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Ice Cold U.S., Russia Relations Put Strain On Nuclear Agreements

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Tensions between the world's two biggest nuclear powers are higher now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. As the relationship between the United States and Russia deteriorates, the treaties and inspection protocols that once kept the two countries from nuclear war are fraying. NPR's Corey Flintoff sent this report from Moscow.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: At the end of the Cold War, Russians and Americans may have thought that the long nightmare of a potential nuclear war had ended. It hasn't. Both sides are still upgrading nuclear-capable missiles like this one tested recently in Russia.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Russian).

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FLINTOFF: For more than 50 years, the United States and the Soviet Union and later Russia built a series of treaties and agreements to keep the nightmare from happening. But trust between Russia and the West has been steadily eroding, especially over Russia's role in Ukraine. Harvard professor Matthew Bunn says U.S.-Russian relations are at the lowest level he's seen in nearly 30 years of working on nuclear arms issues.

MATTHEW BUNN: It's really a very dark time in our relations, and it is affecting our ability to work together on the security of both our countries relating to having the world's largest nuclear stockpiles.

FLINTOFF: Bunn points to several areas where nuclear cooperation between the two powers has stopped or stalled. In December, Russia formally said that it's refusing any further American help in securing Russian stockpiles of weapons-grade nuclear material. The announcement ended a more than 20-year program that helped dismantle nuclear weapons systems and stop the materials from being stolen or sold to potential terrorists. Russia says it will continue the program using its own money, but Bunn says what will be lost is cooperation between experts on both sides.

BUNN: The personal relationships among technical people have often been a crucial backchannel that allowed our countries to overcome problems in the past.

FLINTOFF: The two sides are also at odds over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, an agreement that eliminated thousands of medium-range missiles. The U.S. suspects that Russia has violated the INF Treaty by testing a banned type of missile. But Russia says the U.S. wants to use a banned missile system itself as part of its antimissile defense plan in Europe. Anton Khlopkov is a Russian nuclear expert who says the two sides should be negotiating these issues directly rather than trading accusations in the news media.

ANTON KHLOPKOV: Otherwise, I would think that it will have quite an opposite effect. For example, it can strengthen oppositions of those in Moscow who support the idea of Russia's withdrawal from INF treaties.

FLINTOFF: Hawks in both countries are pressing to end or change the agreements that brought the world a measure of security during a time when relations were most tense. The U.S. and Russia have drawn the ire of the world's nonnuclear states for seeking to modernize their weapons arsenals rather than cut them. The nonnuclear countries are showing their impatience at a nuclear nonproliferation conference taking place now at the United Nations. Kingston Reif of the Washington-based Arms Control Association says those countries may challenge the major nuclear-armed powers to do more.

KINGSTON REIF: The nonnuclear weapon states can continue to put pressure on the nuclear weapon states - in particular, the United States and Russia - for not taking steps to further reduce their bloated nuclear arsenals.

FLINTOFF: After more than 45 years, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is still the bedrock of arms control agreements between the two countries. In opening remarks at the conference, both the United States and Russia pledged to cooperate, but it remains to be seen whether they'll do so. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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