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October 14, 2012

HOWEY: Election consequences for Nunn-Lugar

INDIANAPOLIS — Elections have consequences.

There have been two this year that are already yielding global change. The first occurred last March, when Vladimir Putin was returned to the Russian presidency. The second came here in Indiana two months later when Hoosier Republican voters tossed out U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar in favor of Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

The geopolitical fallout of Lugar’s defeat last May began to take shape when the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on Wednesday that the nation is preparing to pull out of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.

The paper reported sources in the U.S. State Department as saying Russia is no longer interested in the Nunn-Lugar program which dates back to the early 1990s and helped decommission scores of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mourdock, who is in a dead heat race with Democrat Joe Donnelly, has rarely discussed the Nunn-Lugar program. His upset of Lugar restored a mid-20th Century political showdown here between what I call the isolationists vs. the internationalists.

One of Mourdock and Tea Party rallying points was against the START II treaty renewal with Russia. Lugar pushed the treaty because it allowed U.S. personnel to monitor weapons of mass destruction with our former Cold War foe.

Lugar reacted to the Kommersant report, telling the Wall Street Journal that the Russians expressed an interest in further cooperation last August. “At no time did officials indicate that, at this stage of negotiations, they were intent on ending it, only amending it,” Lugar said.

The program began after Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., was in Moscow as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. He was approached by Soviet defense officials and scientists alarmed over the potential security problems with its massive nuclear, chemical and biological weapon stockpiles. Nunn reached out to Lugar and the two convinced a skeptical Congress and President George H.W. Bush to pass and sign the Nunn-Lugar program.

The Nunn-Lugar scorecard now totals 7,527 strategic nuclear warheads deactivated and hundreds of submarine missiles, silos and launchers destroyed, as well as providing 24 nuclear weapons storage sites, and 20 biological monitoring stations built and equipped.

There is still more to be accomplished in Russia by 2017, which would have been a year after what would have been Lugar’s final term in the Senate. Only 82 percent of Russia’s 13,300 warheads have been deactivated and only 63 percent of biological monitoring stations have been built and equipped. These stations are key in keeping biological weapons from leaving Russia via smuggling routes in the Black Sea region and landing in the hands of terror groups.

David Hoffman, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Dead Hand: The Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy,” observed that the Nunn-Lugar program was a gamble that paid off. “The world is safer for their vision and determination,” Hoffman wrote. “It was also a bargain. The yearly cost for all facets of Nunn-Lugar was about $1.4 billion, a tiny sliver of the annual Pentagon budget of more than $530 billion.”

Hoffman told me Thursday, “I think this is not related to Lugar’s loss, not directly. It is much more likely related to Putin’s return to the presidency. Basically, Russia is no longer the basket case it was 20 years ago; pride and humiliation play a role here, and Putin is trying to reassert himself at a time when there have been large-scale protests in the streets.”

But Hoffman observed of Lugar’s defeat: “Had he remained in the Senate, there would certainly be a force for the program that will now be absent. I do think the Russians have a point here, that they don’t need the money and can do it by themselves. The real question is, will they?”

Kommersant also reported that part of the Russian’s decision was based on the “importance of guarding state secrets.”

Indeed, when I traveled to Russia with Lugar (and Hoffman) in 2007, I was fascinated by the author’s grilling Russian officials at Yekaterinburg about the assassination of Putin enemy Alexander Litvinenko by Polonium-210, an extraordinary toxin with most of the known supply stored at the Mayak facility built by Nunn-Lugar funds. Hoffman had probed: was Mayak the source?

Kenneth A. Myers, a former Lugar Senate aide who now heads the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, said in November 2011, “I’ll tell you one of the reasons this country has not had to deal with a nuclear weapon is because of programs such as (Nunn-Lugar). This really is about personal diplomacy. To succeed, we need the people in the field who go to work every day, but we need the leaders who go out and establish the relationships.”

Myers said there is no obvious member of Congress prepared to pick up Lugar’s mantle after he leaves in December.

U.S. Rep. Todd Young and probable congresswoman Susan Brooks have expressed interest in picking up the Lugar role in Congress, but it will take years for them to accrue the influence Lugar had.

I was both fascinated and disturbed by many Hoosier Republicans who discounted the importance of Nunn-Lugar. The fact that we haven’t seen an American city nuked — though recovered Soviet plutonium now provides 10 percent of our electricity — is a tribute to the program.

But this continued vigilance is, now, an open question.

— This columnist publishes at howeypolitics.com Find him on Twitter @hwypol.

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