October 17, 2012

There will be plenty of losers from Russia’s recent decision to end two decades of cooperation with Washington on cleaning up nuclear and chemical weapons sites left over from the cold war. Russia will now have to pay for such efforts on its own. The United States will lose the most cost-effective way yet found for reducing nuclear dangers. And the world must watch as Russia’s unsecured weapons and materials remain a temptation for terrorists of all varieties to buy or steal for use in future attacks.

The cooperative threat reduction program Russia wants to walk away from next spring is the heart of the so-called Nunn-Lugar initiative, which was passed by Congress in 1991. This range of programs provides American money and expertise to countries of the former Soviet Union to help them eliminate or secure vulnerable nuclear and chemical weapons, materials and sites.

Over the past two decades, they have helped deactivate more then 7,600 nuclear warheads, destroy more than 2,000 nuclear capable missiles, convert more than 400 metric tons of highly enriched uranium bomb fuel into low-enriched reactor fuel and destroyed large stockpiles of chemical weapons. This has cost the American taxpayer less than $15 billion over the 20-year life of the program, far less than the Pentagon spends each year for defense and deterrence against nuclear attack.

But the job remains barely half-done. Cutting off this successful program now is perverse and reckless — and all too typical of President Vladimir Putin’s sour, xenophobic and self-isolating worldview. Last month, he expelled the United States Agency for International Development, which has sponsored human rights, civil society and public health programs since the fall of communism. Perhaps those civil society programs proved too successful — and too threatening to Mr. Putin — for their own survival. But the nuclear cleanup program affects everyone’s survival.

The official explanation for ending them is based on national pride — the wish to proclaim that Russia can take care of these issues by itself, without American help. Another may be Moscow’s reflexive desire to be shielded from foreign eyes that might see things President Putin and his military commanders do not want them to see. Paranoia and xenophobia in the Kremlin predates communism and has now outlasted it by more than two decades.

If Moscow lets the cooperative program lapse, it needs to replace it with adequately financed Russian programs. The continuing cleanup must be transparent enough to earn the world’s trust. Currently, that confidence comes from the participation of American contractors in the cleanup work. Maintaining it without them will not be easy. But Mr. Putin, having created that problem, must now solve it.