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Topics / Nuclear Threats

Can a New Generation of Experts Restore Nuclear Security?

In a time of increasing tensions between the United States and Russia, the PIR Center is "keeping the conversation going" as it prepares young students from around the world for careers in nuclear nonproliferation and diplomacy


The PIR Center (Center for Policy Studies in Russia) in Moscow was the first domestic forum where issues of nuclear security and arms control were openly discussed and shared with the Russian public after the Cold War ended

The center is one of the only think tanks in Russia that brings together experts from the scientific and policy communities with their western counterparts

At a time when the U.S. and Russia are withdrawing from longstanding agreements on arms control and nuclear security, the center seeks to cultivate relationships among seasoned experts with students and young professionals — those who are expected to manage these critical issues in the future — through its “summer school” program and other initiatives

As U.S.-Russia relations continue to deteriorate, the PIR Center is turning to this “next generation” of nuclear experts and policymakers to “keep the conversation going” around nuclear security issues, including cyber disruption, artificial intelligence, and more



The debate was spirited and impassioned, yet not overly emotive or confrontational. A group of young experts, grounded in subject-matter expertise, wrangled over one of the most fundamental questions in nonproliferation policy: is the world in fact safer with nuclear weapons — thanks to the moderating role they play in keeping conflict from escalating — than without them? On the one hand, the first team argued, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction keeps states from acting recklessly. But that may be an outmoded and dangerous model, the second team countered. One of its members rose to speak. The risk today, she said, is that “for large states, nuclear weapons provide a feeling not so much of safety but rather impunity.” That’s right, one of her teammates said, adding that it’s time to “move from a system of mutually assured destruction to one of mutually assured respect.”

It was a remarkable scene in an age when multilateral discussions on questions of international security and arms control — if they happen at all — tend be conducted with raised voices and bitter accusations, and the subject of nuclear nonproliferation has fallen from the top rungs of the global agenda. (These days, the world’s major nuclear powers are modernizing and expanding their arsenals, not reducing them.) But here was a conversation that was curious, respectful, and grounded in fact. Making it all the more striking was the fact that its participants were not seasoned policymakers or negotiators but students and young professionals, people in the early stages of careers in diplomacy, the armed forces, journalism, and academia. Though perhaps their relative youth was what made such a forthright discussion possible: they have the patience and open-mindedness often lacking in their more seasoned peers these days. The debate, and the weeklong intensive program — referred to as “summer school” — that preceded it, was organized by the Center for Policy Studies in Russia (PIR Center), a leading independent think tank in Russia covering nonproliferation and global security.

I knew I would learn a lot about nuclear nonproliferation. But I wasn’t expecting to also learn about artificial intelligence, the prospects of new weaponry, and the role of the private sector.

— Ana Livia Esteves, 2019 PIR Center “summer school” participant from Brazil

This year’s school, held in April 2019, was the 19th such session organized by the center. Its attendees came from all over Russia — not just Moscow, but the Ural Mountains and Siberia — as well as Central Asia and the Caucasus. Ana Livia Esteves is from Brazil, and is now studying for a master’s degree in Moscow. “I knew I would learn a lot about nuclear nonproliferation,” she said. “But I wasn’t expecting to also learn about artificial intelligence, the prospects of new weaponry, and the role of the private sector.”

The school, like the PIR Center itself, is the brainchild of Vladimir Orlov — or Volodya, as his friends and longtime colleagues call him — who has dedicated more than two decades to fostering education and communication on the most pressing issues of global security. He is cleareyed about the challenges of the moment, especially the difficulties in U.S.-Russia relations, once the cornerstone of global nonproliferation efforts, now living through a period of extended friction. “Even in the so-called ‘dark ages,’” Orlov says with an ironic wink, “you have to educate people, bring them together, give them a chance to network, so that in five years when they meet again in an entirely different place, they can pick up the conversation on nuclear disarmament or cybersecurity or whatever the issue may be.”

A Gap to Fill

Before Orlov discovered his interest in nonproliferation policy, in his midtwenties, he had already managed to cycle through two careers. He trained as a diplomat in the waning years of the Soviet empire, graduating from the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations (known as MGIMO) in 1990. Orlov returned from an early assignment to Cuba to write a much-discussed article on the failings of the island’s communist system for the Moscow News, the freethinking paper most closely associated with Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.

Orlov was so swept up by the changes of the time, and the opportunities they seemed to hold, that he decided to leave the diplomatic track and take a full-time job as a reporter for the Moscow News. He covered the country’s swirling, madcap politics, from the coup attempt against Gorbachev in August 1991 to the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union six months later. Before long, he developed well-placed sources in the new administration of Boris Yeltsin. He remembers arriving for his interviews at the Kremlin’s famed Spassky Gate and being ushered inside. “I was a very polite young man at university,” Orlov said. “And then I became a brash journalist, not shy about going up to people to speak my mind or ask a question. That would all turn out to be useful later.”

Amid the tumult of the early-1990s, Orlov found himself increasingly disenchanted with political journalism, but he soon discovered a new topic that fascinated him even more. In 1993 he went to Ukraine to cover negotiations between Yeltsin and Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk, who met to discuss what to do with the significant number of Soviet nuclear warheads left over in newly independent Ukraine. The issue immediately struck Orlov as both fascinating and urgent: the implosion of the Soviet state left tens of thousands of nuclear weapons scattered over a landmass that stretched across 11 time zones. Most worrisome were the so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons, with smaller yields and shorter ranges, some of which could fit into a duffel bag. Orlov began to read up on nuclear issues, and made reporting trips to Belarus and Kazakhstan, where he wrote about the Soviet nuclear legacy and the flow of nuclear weapons and material back to Russia from across the former empire.

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Orlov never had a scientific or technical education, unlike many of his new sources and contacts in Russia’s nuclear field, but he proved a quick study. “I needed to figure out for myself the difference between, say, Uranium-238 and Uranium-235,” he said, recalling those days. (The former is the kind of nonfissile uranium found in nature; the latter is enriched and can be used in both energy and weapons programs.) In 1994 Orlov headed to Monterey, California, to spend a semester at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, founded a few years earlier, and which had immediately become the largest institute in the world training specialists in combating the spread of weapons of mass destruction. William Potter, the center’s founding director, remembers Orlov as “exceptionally young and exceptionally inquisitive — and clearly very talented.”


Next Generation In 2019 nonproliferation experts in the making joined senior experts, including former officials from the United States and Russia, at the PIR Center’s International School on Global Security in Zvenigorod, Russia (April 7–13) as well as at a convening at Carnegie Corporation of New York’s headquarters in New York City (May 3). Row 1 (l–r): Jakob Lengacher, United States; Vladislav Chernavskikh, Russia; Veronika Bedenko, Russia; Sergey Semenov, Russia. Row 2 (l–r): Ekaterina Mikhailenko, Russia; Ana Livia Esteves, Brazil; Albert Zulkharneev, Russia; Elena Sinitsyna, Russia. Row 3 (l–r): PIR Center founder Vladimir Orlov, Russia; Alexandr Krivonos, Russia; Polina Vasilenko, Russia; Bolot Kazymbekov, Kyrgyzstan. (Photos: Tatyana Zhdanova/PIR Center)


Upon his return, Orlov began to write more and more on nuclear issues. “To my own surprise, I saw how these articles were met with no less interest than my stories about Yeltsin and the oligarchs,” he said. The topics that so captivated him — the danger of nuclear smuggling, the lack of nonproliferation controls in many Russian laboratories and institutes, and early negotiations with the United States over joint nuclear security projects — also resonated with readers.

In the spring of 1994 Orlov came up with what he now nostalgically calls a “modest and entirely unambitious idea”: to create a Russian-language journal that would cover issues of nuclear policy and nuclear security. At the time, even with nonproliferation an increasingly central question in relations between Moscow and Washington, there were few Russian venues able to highlight and discuss these questions, at least in a public setting, open to experts and analysts and policymakers alike. Russia’s technical institutes had their specialists; the same for state bodies like the foreign ministry.

But Yaderny Kontrol, or Nuclear Control, as Orlov dubbed the journal, would allow for an open exchange of research and knowledge, providing a unifying hub for the newly emerging discipline of nonproliferation in Russia. It was printed in both English and Russian, creating a dialogue among contributors and readers. To augment the work of Nuclear Control, Orlov and a small number of early supporters also created a new body they would call the PIR Center, or the Center for Policy Studies in Russia, which they at first imagined would simply function as a kind of informal clubhouse for the journal.

From the very first issues it was obvious that Nuclear Control filled a clear and unmet demand within Russia: it represented the first time that issues related to nonproliferation and nuclear security were being discussed by Russians in a Russian-led venue, rather than as part of a program directed from Western capitals. Orlov’s contacts in the Kremlin from his days as a political reporter happily took copies and passed them around to top policymakers. Leading politicians and officials in the nuclear sphere gave long, detailed interviews. One day, Orlov got an angry call from an official at the foreign ministry, who took umbrage with an article on missile technology proliferation. Orlov was taken aback by the criticism, but couldn’t help but feel pleased: the journal must be covering important subjects, and had clearly found an engaged and impassioned readership. “Conditions allowed for new ideas, but there wasn’t a product that could be seen outside a very tiny group of people,” said Potter. “That was a gap Volodya stepped in to fill.”

From the very first issues it was obvious that Nuclear Control filled a clear and unmet demand within Russia: it represented the first time that issues related to nonproliferation and nuclear security were being discussed by Russians in a Russian-led venue, rather than as part of a program directed from Western capitals.

With time, the PIR Center expanded to take on far more of a role than serving merely as the institutional home to Nuclear Control. The center began to host experts from Russia, the former Soviet states, and Western capitals for informal discussions and public conferences. At PIR Center seminars and workshops, Russian specialists from government and the scientific community were able to gain an understanding of nonproliferation best practices and global trends in security policy, and their Western partners could hear directly from their colleagues in Russia and gain an accurate picture of the country’s nonproliferation efforts.

Orlov was building a homegrown institution that resembled a Russian version of the nonproliferation center in Monterey. Indeed, Potter was a frequent collaborator; he and Orlov exchanged information and expertise on a range of nonproliferation-related issues. The MacArthur and Ford foundations also provided crucial early support. The late 1990s–early 2000s would prove to be the heyday for U.S.-Russia security cooperation, with the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program providing funding for a vast array of nonproliferation projects, including the destruction of weapons stockpiles and the beefing up of physical security at sites across Russia and the former Soviet Union.

It was against this backdrop that, in 2000, Carnegie Corporation of New York provided the first grant to the center, in what would come to be a lasting cooperative relationship. The activities of the center, as the Corporation made clear, worked to “raise public awareness of arms control in Russia and to cultivate the next generation of nonproliferation scholars and experts.” The risk of the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and materials “will diminish only when a nonproliferation mindset is established in labs, in storage facilities, and in decision-making bodies.” With its growing momentum and network of supporters, the PIR Center saw its mission come into sharper focus. It would function as a unique and valuable go-between: bridging the scientific and policy communities, bringing together experts from Russia and the region with those in the West, and seasoned experts with students and young professionals.

That latter emphasis — on the education and training of a new generation of nonproliferation specialists — became a central part of the center’s strategy. After all, geopolitical winds can always shift, with particular nonproliferation programs and negotiations liable to come and go, but expertise is a much more durable, and thus valuable, commodity. Orlov gave a series of lectures at Moscow’s prestigious Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, which turned into a specialized course module for master’s students on nonproliferation issues. While students at the institute had always received a sterling technical education, they hadn’t necessarily been trained on questions of nuclear security and export controls. The PIR Center published a 500-page textbook entitled Nuclear Nonproliferation, the first academic book on the topic in Russian. Universities and institutes ordered copies by the hundreds. “It’s important for us that we see people reading what we produce,” Orlov said. “We don’t want to make things that will lay around unused.”

In 2001 the PIR Center held the first of its summer schools, as they were first called. A few dozen young professionals from Russia and other former Soviet states came to Moscow for a series of intensive lectures and training modules on everything from dual-use technologies to the history of the Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT. They were taught by leading practitioners who had firsthand experience in arms control negotiations and multilateral nonproliferation efforts, including experts from the United States. The annual school quickly became the center’s premier educational project — an efficient and powerful way to spread knowledge of international security issues among early-stage professionals, who would go on to long careers in diplomacy, science, and the armed forces. (No less significantly, the school was conducted in Russian — at the time, the lingua franca of the global nonproliferation discourse was English, leaving out many potentially interested and motivated specialists.) Albert Zulkharneev, who became director of the PIR Center's education and training program in 2013, explained that as the years went by, “few of the original arms control specialists were left, and new subjects, like cybersecurity, required new specialists entirely.” The PIR Center would play an important role in helping to prepare them.


“A bird and its crew.” Allen Lamb, 31, a Minuteman combat missile crew commander, and his deputy, William Christians, 33, stand on a platform near the top of a missile silo. The two Air Force captains are inspecting the “business end” of a Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile, in a photograph published in the November 6, 1964, issue of Life magazine. In “How It Feels to Hold the Nuclear Trigger,” a Life team went on a 24-hour underground vigil with the “Instant-Firing Minuteman.” The number of Minuteman missiles in the U.S. nuclear arsenal peaked at 1,000 in the 1970s at the height of the Cold War. (Photo: Bill Ray/The Life Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Students Become Teachers

As the global security agenda evolved — taking on a heightened interest in subjects like terrorism, for example, or the opportunities and challenges of technology — the PIR Center evolved along with it. “We don’t have the aim of working on the same problems for years and years,” Orlov explained. “Once we reach a solution, we create a certain methodology, some instruments, and then move on to the next task.” Sustained, long-term support from institutions like Carnegie Corporation and other like-minded foundations allowed the center to add new experts and avenues of research and education; in some cases, existing specialists gained new competencies, like Vadim Kozyulin, an expert in the small-arms trade who launched a program on emerging technologies in weaponry, studying the military applications of robots and artificial intelligence.

For many of the students, one of the school’s most unique aspects is how it provides them with direct access to the kind of seasoned, high-level experts whom they otherwise might not encounter at the early stages of their careers. Where else would a third secretary be able to ask a question of a deputy minister? Meanwhile, students from Central Asia and the Caucasus — where nonproliferation and global security issues are not always at the fore — learn about and discuss the sort of policy questions that don’t regularly make the agenda back home.

When Bakyt Dzhusupov attended the PIR school in 2008, he was in his late twenties and a junior diplomat in Kyrgyzstan’s foreign ministry. He had attended a number of similar training seminars, but was impressed by the discipline and seriousness of the PIR school. “The program was very demanding, even strict,” he remembers. “You couldn’t sit there and just listen — you had to really absorb this information and think about it.” Dzhusupov had a basic familiarity with nonproliferation and other security issues, but hadn’t studied them with such depth or specificity before. The experience proved especially relevant in 2017, when he was named Kyrgyz ambassador to Vienna, a portfolio that includes representing his country at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the International Atomic Energy Agency. “I immediately felt a certain confidence with these subjects,” Dzhusupov says. “This knowledge was laid at the PIR school.”

Elena Chernenko, a journalist and head of the foreign desk at Kommersant, a leading paper in Moscow, remembers leaving the PIR school “with the feeling that I graduated from university all over again.” Chernenko, who attended in 2012, gained a historical and theoretical grounding for many of the topics she had been covering as a reporter. “It’s one thing to know the basics of something like the New START treaty,” referring to a bilateral U.S.-Russian agreement to reduce the size of both countries’ nuclear arsenals. "But," Chernenko continues, "it's entirely another thing to understand the history of such negotiations, the problems they’ve overcome, the technical nature of disagreements over their implementation.”

In 2013, during a tense moment when Russia and the United States were negotiating an agreement to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles, Chernenko again thought back to her experience at the PIR school, where she and the other students had learned about the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty outlawing the production and use of chemical weapons. “I immediately understood the principles at work, what I needed to do to find out what happened, and who to ask for information,” she says. Chernenko is an example of the passing of knowledge between generations made possible by the school: she now returns every year to give her own lectures. (“She’s our number one hit,” says Yulia Sych, the school’s coordinator.)

Students become teachers; or in some cases, like Zulkharneev's, directors. Zulkharneev began at the PIR Center as a coordinator in 2008, rising to a program director two years later. In 2015 he was named the organization’s new head. Orlov, who had run the center since its inception, stepped down from day-to-day management but remained on the center’s board and stays involved with specific projects, like the annual summer school and a series of nonproliferation dialogues. “It would be impossible to overestimate the role Orlov has played in the history of the PIR Center,” Zulkharneev said. “But he, just like all of us, works to make sure this place is much more than that, with a range of different personalities, opinions, and projects.” Orlov continues to be an active presence at the center, but the symbolism of the generational change in leadership is not accidental: the PIR Center was proving its own mission, grooming and elevating a new cadre of global security experts.

Agenda for Conversation

It is obvious to anyone working on U.S.-Russia relations that contacts between the two countries — at least on an official level — grew sharply more tense in 2014, in the wake of the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, and have only gone further south from there with Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and successive rounds of Western sanctions.

The PIR Center couldn’t help but be affected by this downturn in the bilateral relationship: it is difficult to maintain an objective and neutral platform for expert discussion and education at a moment of heightened polarization. “We have to keep in mind political realities,” Orlov said. “At the beginning, we might have had a certain wide-eyed romanticism, but the current times call for an understanding of realpolitik.” At the same time, he added, “Our goal is to remain independent, a place of free discussion and debate, without external pressure.” The center’s reliance on levelheaded competence and expertise has allowed it to remain largely outside the political fray.

By focusing on its mission of providing independent, objective information and analysis on policy issues, the PIR Center has managed to find a stable footing, proving its relevance and durability even in challenging times. “If our work is in demand and necessary, then there is no point in pressuring us,” Zulkharneev said. And in fact, as he and Orlov see it, periods of tension and limited dialogue are when the PIR Center is needed the most, as it can serve a function other, more official bodies cannot. “What we and the Corporation share is an understanding of the strategic importance of keeping the conversation going, even in times when it’s hard to measure immediate success,” Orlov said.

The past years have seen the PIR Center expand its institutional footprint, most notably through a dual-degree master’s program in nonproliferation studies hosted at MGIMO and the Middlebury campus at Monterey, where Orlov spent a formative semester two decades earlier. The program welcomed its first class of Russian and American students in 2016. Potter was impressed at how the PIR Center was able to launch a dual U.S.-Russian master’s program given the climate of darkening relations. “The fact that these three entities — PIR, MGIMO, and Monterey — were able to find common ground to make this program happen is truly remarkable,” he said.

Adlan Margoev was in the first graduating class of the dual-degree program. He studied folk dance as a young boy in Moscow, but found himself fascinated by international affairs — Iran, in particular. With negotiations swirling about the future of Iran’s nuclear program, Margoev took an interest in nonproliferation policy. The first year of the program, held at MGIMO, was packed with lectures and readings, a deep dive into all things nonproliferation. “We were tired, but the effect was tremendous,” Margoev said. The second year, at Monterey, left an even greater impression. Whether it came to the Iranian nuclear program or missile defense, “I saw how when we talk about positions, almost everyone disagrees,” he said. “But when we have an honest exchange about our concerns, there are immediately far less problems, and far more ideas about how we might address these concerns.”

We alone won’t change the whole of U.S.-Russia relations, of course, but by building up expertise and communication, we can create a multiplier effect."

— Adlan Margoev, editor, Yaderny Kontrol, PIR Center

Upon graduation, Margoev took a position at the PIR Center, heading up the nonproliferation program. He also lectures at the annual PIR school, and he served as the moderator of this year’s debate on whether nuclear weapons are a force for stability or the opposite. Margoev says he might end up at Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs one day, but for now is happy to soak up the rich and intense practical experience that is unique to the center. (“It’s hard to imagine where else I could be given such an opportunity in such a short amount of time,” he said.) He’s in regular touch with the rest of his cohort from the dual-degree program, and sees himself and his fellow graduates as forming a team of professionals-in-waiting. “We alone won’t change the whole of U.S.-Russia relations, of course, but by building up expertise and communication, we can create a multiplier effect,” he said.

This is Orlov’s great hope, and the vision he imparted to the PIR Center as he handed over stewardship to Zulkharneev. For the past two years the PIR Center has organized what it calls “Track 2.5” dialogues, held between U.S. and Russian diplomats, experts, and young professionals at the early stage of their careers. They meet to discuss nuclear proliferation issues that arise as states prepare for the NPT review conference next year. Potter sat in on the last session, held in New York this past May. “The civility, respect, and empathy that I saw among the young participants felt all the more stark considering how absent those traits have become for many professional diplomats,” Potter said.

Next year at UN headquarters, the “Track 2.5” group will present its recommendations on how to strengthen the U.S.-Russia dialogue on nonproliferation. “We’re trying to work toward some concrete solutions,” Zulkharneev said, “with the hope that by the time the political situation improves and the politicians are ready to do something, we can show up and bring these ready-made solutions.” As he put it, “Our task is to make sure there is always an agenda for conversation.”