms (in the case of Gorbachev’s administration) and military/hegemonic re-alignment (in the case of the U.S.) after the fall of communism.

Fearon’s 1998 article examines the bargaining and cooperative strategies employed by competing countries in the exercise of power and collaboration, whether under conditions of anarchy, strategic structures, or shared enforcement problems. He examines the different background scenarios and stages of cooperation which occur between competing states, and which strategies can yield the most successful results. Important factors of trust between the two parties, anticipation of motives, and framing mutual strategic agreements feature in this article, but equally important is the efficacy of enforcement within agreements. The oversight of the IAEA and the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) were central to the implementation of START and Megatons to Megawatts throughout these agreements’ lifespans.

Snidal’s article explores the significance of relative gains which underlie results-oriented approaches in international cooperation. He posits the need to examine different motivations which exist between competing states, and how their national security interests not only exist in a unitary space, but co-exist with the security interests of their adversaries. Snidal uses several formulae to express the types and choices which exist in decision making between two states: such as if one state chooses to arm while the other disarms, if both states unilaterally arm, and if both states disarm. Cooperation can be better facilitated if both states are aware of the other’s intentions, and can gain (or avoid losses) in the strategic calculations. Disarmament under the START I treaty and exchanges made through Megatons to Megawatts reinforces this theory that both the U.S. and Russia sought to limit total loss potential (i.e. nuclear conflict or some other worst-case scenario) and strove to make gains in their cooperative decisions by pursuing mutual disarmament objectives.

Despite the long Cold War that had just concluded, the spirit of détente and cooperation that had been delicately fostered by successive U.S. and Soviet governments had culminated in a new era of strategic cooperation between both countries to begin partly disarming the nuclear weapons regime that had defined their adversarial relationship for several decades. Issues of strategic bargaining, achieving relative gains, and ensuring security cooperation throughout long periods of negotiations have all featured in the START disarmament processes and in the Megatons to Megawatts programme.

How can the rest of the world’s nuclear powers replicate the success of START or Megatons to Megawatts, given that worldwide disarmament strategies have progressively succeeded in reducing global nuclear weapons stockpiles over the years of negotiations? The programme was undertaken for a twenty-year period concluding in 2013, by which time over 500 tonnes of highly enriched uranium material, constituting approximately 20,000 Russian nuclear warheads, had been converted into 15,000 tonnes of low enriched material used as nuclear power in the United States. Such programmes have shown their capacity to provide bilateral and multilateral solutions as well as diplomatic achievements between former adversaries.

As Russia grows its military capabilities, and as the United States appears to shift its foreign policy to a more isolationist stance under President Trump, the need for continuing dialogue and further nuclear arms reductions remains a paramount concern during this new period of relations between East and West. The strategic limitations put in place by New START and its predecessor treaties have bound the U.S. and Russia to reduce their active weapons stockpiles further, but where that nuclear material is removed still poses infrastructural and security difficulties, in terms both of storage and safe degradation. The United States and Russia should seek to renew the Megatons to Megawatts programme for the benefit of converting unused nuclear fuel into civilian energy sources, so as to ensure weapon fuel supplies can be spent in both safe and effective ways.

The achievements in strategic disarmament during the last twenty-five years represent a complete about-face in the arms race which typified the Cold War. The United States and Russia have endeavored to reduce the risk of nuclear war through diplomacy and mutually assured destruction, as well as to ratify treaties reducing weapons stockpiles and ensuring non-proliferation. The success of START I and the Megatons to Megawatts programme between Russia and the United States are unique examples of once enemy powers cooperating reciprocally, rationally, and realistically; adjusting their foreign, military, defence, and national security policies in light of changes to the global order and their own national interests.

Such work continues today under the guidelines of New START, and appears to be extendable into the mid-term future. Further dismantlement of U.S. and Russian stockpiles will continue to set new precedents for other “nuclear club” states to pursue their own disarmament goals, using downgraded uranium material for domestic civilian energy use, and help create a world closer to the aims of zero nuclear weapons in the twenty-first century.

Matthew Gordon-Banks & Anthony Hughes

Scroll to Top