Field Note

The Story Behind U.S. Access to Russian Nuclear Warhead Storage Sites

Under the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, nuclear security served as a common objective for the United States and Russia

A key question for the CTR nuclear security program is how Russia allowed access for teams to visit warhead storage sites that went beyond the verification measures of any previous nuclear arms control agreement. The answer is that the United States and Russia rallied around the mission of enhancing nuclear security. Leaders remained focused on encouragement, resources, patience, and support, opening the relationship to cooperation, while the staff was able to focus on the CTR nuclear security mission for years. The CTR Site Access story shows that negotiations do not have to be about extracting concessions but discovering common goals. It is critical to be up front and honest and to present positions consistently, explain the reasons, explain who and why.

It may be surprising to many that the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) nuclear security program attained access to Russian nuclear warhead storage sites that went beyond the verification measures of any previous nuclear arms control agreement. Arms control treaties provide access for U.S. inspectors to military bases where nuclear delivery systems are deployed and, and under the INF treaty, there was portal monitoring of missile production facilities. Access to the nuclear warhead storage sites, however, where non-deployed tactical and strategic nuclear warheads are stored and maintained, was never authorized under any treaty or agreement – until CTR. These storage sites have long been regarded as among the most sensitive of Russian sites and have come under renewed attention in recent years as the United States and Russia have engaged in discussions on warhead limits. Under the CTR nuclear security program, however, the U.S. was provided unprecedented access to Russian nuclear warhead storage sites from 2003-2012.

So how did CTR program teams gain permission to visit, given the sites’ extreme sensitivity? The answer is that the objective of the CTR program was never to gain site access or gather intelligence on Russian nuclear weapons and weapons storage sites. The objective was to enhance nuclear security – and the United States and Russia were both strongly committed to achieving that goal. As the program matured and more work was needed at the sites, site access was required for the United States to provide installation services at those sites. Russia only approved site access for the purposes of improving nuclear security at their sites after they were convinced that the Americans were truly committed to achieving that goal and not pursuing ulterior intelligence-related motives.

“Secret” Russian Nuclear Warhead Storage Sites

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Russia inherited the largest stockpile of nuclear warheads in the world. Thousands of strategic and tactical warheads were housed in centralized storage facilities and bunkers located on nuclear weapons sites scattered across the former Soviet Union. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan agreed to become non-nuclear states and worked with Russia and the CTR Program to safely and securely remove the warheads. That meant shipping all the warheads from the facilities in their countries to Russia for storage and elimination. Suddenly, the world’s largest inventory of nuclear warheads was no longer protected behind the iron curtain. Russian nuclear warhead bunkers were stuffed to capacity with excess warheads at the same time that the veil of secrecy that had surrounded these hidden facilities was lifting. The Russian MOD organization responsible for the safe and secure storage and transportation of nuclear warheads, the 12th Main Directorate (12th GUMO), was a secret organization in which the officers were not permitted to travel outside the Soviet Union, were not allowed to be photographed in public, and rarely emerged from the base or headquarters where they were stationed. These officers were not only taking on expanded duties and responsibilities, but they were also uncertain whether the Russian MOD would be able to continue paying them during the economic collapse that ensued.

The Russian NTV show ‘Top Secret’ reported in August 2001 that the situation of the 12th GUMO became “catastrophic” in the mid-1990s, and that “even now (in 2001) the wages of officers at the facilities are no more than $70 per month and their wives are forced to look for jobs in the small military units remote from the towns.” One of the Officers interviewed gave this assessment of the situation in the 1990s: “On a 10-point scale, I would rate the protection of nuclear weapons as two out of ten. Physical protection, meaning protection against terrorists, does not exist, except for the gates which are intended for something entirely different.” The narrator continued with the following revelation: “Last autumn a detailed map of all the Russian nuclear facilities appeared on an open American web site.”

Under these dire circumstances, Russia did its best to closely guard access to the storage sites and maintain security through the 12th GUMO guard forces. The CTR program offered initial assistance starting in 1992 by providing armored blankets that were used to increase the safety and security of the warheads during transport and storage, but the Russians were not about to let the United States get access to its sites or its warheads despite additional support offered. It wasn’t until 1995, after three years of U.S.-Russian CTR cooperation on other projects that the Russian MOD was willing to enter into implementing agreements with the U.S. Department of Defense on nuclear weapons storage and security. The Chief of the 12th GUMO at the time was General Colonel Yevgeny Maslin who convinced his leadership that it would be in Russia’s best interest to cooperate with the Americans to help secure the Russian nuclear inventory.

 At first, the nuclear security cooperation was limited to equipment and training that could be provided without access to the storage sites. Cooperation started with CTR providing security fencing for the storage sites, automated inventory management and control equipment, and helping to build a training center to develop a robust, integrated site security system to be implemented at all the warhead storage sites. For the next eight years, CTR provided equipment to the Russian MOD who used its own resources to ship and install the equipment at its sites.

During these eight years, from 1995 through 2003, CTR program teams worked diligently to identify any/all nuclear security equipment and training we could provide that would not require site access. Throughout this time, the teams conducted talks on potential site access arrangements that would enable more comprehensive support. The talks were low level, conducted below the US government Senior Executive Service level and at the Colonel or one-star general officer level on the Russian side.  The talks spanned the Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations (Democrat and Republican) and the Yeltsin and Putin presidencies, but involved limited high level engagement on nuclear security during this time period.

How Site Access was Achieved

The story of CTR access to Russian MoD nuclear weapons storage sites was never one for the headlines. Access wasn’t achieved by high level discussions by senior officials, or by treaty, or any other international agreement. In fact, access permission was only granted after five years of relatively low-level technical discussions addressing the CTR offer to establish contracts to install comprehensive nuclear security systems at these sensitive sites. In order for the U.S. government to pay the contractors providing installation, set-up, and calibration of the equipment comprising the nuclear security system, the contract program managers had to conduct inspections of the work to verify that it was done in accordance with the contract.

Five years of technical discussions may not sound very interesting or exciting, but there was more to the talks than you can read from a historical rendition. Over the five-year period, with military rotations and new civilian hires, there were approximately 40-50 men and women that made up the security team. Each of these men and women traveled to Russia almost every month during their tenure. Most trips involved flying over on a Saturday and conducting full day meetings Monday to Thursday and returning home on the following Friday or Saturday, effectively eating up two weekends a month. From the time my oldest son was born in 1997 until he turned seven, I added up my trips to find that I had spent more than a full year of his life in Russia. Each trip also took weeks to plan– so we had to plan two trips ahead. A cable had to be drafted, approved, and transmitted from the State Department to the American Embassy in Moscow and delivered to the MOD, and each trip required separate approvals. Thankfully, after more than a year of effort and requests, multi-entry visas were approved for the teams to reduce the need to obtain a visa for every trip.

When the teams weren’t on the road meeting with their counterparts, we would meet and coordinate with staffers in the Office of the Secretary of Defense to get guidance on each technical subject and provide status reports. There was a time when William Perry requested monthly updates on CTR program progress when he was Deputy Secretary of Defense. But in order to actually get the work done, the project teams had to meet almost daily with the contracting officers who helped award the contracts required to purchase and deliver the equipment, with the financial support teams providing the budgets, and, of course, the contractors to provide guidance and direction on the execution of the contracts.

The pace of the work was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. In order to relieve some of the pressure, we sought to establish regular telephone calls between our technical teams. This turned out to be much more difficult than any of us expected. On the Russian side, the officers in the 12th GUMO weren’t authorized to have access to international phone service and could only get approval to meet with us on a case-by-case basis. Finally, after multiple entreaties from our teams and the American Embassy in Moscow, the MOD received Russian governmental approval to set up a dedicated international phone line to the 12th GUMO headquarters offices through which we were able to conduct telecoms every two weeks. Still, the discussions required yet more preparation and careful coordination. We couldn’t just pick up the phone and call. Instead, we set up a regular time to call and sent detailed talking points through the American Embassy two to three days ahead of time in order to enable the 12th GUMO to take our call and conduct discussions.

Over five years, the DTRA project teams conducted over 125 telecoms and 250 technical trips to Russia. During every single one of these discussions, we talked about the need for Russian site access approval to enable the nuclear security enhancements to be delivered, installed, and calibrated at the nuclear weapons storage sites. The talks were always formal. We understood that the 12th GUMO officers were under surveillance by the Russian intelligence services to make sure they did not reveal unauthorized information to us. We always started the discussions with some positive report, such as a contract being awarded or progress in delivering some equipment, because we were never sure if we would be allowed to talk again in two weeks. Most of the U.S. senior leadership never believed that such access would ever be possible, but our technical teams never gave up hope over these years, persistently and relentlessly pursuing the requirement. The CTR teams never wavered from our position: in order to sign contracts involving installation and calibration of equipment on site, a U.S. government contract technical representative would have to confirm that the work was done properly and in full accordance with contract. The only way to do that would be to see the equipment in operation at the site. The number of representatives, the duration of the visit, the process and procedures were all negotiable, but the need to see the work was done properly was not negotiable. The Russians sought verification of work to be conducted on site via cameras operated by Russian personnel on site, overhead photographs, or third-party Russian contractors. Such processes would not meet contract verification standards required for contracts worth over $10M per site and the U.S. was not willing to waive such legal requirements. The CTR program teams consistently held our position that verification of work conducted on site, including validation that the work was done correctly and in full compliance with contract requirements, would require the CTR personnel to be able to view the work in person.

When we say the teams never wavered from this position that means we never even hinted at an alternative possibility in private, nor argued amongst ourselves. Before every trip, we were briefed that the Russian security services were likely monitoring our private rooms and meeting places. With that in mind, our teams were diligent in reiterating our position even during our “private” discussions in our rooms. These included meetings with our contractor teams in country, who often hired Russian nationals to support the work. Our teams remained resolute, never even equivocated on our position, never talked about making additional demands in order to improve our bargaining position in some away, and never said anything different in private than what we told the Russians in person and during every telecom. We were consistent and determined, and after more than five years, we convinced the Russians that the only way to deliver and install comprehensive security systems at the 12th Main Directorate nuclear warhead storage facilities would be by allowing the technical teams to see the work in person at some point in the process.

Finally, in July 2003, we were notified that the 12th GUMO wanted to set up a call with us to discuss a particular matter. It was during this phone call that General Major Frolov, my chief interlocutor during this period and one of the 12th GUMO deputies, informed me that President Putin had agreed to allow limited site access to 12th GUMO sites and that the Chief of the 12th GUMO, General Colonel Igor Valynkin, would negotiate a site access agreement in order to establish contracts to install comprehensive nuclear security systems at the Russian nuclear warhead storage sites.

U.S. personnel were granted permission to visit each nuclear warhead storage site three times: just prior to the installation of comprehensive nuclear security systems, once during the installation process in order to make an interim payment to the contractors, and a final visit to confirm successful completion of the installation work conducted by CTR. This access went beyond surveying the site perimeter, it included visits to the nuclear security operations center within the site as well as the guard posts and guard stations within the sites, and the internal fencing lines around the warhead storage bunkers.

CTR Global Nuclear Security team at DTRA December 2011. Includes government military and civilian personnel, contractor support personnel, finance, and contracting support.

Thoughts Moving Forward

The CTR Site Access agreement enabled CTR to cooperate with the Russian 12th GUMO to procure, deliver, install, and operate comprehensive nuclear security systems at dozens of nuclear weapons storage sites ensuring the security of thousands of nuclear warheads. Nuclear security served as a common objective for the United States and Russia, and it can continue to provide a basis for future cooperation. Nuclear security measures not only protect nuclear warheads and materials, but they also provide an incentive for limits and reductions. The best security is to reduce the quantity of sensitive materials and the number of sites storing nuclear weapons and materials. In conjunction with the CTR program, Russia closed a number of their operating storage sites as warheads were eliminated. Nuclear security can complement and support future arms control efforts in this way. The joint nuclear security efforts demonstrated that cooperation can be achieved based on common objectives. The objective of negotiations isn’t to find ways to a pre-prescribed outcome, it is to find areas of common interest and work to make those happen. The CTR Site Access story shows that negotiations do not have to be about extracting concessions but discovering common goals. It is critical to be up front and honest and to present positions consistently, explain the reasons, explain who and why. While we held some banquets and socialized with the 12th GUMO at times, agreements weren’t based on personal rapport, they were reached only after painstaking technical level discussions conducted by multiple teams for many years.

What leadership did great was to create the opportunity for cooperation. Leadership negotiated a broad umbrella agreement that simply identified these elements with identified funding amounts and established a broad program area within which to work. They secured funding and resources, assigned staff to the job, and supported their dedicated efforts to pursue the mission. The staff was able to focus on this nuclear security mission for years, and the Russians came to recognize that the teams shared in their goals and missions and never had to prioritize their time with other competing responsibilities. Leadership supported the staff dedicated to the mission and negotiated to provide the tools they needed — like multi-entry visas, liability protections and waivers, and funding that did not have restrictions or color – no year money, no expiration, no color money. Leaders didn’t require metrics to monitor and evaluate program progress and success – they met with the teams, asked questions, and met with the Russian leaders to see what else they could do to support the efforts. Leaders accepted that mistakes could happen and that all efforts may not be successful but focused instead on enabling success to emerge.

Staff were identified to provide support rather than question or identify roadblocks. The lawyers involved, like the DTRA general counsel assigned to support CTR, Deb Haworth, were there to help find ways to do what we needed to do rather than find fault and reasons not to do work. Same with the contracting officers, like Cindy Dean, and the finance officers at DTRA and in the Pentagon – they were empowered to find ways to write contracts – either directly with Russian contractors for the first time, or with U.S. or western contractors or national labs to oversee and integrate the work of the Russian subcontractors and vendors. The central lessons from this case are that leaders should focus on encouragement, resources, patience, and support. Breakthroughs are great, but leaders will need support from staff to develop the conditions to make them happen and to see them through to fruition. Also, it takes a staff working together – every person and every project and policy team can make a difference. Great things can be achieved by small teams – even teams of “mid-level” bureaucrats.

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