The world's attention, and deservedly so, has been focused this April on the 20th anniversary of the accident at Chernobyl, when a nuclear power reactor exploded in flames and contaminated an enormous swath of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Since 1986, the nuclear-power establishment in this part of the world has been dealing with the consequences of this disaster, and many brave men and women have lost their lives or their health in doing so.
This April marks another anniversary worth noting, though: 10 years since the Group of Seven industrialized countries gathered in Moscow to discuss the safety and security of weapons-usable nuclear materials. In April 1996, Russia was not yet a full member of the group, but the G7 leaders nevertheless wanted to give Boris Yeltsin his own G7 summit. It was a vital election year for him, and they all wanted to see him win.
And they had other worries: The danger that nuclear materials would be stolen out of Russian facilities and sold on the black market was a terrifying possibility in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's breakup. The economy was in chaos; nuclear scientists and rocket forces officers were not being paid. Nuclear facilities were going without electricity, and their physical infrastructure was breaking down. In that environment, Yeltsin and the G7 leaders agreed that safe and effective management of weapons materials was a vital topic.
Soon after, Russia joined the group as a full member, and the process rolled on, producing annual summits in every G8 country like clockwork. This year is Russia's turn, with a grand summit planned in St. Petersburg in July. Sadly, however, Russia and the other G8 members are disappointed in each other. Moscow complains that it hasn't been accepted as a full club member; the others complain that Russia hasn't stepped up to the standards of the club, particularly on matters of democratic and economic reform.
There is certainly truth on both sides in this argument, but the fact is that the St. Petersburg summit and Russia's G8 presidency do not seem slated, at the moment, for success. For that reason, it's a good time to look back on the 1996 summit in Moscow and consider the record on nuclear cooperation. Maybe, just maybe, we've come farther than we think in Russia's relationship with its G8 partners.
To be honest, the Moscow nuclear summit was a bit of what we used to call a "nothing-burger" in Washington slang. It produced a grand summit statement, exhorting all to reaffirm their commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and recognizing various steps they had already taken, such as blending down highly enriched uranium so that it could no longer be used in weapons. But the meeting did not launch any new programs or nail down ongoing activities with specific deadlines. Most importantly, nobody put any new money on the table, which is always the hallmark of a summit's success.
What the Moscow summit did do, however, was begin to meld a highly effective focus on proliferation threats within the G8. By 2002, this produced a brand new Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, launched at the Kananaskis G8 meeting in Canada. This was a successful summit: The partners pledged $20 billion over a 10-year period, $10 billion from the United States to be matched by $10 billion from the rest of the G8 countries.
Under the G8 leadership, the Global Partnership has expanded to become an international team of countries cooperating to solve nuclear security and other proliferation problems throughout Russia, and it is now also being applied in Ukraine. Interestingly, Russia has taken the clear role of a partner in this effort, bringing its own resources to the table -- $2 billion over the 10-year span of the program -- and leading in certain project areas such as submarine dismantlement.
The 1996 Moscow summit also gave a boost to U.S.-Russian bilateral efforts. For much of the 1990s they had drifted, plagued by a significant confidence gap between two nuclear complexes used to operating as enemies. The Russians in particular were loath to admit they had a problem with the security of their weapons or nuclear materials. At the 1996 Moscow meeting, Yeltsin finally agreed that the nuclear security problems in Russia were serious and could exacerbate the threat of nuclear terrorism.
This shared threat assessment in turn helped to create a coherent and intensive program to protect, control and account for nuclear weapons and materials. Although the effort suffered serious fits and starts for the next decade, by 1998, Washington and Moscow had signed an agreement to implement nuclear material protection programs. It was followed in a few years by cooperative projects to protect warheads. And at the Bratislava meeting between President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin in 2005, the two sides agreed to speed up these programs, finishing them by 2008 instead of 2012.
So although the Moscow nuclear summit was not a glory unto itself, it produced a significant change in attitude among the G8 countries. They became willing to work on the threat of nuclear proliferation in a significant partnership -- including with the country where the threat is most vivid, the Russian Federation.
Now that a grand malaise has set in and doubts are being raised about whether it's worth continuing the G8 relationship with Russia, it's good to remember the nonproliferation experience. Whether it's protecting nuclear materials, cutting up submarines, stopping plutonium production, or destroying chemical weapons, the G8 partners have had a significant success.
Russia, most importantly, has been willing to play the role of a partner. That means it has brought money to the table and taken the responsibility for doing projects right. Russia does not have to be a grumbling recipient of assistance or a corrupt manipulator of its environment. It has proven itself a pragmatic and capable partner in the nonproliferation arena. Now, the G8 countries just have to figure out whether this experience will work anywhere else in their relationship with Moscow.