RSUH Experts Blog

Ilya Kravchenko: US-Russia cooperation in Nuclear Non-Proliferation during current crisis in their relationship. Interview with Mr. William Courtney

April 22, 2016

Mr. William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corporation and executive director of the RAND Business Leaders Forum, as well as president of the U.S.-Kazakhstan Business Association. He co-chaired the U.S. delegation to the review conference that prepared for the 1999 Summit in Istanbul of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He advised on the reorganization of U.S. foreign affairs agencies, mandated by the Foreign Affairs Reform Act of 1999. Earlier in his career, he was special assistant to the President for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia; Ambassador to Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the U.S.-Soviet Bilateral Consultative Commission to implement the Threshold Test Ban Treaty; and deputy U.S. negotiator in U.S.-Soviet defense and space (missile defense) talks.


(Biography is taken from Mr. Courtney’s RAND Corporation profile)


Interview was conducted in Moscow, on April 17th 2016.


Ilya Kravchenko: Mr. Courtney, being representative of one of the leading Think Tanks not only in the US but in the world, what interesting insights can say about structure or funding of the Think Tanks?

William Courtney.: Think Tanks currently serve to solving many issues. Many countries have branding problems. Think Tanks have to look for foreign government for sponsorship. Wherever it’s appropriate or not appropriate, Think Tanks do it, they cannot shut it down. Each Think Tank has its own values. It is also an issue of corporations. Because corporations sometimes have image problems and want to improve it.


Another issue is if you take the money from the US government. Some Think Tanks refuse to have money from the US government. They believe that this will compromise the independents. Others will do it, because their activities involve national security and defense questions. There is a lot of money available. This has been an issue for some Think Tanks, especially CSIS or Heritage Foundation.


Think Tanks depend on wealthy people. They depend on wealthy people even more than on corporations. Think Tanks need to think about taking the government money, being too dependent on single source, whether it is a corporation or in case with a philanthropist, like the Koch Brothers. I don’t know if they fund the Heritage Foundation or not, but they might. These foundations need to be careful in understanding of whether they are representing the view of a specific donor or continue to stay independent in their assessments.

I.K.: Today’s crisis in US-Russian relations has led to many harsh diplomatic and economic clashes between two countries. Do you think that cooperation in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation sphere is under threat due to this crisis?

W.C.: Let me give you an example from recent past. During Afghan War the relations between the US and the USSR were extremely harsh. We helped the Mujahedeen, supplied stingers and other high-tech weaponry. But in 1987 our countries managed to come up with an Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This shows that despite all negativity in our relations common demand in nuclear disarmament is much more important for the existence of the two countries. It is possible to separate issues.


Another example. We were in Vietnam for a decade. We were in Iraq for a decade. In both cases we ended up with no good results, failure. Soviet Union was in Afghanistan for a decade and it also resulted in failure. Now Russia is in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. These actions lead to sanctions against Russia. So, what are we going to do?


We can cooperate, like we did in 1980-s. And look at Iran Nuclear Deal. It is a big accomplishment. The elimination of Syrian chemical weapons is another success. The idea is that the US and Russia can build up cooperation in very disputative questions. The only problem is that Syrian case is extremely complicated. For me it makes Bosnian case, the Dayton Accords, easier. Because in Bosnia we didn’t have regional countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey with different interests and eager to influence the events in the crisis.


So, returning to global affords to improve the security of nuclear materials. In my view, you have to divide the nuclear non-proliferation into “soft power activity” and “hard power activity”. Improving security of nuclear materials with better alarms, taking highly-enriched uranium out of research reactors in Uzbekistan – this I consider “soft power”. But where we need to work together is “hard power”. We did it in Iran Nuclear Deal. Now North Korea is a big issue.


China, Russia and America are the most important countries to put pressure. We would like to see Russia put more pressure on North Korea and on China to be tuff with North Korea. In that area it may be a little bit harder to operate so closely if we have Ukraine as a burden on a relationship. Because it leads to having less confidence in the relationship regarding Non-Proliferation.


Russia is very interested in Nuclear Non-Proliferation. Again my opinion is that with the rise of the “Islamic State”, Chechen and Dagestani militants have more connectivity outside Russia. They have experience operating in other countries, supply chains, fighters, money, weapons that did not exist before. The worst case, in my personal perception, will be for the Pakistani weapon to go missing. Because if that happens, who knows?  The “Islamic State” has large connectivity and the chances that this weapon ended up in Moscow could be high. Or also in Europe. The chances are greater than in America. So, the incentive for America, Russia and Europe to work together on Non-Proliferation of countering the link between proliferation and terrorism, the need to do that is getting greater and greater. 


But when you look at Non-Proliferation, we need more great powers; we need stronger great powers with the capacity to act at long distances, not just at their borders. Russia’s decision not to go to the summit is not that important. I think that the Kremlin currently wants to show some muscle, adding factors like flying bombers near foreign interceptor fighters.


But for Non-Proliferation Russia needs to be economically strong, able to have global reach, cooperative with other countries. Unless the nuclear weapon is stolen. But it is more likely to be stolen from North Korea, Pakistan. Nuclear terrorism threat is high. And our ability to counter that threat is to have some relations with a country, where it happens, or countries where there is a supply route, which terrorists might use. So global reach and global relationships is a necessity to effectively promote Non-Proliferation and to combat those threats.

I.K.: But do you think there can be a success in Non-Proliferation nowadays? Like the case with India and Pakistan. They got their nuclear weapons years after the Treaty of The Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was signed and ratified. And after that we know that Israel and North Korea got nuclear weapons too. And the US and Soviet Union and later Russia couldn’t stop them from gaining those weapons. The possibility of India, Pakistan, North Korea or even Israel to use nuclear weapons is way higher than in case with the US or Russia. Do you think that Russia and the US can influence those countries, make them reduce or dispose completely their nuclear arsenal?

W.C.: That is a hard question. So, on one level we are more comfortable with India or Israel, because they are stable democracies and less likely to have some internal disruption, that can cause weapons to be stolen or accidentally used or used on purpose. That is one level of assurance – encourage democracy. We are not worried about French weapons or British weapons.


The second tool of Nuclear Non-Proliferation, as you know, is security assurance. With Israel it is particularly important. For that reason, we have been providing Israel with assistance, so that it doesn’t need to rely on Nuclear Weapons. India is strong enough to fight Pakistan. But the US and Russia help India to be strong enough with its conventional forces. That there will be no use of nuclear weapons.


With Pakistan or North Korea though, it is kind of an opposite impact. We supply South Korea and Japan with troops, reassure them that no direct threat will come from North Korea. That they don’t need nuclear weapons to protect themselves. We provide nuclear umbrella for South Korea and Japan.

I.K.: Regarding the case with South Korea and Japan, can you comment on Donald Trump’s idea to give those countries nuclear weapons and simply get out of there? Do you see any threat to the process of nuclear disarmament in case Donald Trump becomes President of the US? How can you comment on the programs of other potential presidential candidates regarding the issue of Nuclear Non-Proliferation?

W.C.: I think that in most of what we hear from Trump, he doesn’t really pay much attention to any of these issues. He is a businessman and businessmen tend to be less ideological. They try to make things work effectively. So, in my opinion, if he were to become president, which I don’t think he has much chance though, he would learn a lot more, he would have to work with Congress, international community. He would not want to embarrass himself by doing stupid things. I am less worried that he would actually implement any of his silly proposals. Neither he, nor Ted Cruz can win an election. Trump, being a leader for now, might not get enough delegates to represent the Republican Party. I would like to see Pal Rayan to go against Hillary. She is more likely to win Democratic nomination. But at the same time there is much fatigue with Clintons. Not all of the accusations against her are true, of course. I have travelled with Hillary Clinton in 1997 and can say that she is very capable of working with foreign policy and security issues.


But Non-Proliferation is very important for the US National Security and Defense issues. Non-Proliferation is going to depend to a significant extent on our overall foreign policy. So, no matter who becomes the President, this course will be continued. It is kind of a-do element. A good thing about Obama is that he had these Nuclear Security Summits to have special emphasis. At a time when there is a lot of other hard stuff going on. Non-Proliferation is a common issue.

I.K.: One last question, Mr. Courtney. What will you tell people, who support the idea that having nuclear weapons leads to more stability in international system?

W.K: It is not just to have well controlled nuclear forces, which are safe and secure, that mistakes are less likely. But if the countries become less stable than accidents can occur. Especially with those countries that recently joined the nuclear. People can make mistake. There is a rogue element in that, like in Pakistan. All those risks are too high.


For example, if Ukraine had nuclear weapons, the situation could be way worse than now. It wouldn’t have been well protected from cyber-attacks, so that other countries, like Russia, could have used its weakness to gain control of Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal. But cyber-attacks could happen from many actors. It can be a separatist group or other indigenous group. Too many risks.


Any new potential nuclear power has to think about strong command control. The US or Russia both have stable control over their nuclear weapons, that has developed for quite some time. But having nuclear weapons don’t lead to international stability. 


Ilya Kravchenko, Ph.D. in political science, Lecturer at the Department of International Security, History and Archives Institute, Russian State University for the Humanities.

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