Senior lawmakers alarmed by Russia’s collapsing economy fear some of the nuclear power’s atomic arsenal could fall into the wrong hands.
While officials say there’s no immediate reason to think Russia’s weapons could be sold off to the highest bidder or stolen, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) intends to hold hearings next year on what Moscow is doing to keep its nukes safe.
“We’re going to be taking on that whole issue in Armed Services Committee and we’ll be figuring out what needs to be done,” McCain, who will chair the panel in the next Congress, told The Hill. “Particularly, the state of the nuclear inventory.”
Fellow Armed Services Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) called the arsenal — estimated in the thousands of warheads — “a source of revenue” for the Russian government, as well as negotiating leverage.
He said President Vladimir Putin “is getting pretty aggressive because he has problems at home and maybe if you go back to the old system” of being more confrontational about nuclear weapons, pressure would ease.
On Tuesday, the White House announced President Obama would sign a bill imposing additional sanctions on Moscow. The legislation comes as the value of the country’s currency, the ruble, has tanked in recent weeks along with a dramatic fall in the price of oil, Russia’s No. 1 export.
Russia’s current economic freefall is somewhat reminiscent of the early 1990s after the fall of Communism, when lawmakers in Washington labored to develop initiatives to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, most notably with the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which was designed to lock down and eliminate unconventional arms.
However, that joint U.S.-Russia program expired two years ago after Moscow declared it would not extend the agreement. Since then, the Kremlin has grown increasingly uncooperative on nuclear security.
Diplomats in Vienna last month said Russian envoys skipped an initial planning meeting for the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit and that Moscow may boycott the biannual meeting, a cornerstone of the president’s nonproliferation agenda.