Yeltsin’s Nonproliferation Legacy: Two Steps Forward, Now Two Steps Back?

in Program

By Kyle Harding – “A man must live like a great brilliant flame and burn as brightly as
he can. In the end he burns out. But this is far better than a mean
little flame.” — Boris Yeltsin

It is at the death of any leader that both scholars and the general
public begin to wax nostalgic about the legacy of the deceased. This was
true of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and it also holds true for Boris
Yeltsin. In the wake of the death of the first democratically elected
President of Russia, there have been extended discussions of his long
term impact on Russia and on the world at large. Very often, these
analyses tend to look at the obvious domestic economic and political
reforms and his mixed record on Chechnya and privatization of state
industries. They reflect the domestic focus of his two terms in
office–but his reforms had a global reach. Perhaps the highlight of
that legacy is the tentative yet revolutionary steps forward that he
made on the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) nonproliferation.

The road from Cold War to cooperative nonproliferation between
the two former adversaries was certainly fraught with challenges. In
spite of this, under Yeltsin, the United States and Russia forged a
series of agreements regarding the spread of weapons across the former
Soviet states, engagement on the former weapons talent, security over
stockpiles of highly enriched uranium, and a host of other WMD issues.
It was due to Yeltsin that when the Soviet Union fragmented the number
of nuclear weapons states did not increase. With the exception of Russia
, all of the former Soviet states entered the non-proliferation treaty
as non-weapons state–a feat which entailed the nuclear weapons in
Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan being returned to Russia. [1]
In 1992, Yeltsin was able to find common ground on many of the
important nonproliferation issues of the day. The peaceful collapse of
the Soviet nuclear empire made the United States, and the world, a safer

Yeltsin often faced harsh criticism for being permissive of the
American efforts to gain access to facilities and scientists as part of
the revolutionary Nunn-Lugar programs. There were many hard-line
elements within the Russian government who “were convinced that the US’s
real interest was in obtaining access to Russia’s secret facilities,
and they denounced the leadership of the Ministry of Atomic Energy
(MinAtom) for any move to accept US assistance at such ‘sensitive’
facilities.” [2]
Yeltsin, while not always forthcoming with compromise, made the tough
decisions when necessary to ink the deal and move the process of
non-proliferation forward.

It is important to note, however, that in spite of major
successes on these issues made with the Russians, there were some
pitfalls in the US-Russian relationship. Most notably was the agreement
between Russia and Iran in 1995 which facilitated the construction of
the Bushehr nuclear power plant. This power plant has become a topic of
increased scrutiny alongside the overall Iranian nuclear program, and
the Russian activities have been a major contributor to the problem.

the positives of Yeltsin’s legacy, the question remains: Will Vladimir
Putin’s legacy include the expansion of the positive steps of Yeltsin or
simply be two steps backward? Unfortunately, the trend appears to be
negative. There are a long series of issues which have either continued
or arisen since Putin took office in 2000; they include:

  • The Russians are still providing assistance to the Iranians at
    Bushehr, though less vigorously than before. That lack of vigor seems to
    stem more from the failure of Iran to pay for the project than from any
    external pressures or proliferation concerns.

  • There has been a continued liability dispute over the Nuclear Cities
    Initiative which has caused the program to expire, leaving unrealized
    many of the important goals that the program sought to accomplish.

  • The plutonium disposition program was delayed for four years over
    disputes regarding the methods used and US liability protections in
    Russia. Current estimates indicate that the program will not begin
    actually burning off the plutonium until 2011 at the earliest.

In order for Yeltsin’s legacy on nonproliferation to survive and for
Putin to establish his own before he is to step down next year, a
concerted effort will be required. To date, the threat reduction
programs have been similar to a patronage system with the United States
in a dominant role. While the US has made efforts to increase Russian
involvement, it will be necessary for Russia to begin providing
additional financing for and commitment to these programs. Unless there
are sustained Russian inputs into these programs, the programs will
never become self-sustaining. Similarly, it will be necessary for many
of the remaining legal barriers to be ironed out. It is within Putin’s
power to push through the necessary liability agreements and offer
additional access for US officials to these sites when needed; all that
is needed is the will. These are only a handful of the necessary steps
for the Russians to take. Mr. Yeltsin was buried in April 2007; let’s
hope that the non-proliferation programs, which were an integral part of
his legacy, were not buried with him.

(Photo: Sharon Farmer. Found at

[1] Madeleine Albright, “Time to Renew Faith in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty,” International Herald Tribune (7 March 2000). <>

[2]Frank von Hippel, “Working in the White House On Nuclear Nonproliferation and Arms Control: A Personal Report,” Journal of the Federation of American Scientists Volume 48, No. 2, March/April 1995. <>



Kyle Harding was an intern at the Stimson Center with the Cooperative Nonproliferation Program.


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