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Putin Suspends U.S.-Russia Plutonium Deal, Blaming NATO, Sanctions, Magnitsky Act

  • Mike Eckel

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and U.S. President Bill Clinton exchange agreements on the safe disposition of 68 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium in Moscow on June 4, 2000.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and U.S. President Bill Clinton exchange agreements on the safe disposition of 68 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium in Moscow on June 4, 2000.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has suspended a 16-year-old deal that called for reducing some of Russia's and the United States' stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium, citing "Washington's unfriendly actions toward Russia."

The demise of the agreement, which harkened back to days of better cooperation between the two nuclear powers, came after months of signals from the Kremlin that Russia was ready to back out of the deal.

In a statement by the Kremlin on October 3, Putin blamed the demise of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement on "the emergence of a threat to strategic stability and as a result of unfriendly actions by the United States of America towards the Russian Federation."

The announcement listed a litany of grievances against Washington, including NATO actions in Europe, and alleged U.S. support for right-wing groups in Ukraine. It demanded Washington compensate Moscow for the sanctions imposed after Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

It also called for repeal of a 2012 U.S. law known informally as the Magnitsky Act that sanctioned 18 Russians, most of whom were allegedly involved in a massive tax-fraud scheme and the death of the whistle-blowing Russian lawyer who uncovered it.

The law enraged the Kremlin, and prompted it impose a ban on Americans adopting Russian children.

The announcement issued by the Kremlin said draft legislation had been submitted to Russia's lower house of parliament as part of the suspension of the agreement.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau lamented the Kremlin decision, arguing that the disposal deal was beneficial to both countries.

"This is the latest in a series of steps by Russia to end long-standing cooperation on nuclear security and disarmament," she said.

"It's disingenuous of Russia to cite the United States' 'threat to strategic stability' as the reason for this decision. The United States seeks a constructive dialogue with Russia on strategic issues but it is Russia instead who continues to engage in destabilizing activities and to suspend cooperation under existing agreements like this one that benefit international security," she said.

Example Of Bilateral Cooperation

Negotiated during the administration of Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin and signed in 2000, the agreement sought to make arms reductions irreversible and eventually committed each country to disposing of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium -- enough for 17,000 nuclear weapons combined.

The two countries possess the world’s largest stockpiles. According to the most recent U.S. Energy Department data, the United States had around 95 tons, most of which was weapons grade.

Russia, for its part, is estimated to have around 128 tons of weapons-grade plutonium.

But the deal had been viewed by many arms-control experts as an example of the kind of bilateral cooperation the two countries were capable of. As recently as 2010, Moscow and Washington recommitted themselves to it.

The deal, which was negotiated in the 1990s, called for turning a chunk, though not all, of the countries' weapons-grade plutonium stockpiles into other forms, such as fuel for nuclear power plants.

Plutonium has been produced in the United States and Russia for decades. In its enriched form, it is valued as fuel for nuclear weapons; in a less-pure state, it can be used to fuel power plants.

In the United States, the disposal process has long involved blending the plutonium with uranium and turning it into mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) for use in power plants.

A government facility being built in South Carolina for that purpose, however, has gone billions of dollars over-budget and fallen far behind schedule. The fact that uranium prices have fallen amid a global glut means there's even less demand among nuclear-plant operators for MOX.

In February, following years of mounting criticism, President Barack Obama's administration pulled funding for the MOX facility, a decision that was praised by some experts and former U.S. administration officials as "principled."

In place of the MOX plant, the U.S. government has leaned toward a "dilute and dispose" approach, or "immobilization."

That involves adding the plutonium to a nonradioactive substance, encasing it in glass or metal-can type containers or oil drums, and burying it at a federal waste site in New Mexico. Unlike with MOX, experts say this method could still allow for plutonium to be extracted some day and put back into weapons, though with difficulty.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on October 3 cited that possibility as one of the reasons why Russia was pulling out of the agreement.

The acrimony in relations between Washington and Moscow has reached levels unseen since the Cold War. Russia's annexation of Crimea, and its backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 9,600 people fueled the acrimony, as has Russia's intervention in Syria and NATO's increasingly assertive military presence in Eastern Europe.