April 17, 2023
IMAGE: Workers place a container with spent highly-enriched uranium on a truck at a nuclear research facility in Kiev, 2012. Photo by Gleb Garanich for REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo.
Being Russian working on the American side of cooperation on a sensitive nuclear security topic, I found myself in a strange situation. When greeting me, one of the Russian officials with whom I regularly conversed during project review meetings typically expressed his surprise—half-jokingly—that I am not in jail yet. My US colleagues had a better sense of humor but first treated me as an outside consultant on the ground rather than a member of the team. This situation changed later.
I have worked as a consultant supporting US nuclear security cooperation with Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus since 2004. My first role was to prepare deliverables for my clients explaining how various elements of national nuclear security infrastructure in former Soviet Union (FSU) countries work to make sure the US support is used in the most efficient and effective ways and actually achieves intended goals. This initial work was very helpful for my professional growth as I better understood the interests and needs of the US side of cooperation and learned the details of nuclear security in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. From the very beginning of my work, I took part in the US project team meetings with their Russian counterparts. My role in these meetings, however, was limited to basic support functions.
After I gained experience as a consultant, it took me time to establish a reputation with my US clients. As a consultant, I needed to show through my work a number of deliverables that facilitated more-effective interactions with counterparts in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Soon enough, I was allowed to take part in discussions, asking questions I found appropriate and providing clarifications to the Americans and their counterparts from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus to ensure mutual understanding. Importantly, I could do this without advance reconciliation of my questions and comments with the US team management. I also managed to build trust with Russian counterparts, as my interventions helped them to better communicate their point of view to their US colleagues and understand the US position better.
During the last years of active cooperation before it collapsed in 2014, I regularly delivered presentations on behalf of the US project teams at various best-practice-exchange events. These presentations typically reviewed certain aspects of nuclear security in Russia in the context of cooperation goals and facilitated further interactions on the topic.
My other contribution to cooperation was facilitating communications between US officials and their FSU counterparts in the time between their formal engagements. Parties typically met two to four times a year for one- or two-day project-review meetings, and they exchanged occasional formal communications typically tied to formal contract milestones between meetings. These interactions did not allow quality discussion of subject matter issues related to project implementation. If parties agreed there was a serious enough problem, they would convene a workshop to discuss it. However, many minor but still important issues remained unresolved, and their resolution relied on sporadic communications. My presence on the ground allowed informal communications with FSU project teams that were not limited to meeting time. Likewise, informal communications with the US side allowed certain issues to be resolved between meetings or for the ground to be prepared for their resolution during meetings.
As a consultant you always have a choice. You can limit yourself to responding to your clients’ requests, basically selling your expertise and not taking any responsibility for the overall client mission. Or you can put yourself in the position of your client, trying to understand their needs and concerns, going beyond requests, and facilitating achievement of client goals in many creative ways. The latter was much more motivating for me. I was interested in supporting nuclear security cooperation between the US and FSU countries and eager to see my clients’ feedback and interest in my contribution.
There are multiple examples of when we worked independently to facilitate better cooperation between the US project teams and their FSU counterparts.
Sometimes simple things like staff capacity hindered cooperation between the US project teams and their FSU counterparts.
One of the Russian organizations developed regulation within the framework of Regulatory Development Projects, one of the efforts to support development of FSU nuclear security infrastructure under US Material Protection Control and Accounting cooperation. Under this project, the US side covered FSU organizations’ cost of developing nuclear security regulations. US experts had the right to provide comments to regulation drafts, and if comments were not resolved to the satisfaction of both sides, payment was not made, and regulation development could not proceed. As the US project team’s consultants, we were part of the group of experts providing comments to draft regulations. One of the Russian organizations involved had limited staff who were qualified enough to draft good regulation. The draft they developed received devastating comments, and they could not properly revise the draft based on received feedback within a reasonable period of time.
One of my teammates—whom I consider one of the best Russian experts in the field—and I worked with this Russian organization, essentially augmenting its team to draft regulations that were accepted by both Russian and the US sides.
Other times, we had to help overcome the unforeseeable.
In spring 2010, I was supposed to travel with the US project teams to Kyiv to meet with nuclear security experts there for a week-long workshop. The purpose of the workshop was to conduct a joint analysis of Ukrainian nuclear security regulations. The results of this analysis were to serve as input for planning future joint work. The workshop was canceled at the last moment because of the air travel disruption caused by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. Cancellation of the workshop threatened the longer-term prospect of cooperation, as planning activities could slip to an uncertain time in the future. The US team had problems squeezing another week-long trip to Ukraine into their densely packed schedule.
I offered to travel to Kyiv with one of my teammates several weeks after the originally planned workshop to conduct this analysis with Ukrainian experts. We were familiar with the analysis methodology and had substantial experience participating in similar efforts with multiple Russian organizations. The US management supported this idea, so we promptly arranged this trip. These were happier times—when travel from Moscow to Kyiv was possible and easy. We accomplished our mission, conducting analysis with our colleagues in Kyiv and prepared a good foundation for future planning activities.
Culture is always part of the job.
You can hardly imagine cooperation with the nuclear security community in the FSU without regular “friendlies”—dinners arranged by FSU hosts and typically accompanied by substantial amounts of alcohol. These friendlies could be as quick as half an hour for a shot of vodka and a quick bite to chase it, or they could extend late into the night. On a week-long trip you might escape without any friendlies at all or suffer daily friendlies with different organizations. On one occasion, our Russian hosts treated us with a vodka lunch followed by an early “drink-everything-that-burns” dinner two hours later. Some of our counterparts in the FSU were very particular about these friendlies and started planning them well in advance. The US project teams generally enjoyed these events, as they were good opportunities to better know each other, build human relationships, and facilitate trust. However, the scope of these feasts was often of concern for the US side. At some point I had to start working behind the scenes when preparing for the next meeting to make sure a “friendly” did not go beyond acceptable limits. Over time, I coached our Russian counterparts to properly pace themselves, and they even started to appreciate it. Reasonably scaled friendlies relieved pressure from the US personnel and facilitated easygoing communications.
Last but not least, there is one achievement I consider as the best sign of appreciation for my effort to facilitate the joint work. Both US and Russian colleagues toasted me personally several times during the friendlies. These moments brought a faint of blush to my cheeks and were very encouraging and motivating.
In my turn, when challenged to make my own toast, I often raised a glass to learning from each other and the opportunities that cooperation provides in this regard.
This story reflects my personal experience. However, this experience would not be complete or even possible without support from my teammates at Booz Allen Hamilton or as an independent consultant.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Stanley Center for Peace and Security or any other agency, institution, or partner.
Dmitry Kovchegin is an independent researcher and consultant with over 20 years of experience supporting and researching nuclear security cooperation between the United States and Russia. He is a graduate of the nuclear security and nonproliferation training program established at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute during the early years of US-Russian cooperation.