James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS)


Edited by The Nonproliferation Review, a refereed journal concerned with the spread of nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional weapons.

The Dying Voice of Cooperative Nonproliferation's Greatest Advocates

Russian scientists have lost their once-considerable influence on security policy, as the probable departure of Moscow from the International Science and Technology Center illustrates.
By Lisa Bergstrom   •   16 November 2011

For more than a year, Russia has been signaling its intention to withdraw from the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC), a thirteen-member consortium founded nearly twenty years ago to prevent the "brain drain" of weapons scientists after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Russia's withdrawal would deal a great blow to the center, but Moscow's decision illustrates a broader change in Russian society; namely, the loss of political influence among Russian scientists—a loss that has serious consequences for the future of cooperative nonproliferation with Moscow.

The Background

The ISTC is a Moscow-based intergovernmental organization of twelve countries (seven of them former Soviet republics) and the European Union. Established in 1992 to further nonproliferation goals and help the newly independent states transition to the free-market, the center was an early agent of cooperative threat reduction, providing former Soviet weapons scientists with peaceful employment opportunities through research grants and commercialization support. Over the years, the ISTC has funded over 2,700 projects in such vital areas as nuclear safeguards, radioactive waste treatment, bio-safety and -security, and vaccine development, among many others.[1] Seventeen years and more than $850 million in grants since the ISTC first started its operations, Russia is looking to end its own participation.[2]

On August 11, 2010, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev announced that Russia planned to withdraw from the ISTC; in June 2011 Russia clarified that it would be out by 2015.[3] To be sure, the withdrawal was not unexpected. Russian officials and security agencies have long complained about the ISTC's tax-free, nonprofit status and worried that participating in the center made Russia vulnerable to military and commercial espionage. Furthermore, Moscow considers the ISTC's mission in Russia already complete: most Soviet-era scientists have died or retired; funding for science has increased since the 1990s; and the coordinator for Russia's ISTC participation, the former Ministry of Atomic Energy, is now a state corporation, Rosatom, that can outcompete ISTC donor countries' nuclear energy industries. Even the ISTC's executive director, Adriaan van der Meer, has said that "My guess is there will be no great tear shed if the ISTC closes, though maybe there should be."[4] Russia's scientists, however, will be mourning—and so should all supporters of nonproliferation.

Russian scientists have strongly supported the ISTC (perhaps no surprise, since tens of thousands of them benefited from its grants); after all, the center has funded research, equipment, conference attendance, and other scientific necessities.[5] Yet surprisingly, no one in Moscow seems to care about leaving the center behind. The Russian scientific community—once one of the most privileged, respected, and influential groups in the Soviet Union—is now powerless to protect the ISTC and other international scientific engagement programs that protected them during the tumultuous 1990s. The reasons for this shift are complicated, but they include economic and cultural transformation, the rise in influence of the security forces, and, perhaps paradoxically, the relative commercial success of Russia's nuclear industry and high hopes for Russian technology. As the ISTC shows, the decline in scientists' political influence has important ramifications for international cooperative security projects with Russia.

Scientists in the Soviet Union: Politically Powerful

To understand the significance of this phenomenon, it is necessary to consider the history of Soviet scientists in policy. The Soviet regime exalted science as a way to overtake capitalism economically, draw other nations to communism with great achievements like Sputnik, and defend the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons.[6] In return, scientists and engineers received high pay, respect, remarkable intellectual freedom within the secret nuclear weapons complex, and, for a few, access to the highest echelons of power. This status, combined with a strong internationalism, made Soviet scientists among the most effective advocates for arms control.

Leading Soviet physicists were instrumental in persuading their government to support the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, the first major nuclear arms control treaty.[7] In 1986, the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the Natural Resources Defense Council (a US nongovernmental organization) established seismic monitoring stations near the Semipalatinsk and Nevada test sites to demonstrate the feasibility of a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty; this was a pivotal breakthrough for on-site verification of future US-Russian arms control agreements. And when the euphoria over the Cold War's end turned to fear of brain drain, scientists from both sides, including many former nuclear weaponeers, came together to stabilize post-Soviet science and prevent proliferation, through programs like the lab-to-lab program and the ISTC.[8] Certainly, scientists' influence on Moscow has not always been beneficial, but it had long been important.[9]

Like everything else, the societal position of scientists has changed dramatically in the new Russia. Although funding for science has increased from the dismal levels of the 1990s, the status of scientists has not. One striking (though imperfect) metric of scientists' influence is the profusion (or dearth) of "technocrats" in the Kremlin. By 1986, fully half the members of the Politburo had been trained as and had worked as scientists or engineers.[10] Today, many of Russia's most powerful politicians are siloviki, veterans of the security forces and their allies, in an uneasy partnership with the country's oligarchs; neither group shows much deference to scientists. The presence of technocrats in the Russian political sphere has greatly diminished. Cut off from the halls of power, Russian scientists are also disconnected from the general public, making it unlikely that they could pull off popular activism—as US physicists, for example, did when they took their protest against Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") to the people after the White House would not heed their concerns. Russian civil society has matured since the Soviet era, but most Russians view security policy with apathy and resignation, while Russian scientists have little experience communicating with the public and face strong pressure not to cause trouble.

More generally, Russian science does not command the numbers and talent it once did. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union had the most scientists and engineers in the world.[11] Today, discouraged by low pay and low prestige, far fewer students pursue science and engineering, while those who do often join Russia's many talented scientists working abroad.[12] Enterprising students choose economics or management.

Keeping Russia in Cooperative Programs

An issue more specific to the ISTC is the 2007 commercialization of Rosatom, the state nuclear energy corporation. Though plagued by corruption, Rosatom has had notable success, reaching deals to build nuclear power plants in Turkey, Bulgaria, Belarus, and other countries. In the words of a columnist for the government-owned Rossiiskaia Gazeta, "The role of ISTC national coordinator has become a burden for Rosatom [which is] now focused on strictly market-based problems."[13] The natural candidate to take on Rosatom's responsibilities for coordinating Russia's wide-ranging ISTC projects is the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). Unfortunately, RAS does not seem greatly interested and lacks the influence and access to sensitive facilities needed to make the ISTC effective. A powerful and largely autonomous organization in the Soviet era, the RAS had been targeted by a government wary of independent forces and eager for the institution's valuable landholdings.[14] Ironically, the drive to create a high-tech industry in Russia allows the government to restrict and dominate the (admittedly calcified) RAS and the scientific establishment in general under the banner of reform, further weakening the voice of the Russian scientific community.

None of this is to suggest that a return to the Soviet "cult of science" is desirable. Neither science nor society benefits when science is placed on an ideological pedestal and put in the hands of a few individuals and institutions. It is only to say that the discipline that produced some of Russia's most knowledgeable, active, and effective proponents of arms control and nonproliferation cannot produce such people anymore.

Of course, cooperative security projects with Russia are still possible: collaboration is clearly in the interest of all sides for certain areas, such as counter-terrorism. But it's harder to see how some of the more hard-fought victories of the past could be achieved today with no equivalent of the Soviet Union's scientific advocates of arms control to counter the hawkish influence of siloviki, to be a bridge between Russian policymakers and the global nonproliferation community, or to keep a window open to Russia' nuclear weapons complex. And that's a real loss.

Lisa Bergstrom is a student in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and a former intern at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

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[1] A database of ISTC projects is available at the organization's website.

2 Total grant funding is from ISTC, "Annual Report 2010: Developing International Scientific Cooperation," p. 4.

[3] After leaving the status of some 342 ongoing projects in limbo for nine months, the Russian government agreed at the June 2011 ISTC Governing Board meeting to allow all projects approved for funding to reach completion before giving its six-months' notice. Martin Matishak, "Future in Doubt for International WMD Nonproliferation Center," Global Security Newswire, April 18, 2011; "Statement of the 53rd Governing Board of the International Science and Technology Center," ISTC, June 28, 2011.

4 Matishak, "Future in Doubt for International WMD Nonproliferation Center."

5 The ISTC has funded approximately 76,000 scientists total, a majority of whom have been Russian. Matishak, "Future in Doubt for International WMD Nonproliferation Center."

[6] See, for example, Loren Graham, ed., Science and the Soviet Social Order (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).

[7] Examples are drawn from Matthew Evangelista, Unarmed Forces (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).

[8] On the lab-to-lab program see Irving R. Lindemuth, "U.S.-Russian Nuclear Cooperation and the CTBT: Reviving Scientific Collaboration between Weapons Labs," Nonproliferation Review 16 (November 2009), pp. 483-507.

[9] Of course, while some scientists championed arms control, others lobbied for dangerous, wasteful, and environmentally disastrous programs that brought money and influence to them and their institutions. An example is Viktor Mikhailov, nuclear scientist, first head of the post-Soviet Ministry of Atomic Energy, and powerful proponent of nuclear testing. See his aptly-titled memior, Ia – Iastreb [I Am a Hawk].

[10] Loren Graham, Science in Russia and the Soviet Union (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 165.

[11] Louvan E. Nolting and Murray Feshbach, "R & D Employment in the U.S.S.R.," Science 207 (February 1, 1980), pp. 493-503.

[12] L.G. Zubova, O.N. Andreeva, and O.A. Antropova, "Graduating College Students' Orientations Toward Scientific Research Activity," Russian Education and Society 51 (November 2009), pp. 61-70.

[13] Aleksandr Emel'ianenkov, "Missiia ischerpana, zadachi ostaiutsia" [The mission is exhausted, the problems remain], Rossiiskaia Gazeta, August 24, 2010. Translation is the author's. (The ISTC has also produced a translation.)

[14] Andrey Allakhverdov and Vladimir Pokrovsky, "Kremlin Brings Russian Academy of Sciences to Heel," Science 314 (November 10, 2006), p. 917.

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