A 1991 U.S.-Russian Agreement Could Be The Model For Securing Syria’s Chemical Weapons


Then-Sens. Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) help destroy a Russian nuclear silo in 1996

Then-Sens. Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) help destroy a Russian nuclear silo in 1996


Russia has provided to the United States its formal proposal for removing chemical weapons from Syria and while details are sparse, part of the plan could involve a two-decade old agreement between Moscow and Washington to destroy weapons of mass destruction.

Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Geneva on Thursday to meet with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in a series of high-level meetings related to the once long-shot deal that has become the focus of diplomatic attention in recent days. Under the proposal, the Syrian government would place its stockpile of chemical weapons under international control, thereby, in theory, removing the threat of their future use. Originally floated by Kerry at a press conference, the idea has become the basis for a potential United Nations resolution and resulted in the Syrian government announcing that it would sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and disclose all of its weapons stockpile.

Less certain is exactly how to get those weapons out of Syria given that there is still an ongoing civil war on the ground. According to the Telegraph, the full Russian proposal presented formally to the United States on Wednesday has been leaked to the Russian media, offering a glimpse at just how the process could move forward:

Exactly who would carry out the decommissioning of the country’s stocks of Sarin, VX and mustard gas is not yet clear, but the diplomat raised the possibility of a joint US-Russian effort as part of the Nunn-Lugar programme, a post-cold war arrangement for securing and decommissioning Soviet-era WMD stockpiles.

In the early nineties the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russian Federation assumed its international commitments and place in the world. It also needed to take control of the former superpower’s vast nuclear weapons stockpile, as well as the other weapons of mass destruction it possessed in the newly independent Republics. While able to convince Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan turn return control of their warheads, the situation inside Russia was extremely dangerous. It was difficult enough to feed people given the state of the country at the time, let alone secure the hundreds of silos and complexes guarded by Russian soldiers who no longer knew if they’d be able to be paid.

The solution — which at one point was unthinkable between the two Cold War adversaries — was a bilateral agreement between the sole remaining superpower and the defeated. Under the Soviet Threat Reduction Act, the brainchild of Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), the United States would provide funding and on the ground assistance to help Russia and the other former Soviet Union countries secure loose nuclear material to prevent it from being sold on the black-market. Since then, the United States’ Defense Threat Reduction Agency has aided in the destruction of more than 7,000 nuclear warheads and more than four thousand tons of chemical weapons components.

But could Nunn-Lugar be the basis for securing Syria’s chemical weapons? “Yes, the U.S. and Russia have the expertise and the financing to carry out the destruction of the Syrian CW stockpile under the supervision of the Organization for the Prohibition of the Chemical Weapons Convention, if we get that far,” Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, said when ThinkProgress reached him by email. “This may be an important option given that Syria may not be able to nor would we want the Syrian government to take responsibility, even under OPCW oversight, to carry out the operation.”

In fact, leveraging the U.S. and Russia’s familiarity in working together on these issues in helping solve Syria was raised last year by none other one of the authors of the original law. In an interview with the New York Times, Lugar explained that while Russia had rebuffed his call, he said the two countries should continue to strive for a solution. “The threats might be to both of our countries from elsewhere,” he said. “That’s what I am suggesting as maybe a new chapter in our cooperative threat reduction — that we think about our abilities really to be helpful to each other, but also the rest of the world.”

Which isn’t to say that Nunn-Lugar hasn’t had its issues over the years. Last October, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced that Russia intended to withdraw from the program completely, a prospect that worried many analysts and observers. The cooperation was saved at the last minute, however, when Putin and President Obama announced in June that the program would move forward but with Russia assuming more responsibility to better match its current status in the world. That ongoing cooperation may be just what is needed to actually get a diplomatic deal that leaves Syria free from chemical weapons on place.