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The forgotten science of cooperative threat reduction

A Russian submarine sits at SEVMASH Yard prior to dismantlement under the Cooperative Threat Reduction programme implemented by the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). Photo: DTRA
A Russian submarine sits at SEVMASH Yard prior to dismantlement under the Cooperative Threat Reduction programme implemented by the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). Photo: DTRA

The announcement that Russia had completed the destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile was rightly applauded as a milestone in multilateral arms control. However, it was also a reminder of the significant part that international non-proliferation and disarmament assistance played in facilitating the implementation of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

Historically, the parties to arms control agreements were expected to meet their obligations using their own technical and financial resources. After the end of the cold war, there was a window of time in which states recognized that if those resources were lacking, there was a shared interest in cooperating to implement agreements. International partnerships helped turn diplomatic success into real disarmament.

From a bilateral Russian–US programme of work to secure nuclear weapons in turbulent post-cold war conditions, cooperative threat reduction evolved into collaboration to implement the 1991 Treaty on Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START I) and the CWC. Later, the approach was applied by a wider group of partners to reduce the safety, security and environmental consequences of cold war militarization. States pooled their money, technology and equipment to facilitate practical projects that none of them could undertake individually.

The elimination of Russian chemical weapons is an illustration of the ways in which European countries contributed to disarmament, in partnership with Russia. For example, Germany was heavily engaged with design work at chemical weapon destruction facilities and delivered a lot of the key equipment needed at an elimination site—such as a draining system for munitions, an incinerator, an evaporator, fire safety equipment and filters. The European Union played its part, paying for filters provided. 

Foreign citizens did not have access to the most sensitive parts of destruction facilities, and Russian facility design and techniques were applied during the process. The close collaboration is a useful reminder that states can work effectively together to achieve a shared disarmament objective, without compromising what they regard as security-sensitive information.

After 2009, the political momentum behind cooperative threat reduction with Russia dissipated, although the legacy problems of the heavily militarized Soviet Union are still far from being solved. However, the effects of what was achieved will be long-lasting, and not only in relation to chemical weapons. As Russia reduced the number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal, the material released from warheads has been stored in facilities where international assistance enhanced security by providing cameras, sensors, gates, access control cards, perimeter fencing and security lighting. Almost 200 nuclear-powered submarines from the Soviet/Russian Navy’s Northern and Pacific fleets have been cut into sections after decommissioning. For the next 70 years, the separated compartments will sit in storage facilities on land, constructed using cranes and heavy equipment supplied by European countries.

If a period of fewer arms control agreements and a build-up of armaments is on the horizon, it is to be hoped that the lessons of cooperative threat reduction will be preserved, ready for a time when they might once again be needed in Europe or in another world region.


Dr Ian Anthony was the Director of SIPRI’s European Security Programme.