The Good Old Days of the Cold War: U.S.-Soviet Cooperation on Nonproliferation


The chill in the air was palpable at the 2018 meeting on the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in Geneva. As the heads of the US and Russian delegations engaged in vitriolic exchanges, it was easy to forget that Moscow and Washington had joined forces 50 years ago to draft the fundamental nonproliferation accord. If it weren’t for the soft glow of iPhone screens illuminating the General Assembly hall at the Palais des Nations, one could have been forgiven for thinking the year was 1961.

As delegates to the April-May meeting of the NPT review process, we witnessed first-hand the furious volley of rights-of-reply in which the Russian and American delegations engaged. The two nuclear powers traded jabs over a host of issues ranging from chemical weapons attacks in Salisbury and Syria, violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), and NATO nuclear sharing arrangements. The Russian representative even suggested that the United States violated the NPT before it existed by using nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even the one issue on which the two sides recently appeared to be in agreement — a visceral dislike of the Nuclear Ban Treaty — seemed to have little in the way of unifying power. Adding to the disarray, the Palais itself was undergoing a huge renovation during the two-week long meeting, leading us to wonder whether the din of jackhammers in the background was in fact the distant sound of the nonproliferation regime crumbling.

Notwithstanding the Potemkin-like harmony at the Putin-Trump summit in Helsinki, discord in U.S.-Russian relations is the norm, and it has been for quite some time, even before Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Nonproliferation has historically united the largest nuclear weapons states. Indeed, U.S.-Soviet cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation was largely immune to the political storms swirling around it. But no longer.

The right mixture of individuals, institutional advocates, and the emphasis given to nonproliferation in both countries enabled cooperation in this nuclear sphere to flourish even during some of the most frigid moments of the Cold War. Surprisingly, relatively little has been written about this cooperation or its relevance for today. Our new Adelphi book, Once and Future Partners: The United States, Russia, and Nuclear Non-Proliferation, is intended to redress that situation.

What is perhaps most remarkable about U.S.-Soviet cooperation for nonproliferation was its variety. It included sharing of sensitive intelligence information, negotiating novel arms control and disarmament measures, formulating new approaches for regulating nuclear exports, and meeting regularly to review all issues of nonproliferation concern to either party. Declassified cable traffic, memoranda of conversations, and other primary source documents reveal that senior American and Soviet officials saw one another as genuine partners in these efforts. Their similar outlook on many key matters meant that the two sides often turned to one another for backup on nonproliferation issues. This happened so often that they generated complaints from non-nuclear weapons states about “superpower collusion.” When Henry Kissinger worried that the United States would look like “everyone’s maiden aunt” in pushing for stricter multilateral export controls after India’s self-described peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974, for example, his staff suggested getting the Soviets on board as an important first step. They were right to think that Soviet leaders would be “prepared to go quite a long way” with Washington in establishing what would become the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the now 48 states that coordinate to prevent their civil nuclear exports from being used to make nuclear weapons. This was at least in part because, as Deputy Secretary of State Robert Ingersoll observed, there were “no export areas in which the Soviets [had] a less restrictive policy” than the United States at the time.

While similar viewpoints on nonproliferation policy were important, it also took clear-eyed leadership and high-level buy-in to translate agreement in principle into policy in practice. It was Nikita Khrushchev himself, for example, who met with Averell Harriman to talk about U.S.-Soviet cooperation on regulating peaceful nuclear explosions in the waning days of the Partial Test Ban Treaty negotiations. Peaceful nuclear explosions were designed for non-military purposes like excavating for canals, gas and oil extraction, and reservoir building. Both the United States and Soviet Union were enamored of them in the 1960s and 1970s. The United States carried out 27 tests to study the utility of peaceful nuclear explosions, but it never put them into practice. Conversely, a number of the Soviet Union’s 122 peaceful nuclear explosions were actually used for extinguishing gas well fires and other civil applications.  Because these explosions were identical to nuclear tests in every way except their stated purpose, however, the two sides had to work together to agree on rules governing their use from 1963 through the conclusion of the 1976 Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty.

Khrushchev and Harriman met on the sidelines of a U.S.-Soviet track event to discuss how their domestic peaceful nuclear explosion plans fit into their ongoing efforts to limit nuclear testing. It’s hard not to be struck by the symbolism of their surroundings. As athletes from both countries tried to outrun one another in the background, Khrushchev and Harriman considered peaceful nuclear explosions in the context of limiting nuclear testing — a measure designed to slow down the nuclear arms race. If future cooperation on these issues is going to succeed, it is necessary that such routine, nonproliferation meetings resume between U.S. and Russian officials.

One of the most unusual examples of U.S.-Soviet nonproliferation cooperation during the Cold War involved joint efforts to prevent South Africa from testing a nuclear weapon in August 1977. As best we can reconstruct, the Soviet Union discovered — most probably thanks to a spy — that Pretoria was building a nuclear test site in the Kalahari Desert, information also depicted in photographs taken by a Soviet satellite. Moscow shared the data with Washington and implored the U.S. government to intervene. After verifying Moscow’s claims with its own national technical means, the United States, along with other Western allies, exerted significant diplomatic pressure on South Africa to confirm the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. While this promise proved to be specious, since South Africa developed six nuclear bombs in the 1970s and 1980s, the intervention prompted by Soviet intelligence halted South African test preparations. This successful joint effort reinforced the inclination of the two ideological and military adversaries to cooperate further on nonproliferation.

The negotiation of a joint draft radiological weapons convention is another largely forgotten example of U.S.-Soviet cooperation for nonproliferation. This initiative was proposed by the United States in response to a Soviet resolution on banning all new weapons of mass destruction, which U.S. officials feared would capture “virtually anything (including the jaw-bone of an ass)” as a weapon of mass destruction. The negotiations soon took on a life of their own, becoming an important forum for extended contact between Soviet and American officials. Over two years, technical and political experts from both countries worked through significant challenges — including revelations about the planned U.S. deployment of a neutron bomb — to craft an agreement they could both support. After the draft convention was introduced to the U.N. Conference on Disarmament, the two countries often found themselves allied against critics who sought to expand its scope or question its contribution to the disarmament architecture. While the draft convention disappeared from the Conference on Disarmament agenda in the 1990s, its negotiation facilitated closer cooperation on other concurrent negotiations like the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention. The draft agreement itself, which has not been seriously revisited in decades, serves as a reminder that both the United States and Soviet Union had pursued state-level radiological weapons programs in their past. It also represents an area that might prove fertile for reconsideration today at a time when nuclear weapons states find it difficult to endorse any new approaches to disarmament.

The flexibility both sides displayed in addressing problems of mutual, if asymmetrical, interest is a common element of U.S.-Soviet nonproliferation cooperation. This dynamic is evident in the case of U.S.-Soviet efforts to avert South Africa’s planned nuclear test. The United States jeopardized its diplomatic relationship with South Africa by confronting Pretoria about its nuclear ambitions at a time when the new Carter administration was still siding with South African forces in Angola’s civil war against socialist Cuban and Soviet troops. For its part, the Soviet Union was willing to risk revealing a sensitive intelligence source by sharing its secret satellite imagery with the United States. Moscow likely knew where to look for South Africa’s test site thanks to a tip-off from a Soviet spy embedded in the South African Navy, and their counterparts in Washington would have been justified in asking how the Soviet Union came by this information. Because both sides viewed a nuclear South Africa as a shared threat, however, they were prepared to look beyond narrow national priorities in pursuing a cooperative strategy. We can attribute this tendency at least in part to the presence of strong institutional advocates for nonproliferation, such as the no longer extant U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

Personal relationships between Soviet and American actors are another common thread across the cases we examined. These relationships, developed over decades of working together on nonproliferation and disarmament issues in different fora, helped to build trust, collegiality, and friendship that persisted even during the toughest of times. Illustrative of the important role of personal relationships in nurturing and sustaining nonproliferation cooperation are two key Soviet and U.S. negotiators — Roland Timerbaev and George Bunn. Timerbaev worked closely with U.S. officials on the negotiation of the NPT in the 1960s, the development of nuclear export controls in the mid-1970s, and the NPT Review Conference in 1985 — cases examined in detail in our book. Timerbaev’s remembrance of his longtime American counterpart, George Bunn, explicitly notes how close personal connections were critical to sustaining U.S.-Soviet nonproliferation cooperation. Specifically, he recalls how he shared with Bunn a deep belief in “the vital need to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons,” and how their “deep mutual trust” was the key to resolving challenges that emerged during the NPT negotiations. The two men spent time together outside of work and were even able to come to an agreement on the scope of IAEA inspections during a hike around Geneva’s Lac Leman. It’s difficult to imagine Russian or American negotiators today developing similar bonds.

There is no shortage of nonproliferation threats today that would benefit from U.S.-Russian collaboration. These include addressing the continuing development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, preventing nuclear terrorism, and — yes — making sure the 2020 NPT Review Conference is not an unmitigated disaster. The ingredients of successful U.S.-Soviet nonproliferation cooperation highlighted here point to some ways for Washington and Moscow to get back to a place where they can address these and other challenges effectively.

First, it would be useful for the two countries to conduct a joint nuclear proliferation threat assessment to see where their interests correspond today. Second, it would also be worthwhile for Washington and Moscow to renew collaboration on a variety of technical issues like disarmament and nonproliferation verification, which have historically been more insulated from high politics than other nuclear matters. Third, in these and other pursuits, creating more fora for Russian and American practitioners to interact will be critical to rebuilding personal relationships between officials from the two countries. Whether this is done by reviving the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission working groups or in a Track 1.5 format, greater contact between practitioners on both sides will help rebuild trust, confidence, and an institutionalized understanding of how to do nonproliferation cooperation. Whatever the approach, it is clear that Russia and the United States are, in the words of Siegfried Hecker, doomed to cooperate on nuclear proliferation issues and will be for the foreseeable future. We can’t afford to put off our shared responsibilities in this space indefinitely while we wait for the crisis in our bilateral relationship to improve.


William C. Potter directs the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) and is the Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar Professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Trained as a Sovietologist, he has participated as a delegate at every NPT meeting since 1995. Sarah Bidgood is a senior research associate and project manager at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Her research focuses on US-Russia relations and the international nonproliferation regime.

Image: State Department