Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 108

One issue which will probably not do much to enhance the hoped for good feelings during this weekend’s Moscow talks is a recent Kremlin decision to relax restrictions on the export of Russian nuclear materials and technologies. A senior Russian atomic energy official, Nikolai Ryzhkov, confirmed once again on May 29 that Russian President Vladimir Putin had earlier signed a decree which could open the door for Moscow to sell nuclear technologies to countries whose nuclear programs are not subject to oversight by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Russian decision, which came shortly after Putin’s inauguration as president on May 7, reverses a policy pursued by Putin’s predecessor. Then President Boris Yeltsin’s own 1992 decree put Russia in compliance with the directives of the nuclear suppliers’ group. Those directives obligated Russia and other major nuclear-supply states to refuse to sell nuclear materials to countries that have not agreed to full-scale international monitoring.

The new Putin decree appears to reflect both the considerable influence of Russia’s atomic energy establishment and the Kremlin’s desire to cash in on one of the few industries in which Russian exports can earn significant hard currency revenues from abroad. Promulgation of the Russian decree could, in principal, pave the way for Moscow to sell nuclear materials to India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Cuba or Yugoslavia. The Russian move, not surprisingly, has generated criticism from arms control experts and from the international nuclear energy establishment. They have characterized the Putin decree as a unilateral break with international nonproliferation efforts and as a sign of the Kremlin’s disregard for a recent pledge by the nuclear powers to work toward the full elimination of nuclear weapons.

Putin’s decree appears aimed in particular at ensuring that plans are fulfilled for Russia to build two nuclear reactors in India. It is also being interpreted as a sign of Putin’s intention to pursue a vigorous and independent foreign policy (Russian agencies, May 7; AFP, May 8, 30; Washington Post, May 12; The Guardian, June 1).

Yet the move seems likely also to undermine what has emerged as one of the major foreign policy objectives of the new Putin administration: namely, to portray Russia to the world as a key booster of international nonproliferation efforts while simultaneously casting Washington’s policies as a danger to those same arms control efforts. With precisely that goal in mind Putin made a priority of winning Russian parliamentary approval for both the START II and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaties. Efforts by Russian diplomats to exploit Putin’s success in this area now seem likely to run up against the opposition that the more recent Putin decree could generate abroad.