In its proposed budget the Bush Administration laid out a $100 million cut in current cooperative non-proliferation programs with Russia. In this Issue Brief Mike McFaul, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment, argues that this is a reduction the United States cannot afford. His comments were originally published in the New York Times on April 11, 2001. 

President Bush and his new foreign policy team have announced that they plan to undertake a full review of all aspects of American policy toward Russia on matters like economic assistance, NATO expansion and missile defense. There must be a new agenda, we are told, because the old approach of cooperation and engagement pursued by the Clinton administration has been ineffective. In hinting at the tone of their new policy, Bush administration officials have promised a realist approach, which would presumably include greater attention to Russia's international conduct and less to reforms within Russia.

Reviews are necessary and rethinking of policies prudent. But why, before the review is completed, has the administration already announced plans to cut cooperative nonproliferation programs between the United States and Russia? Perhaps, after a thorough reassessment, the Bush team could make the case that the cooperative programs that we now sponsor in Russia and other former Soviet republics do not serve American national security interests. Until such a case can be made, however, the proposal to cut these programs by $100 million, or more than 10 percent, from current financing levels is bad policy and worse as symbolism. True realism on the part of the Bush foreign policy team would mean increasing, not decreasing, the size of these efforts.

Even two decades ago, it would have been unthinkable for Country A to pay Country B to destroy its weapons. But that is precisely what American-Russian nonproliferation programs have achieved in the past several years. With the end of the cold war, Russian leaders — committed to greater cooperation with the West — allowed the United States to pursue our national security interests by new, nontraditional means. In 1991, the idea that we could pay the Russians to deactivate nuclear delivery systems, enhance the storage and security of nuclear materials and keep their nuclear scientists employed was radical. It showed real leadership that George H. W. Bush, who was then the president, embraced this new approach as part of a national security strategy.

A decade later, cooperative threat reduction is widely accepted. A bipartisan review commission headed by former Senator Howard Baker fully endorses the idea, and Democrats and Republicans vote year after year to finance these programs. And President Vladimir Putin and the Russian army continue to participate willingly in them. Indeed, Mr. Putin's recent firing of the conservative head of the Ministry of Atomic Energy suggests that he might be prepared to go even further to restructure the Russian nuclear complex.

Promoting nonproliferation programs in Russia, of course, directly benefits American national security. The fewer delivery systems of nuclear weapons there are in Russia, the better; the more securely and safely stored are those nuclear materials, the better. If the Bush administration is prepared to spend tens of billions of dollars on missile defense systems to protect Americans against potential threats in the future, it cannot justify cutting the already modest budget for nonproliferation programs that help diminish a real threat in existence today.

These programs are also crucial to maintaining open channels between the United States and Russia at a time when other opportunities for cooperation are disappearing. Without question, Mr. Putin's negative activities in other areas — whether stifling the independent press or trading weapons with Iran — will make it more difficult to have meaningful and positive relations. In fact, cuts in some assistance programs to the Russian state (though not to Russian civil society, as in programs that support the development of an independent press) may be appropriate. But reducing nonproliferation programs as a reaction to objectionable Russian behavior in other areas makes no sense and is contrary to American security interests.

Ten years after the Soviet Union's collapse, it is remarkable that the decaying Russian state has not allowed more weapons of mass destruction out of Russia and that there have not been more accidents with nuclear materials. Yet, these threats to American security must not be underestimated. We should in fact be accelerating aid to dismantle this threat, not reversing course. At a time when there appear to be growing strategic conflicts between the United States and Russia, we cannot afford to undercut the one area where there is agreement and cooperation.