American and Japanese reports state that Russia is expected to join the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) against proliferation at sea and in the air. Russia’s Foreign and Defense Ministries have also expressed a positive attitude toward this initiative. This move would, among other things, strike directly at Pyongyang’s and Tehran’s ability either to export missiles or nuclear material or to import technologies they need to actualize their nuclear and missile programs.
The PSI, an American-led program that was established on May 31, 2003, is intended to undertake “preemptive interdiction” of missile transfers within member states’ national waters. Though it is illegal in international waters or airspace, such interdiction is lawful in a state’s territorial zone, air space, air and seaports, which could then be closed to proliferators and their facilitators. The effective enforcement by members of this regime could seriously impede, if not derail, proliferators’ efforts to build nuclear weapons and missiles. Since Russia, China, and North Korea are the greatest proliferators of ballistic missiles, adherence by any of them to the PSI and full compliance with its rules represents a serious constraint upon future proliferation.
Given Pyongyang’s and Tehran’s heavy dependence on missile exports and imports, effective denial of that trade could seriously disrupt their nuclear programs. While we cannot definitively claim that such membership would facilitate these states’ denuclearization; undoubtedly it would add to the substantial pressure already being placed on North Korea and Iran.
But is Russia truly serious about joining the PSI and actually enforcing it?
Russia remains a major exporter of ballistic missile technology. Besides its known exports there exists a large range of covert and even criminalized exports that are clearly being undertaken with some state protection. Examples include the sales of a Kilo-Class submarine in 2000 to Colombian drug gangs and of weapons to Iraq through 2003. We also know that much traffic in conventional weapons originating in Russia has long gone through surrogates like Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, or Armenia to destinations like Iran or Iraq so that Russian participation cannot be traced. Meanwhile the rise in nuclear smuggling incidents reported since 1998 suggests that these networks are expanding into – or that those running them are at least seriously considering – the export of nuclear material.
Russia’s stance on proliferation remains ambivalent, to say the least. Despite numerous official warnings about proliferation the government has not seriously enforced its export controls and the amount of corruption remains very high. Russia is also in favor of North Korea retaining a peaceful nuclear program under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and of Pyongyang receiving assistance for the program from the negotiators in the Korean denuclearization discussions. But Moscow has said nothing about verification. And despite considerable pressure, Russia will not stop its nuclear or missile or satellite exports to Iran. Indeed, it still is remarkably evasive about enforcing the return of spent fuel as a condition of further assistance to Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr.
Furthermore, Russia’s defense export community is quite willing to sell weapons and technologies to North Korea – if it could only be guaranteed repayment. Finally, its official spokesmen have recently reiterated the commonality of their views with China about what to do with North Korea, and have floated a compromise giving North Korea tangible security assurances. As China still opposes the PSI and worries about infringements on its sovereignty, it is unlikely that it will join it or look favorably upon Moscow doing so in order to squeeze North Korea.
Therefore Russia’s full membership and compliance with the PSI would give a boost to the Bush Administration and its overall Counter-proliferation policy. Certainly it would mark an even greater willingness by Moscow to support U.S. policies than virtually all observers expect. And undoubtedly a decision of that sort would trigger more grumbling from Russia’s military-political elite, which clearly is much more anti-American than Putin has been until now. It is likely that Washington would also then soon see or hear what compensation Moscow expects for joining the PSI since doing so contradicts so many of its current policies and professed self-interests.
While nobody should assume that the next round of talks on North Korea will lead to a breakthrough or an important, if not decisive, move to break the current stalemate, the PSI’s future development and Moscow’s behavior merit careful scrutiny. Given Russia’s multi-dimensional importance in the proliferation agenda and its participation in the six-power talks on North Korea, its decision to join the PSI would immediately have major repercussions – and not just in Northeast Asia.
On the other hand, Russia’s continuing refusal to commit itself in practice or in rhetoric to a truly effective nonproliferation program means that the intractable status quo will continue. That outcome could generate sufficient pressure to create an explosion somewhere. Whether that explosion occurs in North Korea or elsewhere, U.S. and Russian policymakers alike must ask if that truly is a better outcome than making nonproliferation work in fact rather than in rhetoric (The Daily Yomiuri, April 30, 2004; New York Times, May 11, 2004; Kommersant, July 19, 2000; ITAR-TASS, May 7, 2004; ITAR-TASS, May 11, 2004; Nuclear Engineering International, March 31, 2004).