Sunday, October 13, 2013

The US-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism

THE ELBE GROUP

As US and Soviet forces converged in Germany in the final days of WWII, soldiers from both armies met at the River Elbe near Torgau. That historic meeting of comrades, united in the face of common threats, is the inspiration for the creation of a unique group, the Elbe Group.
The purpose of the “Elbe Group” is to maintain an open and continuous channel of communication on sensitive issues of US-Russian relations.
The members of the Elbe Group are senior retired military and intelligence flag officers, all of whom have strong connections back into their governments. It is an unprecedented gathering of three and four star veterans from the Federal Security Service, Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, Ministry of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Department of Defense.  The Elbe Group has high level visibility in both the US and Russian governments.  President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have all been personally briefed on the group by Russian members.  Current chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov participated in the Elbe Group Round Table on Missile Defense in November 2011, hosted by former Minister of Interior, General Anatoly Kulikov.  US members likewise send feedback directly to the highest levels in Department of State, DIA, CIA and Defense Department.
Jerusalem Meeting, 22-26 March 2013
The Elbe Group held a meeting in the Old City of Jerusalem from 22-26 March discussing nuclear terrorism, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and Intelligence Cooperation among other topics.
Members of the Elbe Group at the Jerusalem Meeting:
  • General of the Army (ret) Anatoliy Kulikov, former Minister of Interior;
  • General of the Army (ret) Valentin Korabelnikov, former Head of Main Intelligence Directorate of General Staff
  • General Colonel (ret) Anatoliy Safonov, former First Deputy Director of FSB and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs;
  • General Colonel (ret) Vladimir Verkhovtsev, former Head of 12th Main Directorate, Ministry of Defense;
  • Colonel (ret) Vladimir Goltsov, former Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Atomic Energy;
  • General Eugene Habiger USAF (ret), former Commander in Chief, Strategic Command;
  • General John Abizaid USA (ret), former Commander Central Command;
  • Lieutenant General Franklin Hagenbeck USA (ret), former Superintendent US Military Academy;
  • Lieutenant General Michael Maples USA (ret), former Director, Defense Intelligence Agency;
  • Mr. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, former Director, Intelligence and Counterintelligence at DOE;
  • Brigadier General Kevin Ryan USA (ret), former US Defense Attache, Moscow.
Overview. US and Russian participants largely agreed that in many cases (Syria and Iran for example), the two countries actually have broad strategic convergence but differ importantly on the tactics for achieving the goals.  The Elbe Group does not consider existing differences to be an insurmountable obstacle to continued cooperation between the two countries on most issues.
Nuclear Terrorism. Nuclear Terrorism remains a real threat that requires US and Russian joint leadership to confront.  The Elbe Group, which helped publish the first ever joint US-Russia Joint Threat Assessment on Nuclear Terrorism (JTA), provided input on the follow-on report to the JTA which will be published by Harvard’s Belfer Center and Russia’s Institute for US and Canadian Studies in the next couple of months.  To support the goals of the government-level Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, the Elbe Group will reach out to international organizations (like IAEA) and counterpart groups in other countries to help spread information about the threat and what to do about it.
Nuclear Materials Black Market. Russian members suggested that the term “Black Market,” used in the JTA follow-on report, exaggerates the level of illegal activity in buying and selling of nuclear materials.  They recommended dropping the term “Black Market,” saying that for a market to exist there must be regular buyers and sellers who know where and how to make transactions and what the prices are.  They claimed that describing what has been happening as a “market” implies much more organized activity than is actually taking place. .  The issue of whether there is an organized effort to buy and sell nuclear materials is important to characterizing the threat from nuclear terrorism.
China. The Russian side of the Elbe Group will provide an opportunity for the group to engage with Chinese military on the topic of preventing nuclear terrorism.  General Kulikov, President of the Club of Military Leaders, will host an event in May during which American participants can join the Russians in discussing this threat with the Chinese military.  Kulikov said that his club is also hosting two Chinese Military Fellows this year and, he reminded the Elbe Group that at his invitation a Chinese officer sat in on the Elbe round table on Afghanistan in November.
Syria. Russian opinion is that the need to avoid a takeover by Sunni extremist groups in Syria outweighs the need to intervene to stop the conflict.  No Russian Elbe member defended Bashar Al-Assad, but they all claimed that in every other Arab country where regimes have changed, it has been for the worse.  American participants recognized the risk of Sunni extremist groups ascending to power, but did not agree that this risk outweighed the risks from doing nothing."During the Cold War, Russia championed revolution - any revolution - while America sought stability.  Today the roles are reversed with America for revolution and Russia for stability,"one participant noted.
Iran. A major difference between US and Russian Elbe members' assessments of the threat from Iran centers on the capability of Iran to make a nuclear weapon.  Russian Elbe members do not agree with US or Israeli assessments that Iran could produce the necessary materials in the next 12 to 18 months to make a nuclear bomb.  Russian members claimed it would take Iran at least a decade.  US and Russian members both expressed sincere doubts that a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities could successfully delay the Iranian nuclear program.
Ballistic Missile Defense. Although the Elbe Group has discussed BMD at each of its previous meetings the Russian side said that BMD was now in the hands of the two governments and our input would not add anything significant.  The American side agreed in principle, but noted that the recent decision to cancel Phase IV of the European deployment opened new possibilities for moving ahead.  One Russian member summed up the Russian comments by saying, “Of course we are pleased with the decision to cancel some deployments, but we still need to see some sort of guarantees.”
Intelligence Cooperation. US and Russian members both support cooperation between US and Russian intelligence services but, the Russian side claimed that it is not possible to accurately assess whether the current levels are adequate because the participants are no longer in active service.  Further, they cautioned that pushing the services to increase cooperation could backfire, causing the services to eschew the advice of the Elbe Group.  US members felt that cooperation needed to improve, pointing out that the relationship should be at least as direct and frequent as that of the Elbe Group, which has met eight times in two and a half years.  One Russian member said that the level of intelligence cooperation between security services is an indicator of the level of trust between the two countries.
Missing in Action in Afghanistan. Elbe Group member, LTG (ret) Michael Maples, former Director DIA, noted the recent discovery of a Soviet soldier missing since the Soviet Afghan war and suggested that accounting for missing American and Russian persons in Afghanistan is an important joint goal. Former first deputy director of FSB Anatoliy Safonov noted the moral obligation that both countries have to gather information about those who remain unaccounted for and that techniques developed by the United States could be beneficial. For many years, the United States and Russia have jointly worked to account for missing servicemen from the Cold War. The Elbe Group encourages the two countries to renew their commitment to find those still missing and to extend that cooperation to the territory of Afghanistan in an effort to find and account for all the missing military and civilians from our two nations.
“Islamism” (radical extremist Islam). One Russian member suggested that the threat of radical Islamic extremists - what he termed "Islamism" - is one of the most serious threats our two countries face and he recommended the Elbe Group begin a study of the threat at its next meeting.  American members agreed to discuss the threat, but pointed out that the term “Islamism” is not a good translation into English for the threat the Russian participant has in mind, which from an American perspective is better understood as “radical extremist Islam.”  Russian strategists have for a long time described the threat from radical Islam as a “southern arc of instability” from Western China to the Balkans.]  While not agreeing fully with the Russian perspective implied in the characterization of an “arc of instability,” the broader Elbe Group recognizes clear linkages between radical groups in these areas.
For more information on the group’s findings and recommendations, contact BG Kevin Ryan (USA retired), Director of Defense and Intelligence Projects, Belfer Center, tel.: 617-495-7747, fax: 617-495-8963 or kevin_ryan@hks.harvard.edu.

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