The Power of Attraction: Comparing US and Russian Nonproliferation Policies

By Nic Wondra

Russia’s willingness to export nuclear technology abroad allows it to shape global nonproliferation norms in the long term while strengthening its bilateral relationships. By contrast, the United States’ restrictive approach diminishes its influence and costs the US in its relationships with allies.  

As global resource scarcity and growing energy demand combine, nuclear power is becoming more attractive. The global nonproliferation regime is therefore increasingly linked to the future of civil nuclear energy, since civil technology can be used for non-peaceful purposes. 

Commercial Leadership as a Nonproliferation Strategy? 

We have entered an era where Russian and U.S. conceptions of nuclear risk and strategies of nonproliferation are starkly different. During the early Cold War, the Eisenhower administration came out with its “Atoms-for-Peace” program, providing reactors and guidance to host countries. The initiative was intended to provide the benefits of the atom to all mankind, and avoid an atomic arms race. 

Today, Russia’s strategy echoes the early Atoms-for-Peace program by promoting access to nuclear technology, while the U.S. aims to limit the spread of nuclear technology and processes through restrictive controls. The Russian approach is a wise long-term strategy, because it gradually increases Moscow’s influence over global nonproliferation norms and aligns commercial goals with nonproliferation interests. 

The US “Push” of Nuclear Nonproliferation 

For many years, US nonproliferation strategy has been based on the maintenance of proprietary processes and technology. This policy has ensured the US’s perpetual ownership of nuclear fuel abroad through so-called 123 Agreements. These agreements, required by US law, are essentially contracts stating what the host country can and cannot do with US-origin nuclear material and technology. Using this mechanism, the US “pushes” limitations on recipient countries to prevent states from permanently acquiring what it regards as sensitive technologies and infrastructure. 

While limiting the spread of nuclear technology, this approach also has downsides. It has prevented South Korea from developing its own reprocessing facilities, a prerequisite for separating out plutonium for possible use in a nuclear device, at the cost of exacerbating Seoul’s spent nuclear fuel problem. Dissatisfaction with these restrictions has prevented South Korea from signing a new 123 agreement. This is more than a hiccup in South Korean-US relations; it directly affects Korean energy supplies and economic competitiveness. Were it not for heavy Korean dependence on the US for its defense, US bargaining power with Seoul would be negligible on nuclear issues. 

The world is diversifying its nuclear infrastructure away from US-origin nuclear technology precisely because the US is restricting civil nuclear exports, despite increasing world demand. This, in turn, means the US is becoming a smaller player in the global nuclear market and will exercise less commercial and diplomatic influence over nuclear energy and the nuclear fuel cycle abroad. 

The Russian Nuclear “Pull”

The Russian policy innovation has been to align the incentives of the nation buying nuclear infrastructure with the Russian nonproliferation agenda. 

Russia appears to have a “pull” nonproliferation strategy, based on global attraction to its nuclear technology. It seems to see the global nonproliferation threat as best addressed by becoming a commercial leader. Indeed, tough Western-led export control regimes have not prevented a nuclear Iran or North Korea. As Russia and its state-owned nuclear power monopoly, Rosatom, conquer nuclear markets abroad in Finland, Hungary, Jordan, South Africa, Vietnam, and even Iran, the increased share of Russian-origin nuclear infrastructure means increased influence over the global market and related nonproliferation norms. 

This approach is similar to Atoms-for-Peace, in that it facilitates access to peaceful nuclear energy while exporting Russian technical standards. The preeminence of Russian civil nuclear energy in the world market will therefore have a lasting impact on global nonproliferation norms. 

Intelligence about foreign countries’ nuclear programs, though not a nonproliferation policy in itself, is an added benefit of this policy. After a favorable Russo-Iranian trade deal placated Tehran, increased civil nuclear cooperation at Iran’s Bushehr site is almost a certainty.  While the US has criticized Russia in the past for engaging Iran outside of the P5+1 process, the access that Russia has gained in this civil nuclear deal should be seen as an intelligence coup. Imagine if the IAEA and Western powers had their engineers at Iranian nuclear sites. 


The future of nonproliferation depends on greater international cooperation. More joint programs—of nuclear archaeology, inter-governmental cooperation on civil energy and export control regimes, as well as greater transparency of existing nuclear programs—is needed to ameliorate increasingly transnational nuclear threats. 

As the US restricts export, re-processing, and construction of its nuclear know-how, Russia has its sights on setting a world nuclear standard and maintaining state control of nuclear technology well into the future. Through its competitive contracts and plans to manage nuclear facilities with Russian personnel, Russia is pursuing these nonproliferation goals through commercial attraction. As the US restricts the export of nuclear technology and industrial processes, Russia has the potential to become a world leader in reactor commerce. 

Oversight of the nuclear power plants it sells abroad gives Moscow insight into the proliferation risks posed by contracting states. At the same time, it facilitates the export of Russian nuclear safety and nonproliferation standards. Russia’s willingness to export nuclear technology also allows it to shape global norms of nonproliferation in global fora. 

By contrast, the restrictive US approach to nuclear technology continuously costs it political capital, while its influence over global nonproliferation norms also wanes. As US nuclear industry is priced out of markets by Rosatom, the US’s ability to affect its global nonproliferation policies will decrease, commensurate with its share in the global nuclear market. Restrictive US policies could take a lesson from the Russian atomic industry’s powers of attraction in promoting global standards for safeguards, security, and transparency. 

Nic Wondra is an intern with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program.