Growing tensions between Russia and the United States over Ukraine have caused an abrupt and unfortunate halt to collaborative work between U.S. and Russian nuclear scientists.
Less than one year ago, the two countries reached agreement on an exchange of nuclear science information that would have could have helped put to rest some of the nuclear competition left from the Cold War era of the 1950s and 1960s.
Instead, the fallout from Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, followed by its support of rebels in eastern Ukraine, torpedoed much of the nuclear goodwill that was developing between high-ranking energy officials in both countries.
In fact, political observers and senior citizens who grew up in the “drop and cover” days of the original Cold War worry that the growing rift between the two global powers could ignite a 21st century Cold War redux.
The chill between Russia and the U.S. is most visible in the tit-for-tat sanctions. In response to U.S. sanctions, Russia has invoked a one-year ban on most food imports from the United States, Canada and the European Union. While the ban is a $17.5 billion hit to food producers in the West, the less publicized collapse of the fledgling nuclear accord is far more ominous.
Lost is an opportunity for U.S. and Russian nuclear scientists to learn more about each other’s nuclear capabilities and plans. Plans have been shelved for Russian scientists to visit the U.S. nuclear complex at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and other laboratories associated with the development of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. U.S. scientists have canceled plans to visit nuclear facilities in the heart of Russia. In addition, the two sides had started talks about planetary defense, and were considering working together on nuclear missile defense aimed at the threat of an Earth-destroying asteroid.
Worse yet, the U.S. recently accused Russia of violating the terms of a major arms treaty dealing with missile technology. Any progress on another round of nuclear-warhead reductions, which would build off the New START treaty of 2010, appears dead in the water.
Some foreign policy experts argue that now is not the time for nuclear scientists from both countries to be exchanging information. Others argue that keeping lines of communication open between midlevel scientists could help defuse the tension. “The idea of having thick relations with Russian nuclear scientists is a good idea,” Graham Allison, a Harvard professor and former nuclear arms negotiator in the Clinton administration, told The New York Times. “People get to know each other, work on joint projects, and there is a basis for conversation and cooperation.”
Keeping open lines of communication between nuclear scientists from the two countries makes sense, though current tensions probably require increased care about safeguarding certain nuclear secrets. Sliding into a second Cold War impasse should be avoided if humanly possible. This is a historical moment that requires careful statesmanship and steely resolve to face down tyranny at the same time. Congress and President Obama must display the skill and wisdom to assuage Vladimir Putin’s ego without lapsing into appeasement of his imperial ambitions.