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Sergei M. Plekhanov, an associate professor in the department of political science, York University (Toronto, Canada), was from 1988 to 1993 the deputy director of the Moscow-based Institute for the Study of the USA and Canada, and has advised the U.S. and Canadian governments on Russian affairs....
The Nightmare Scenario
Moscow views the new U.S. drive for military superiority and nuclear war-fighting capability in the context of a geopolitical full-court press against Russia, aimed at reducing her influence in the post-Soviet space and attaining maximum control of hydrocarbon resources in the area. Recent U.S. interest in possible deployment of ballistic missile defense components in Poland and the Czech Republic is seen by Moscow as proof that NATO’s eastward expansion is motivated, among other things, by the American determination to undercut the Russian strategic deterrent. The Bush Doctrine of “democracy promotion” by means of fostering regime change in countries considered adversarial has exacerbated the sense of heightened insecurity in the Kremlin: The Putin regime considers itself one of the targets of this policy.
The sense of being under threat and pressure from Washington made it virtually inevitable that military and security elites would gain dominance in Russian politics, with a mind-set less geared for arms control than for “robust” resistance to the American challenge. President Putin has stepped up efforts to rebuild Russia’s military potential. Given the deep deterioration of Russia’s conventional forces since the Soviet collapse, nuclear weapons have become more valuable to Russia’s security and defense than ever. The Kremlin is pursuing a vigorous program to modernize and upgrade its nuclear arsenal—even if only for the psychological effect of preventing the other side from believing that it, indeed, was about to achieve strategic dominance. Russian military leaders have floated the idea of abrogating the 1987 INF Treaty [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty], that historic achievement of Gorbachev and Reagan, on the grounds that Russia’s security now demands the deployment of such nuclear forces. And the Russian strategic doctrine emphatically declares Moscow’s readiness to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear adversaries in case Russia’s security is challenged.
Continuing with the legacy of 20th century arms control, Russia remains committed to bilateral cooperation with the U.S. But, in the absence of U.S. interest in meaningful bilateral cooperation, it is increasingly conducting a unilateral nuclear policy aimed at assuring its “national security.” At the same time, it is pursuing multilateral diplomatic efforts at various fronts, in cooperation with China and others, to resist the American drive for military superiority and use of force against “rogue states.”
The new U.S.-Russian relationship, as it is currently evolving, contains a potential for very serious threats to international security. In a major international crisis, conflict between the two major nuclear powers may escalate to extreme levels.
Barring worst-case scenarios, however, the U.S.-Russian asymmetry may actually help the case for arms control and disarmament. First, the pursuit of hegemony, at least in its current neoconservative variant, has turned out to be a prescription for U.S. setbacks in the international arena. By failing so compellingly in its use of force at a time when its power seemed so overwhelming, the U.S. is serving everyone a useful lesson: Alternative, nonmilitary approaches to international security are urgently needed. Second, it is a very good thing that Russia is unable to follow the U.S. into its current folly and engage it in the kind of arms race the USSR pursued in the Cold War. Neither can it afford to indulge in nuclear war-fighting fantasies the way American neoconservatives do. The maximum possible goal Russia can reach with the ongoing upgrade of its nuclear forces is to secure its second-strike capability. Third, the fact that Russia now finds herself in a position of one among many nations opposed to the exercise of U.S. hegemony creates a wide range of opportunities for multilateral diplomacy promoting the arms control agenda.
But the maximum of what can be achieved in arms control without active participation of the United States is damage limitation. Revitalization of the arms control process is impossible without a new U.S.-Russian partnership for security and disarmament. To kick-start such a partnership, some prominent experts, such as Alexei Arbatov and Vladimir Dvorkin in Russia, are proposing wide-ranging “strategic stability talks” between Moscow and Washington.
Arguably, political conditions for such a partnership would arise only after the next change in governments in the two countries, which will take place in 2008. In the meantime, there are practical measures that might well be adopted by the current governments and effectively reduce the global threat presented by their continuing reliance on nuclear weapons.
For instance, we might persuade them to abandon Launch on Warning (LOW), the operational posture of their nuclear weapons that keeps them in high readiness. In this posture, each side is prepared to launch hundreds of its weapons upon receiving credible signals that the other side has launched nukes. The assumption is “use them or lose them.” The problem with LOW is that the warning might be false. The U.S. and Russian tracking systems, scanning the Earth and beyond for signs of an imminent nuclear strike, get false warnings on a daily basis. From time to time, a false warning generates a serious alert. It is a matter of mathematical probability that at some point, a false alert is likely to give us a nuclear war that nobody wanted. American arms control specialists Alan Phillips and Steven Starr and Canadian expert Robin Collins are making a strong case that LOW can be quite safely replaced by a different posture they call RLOAD (Retaliatory Launch Only After Detonation), under which you would launch your nukes only after one or a few enemy weapons have been detonated, removing any doubts that a nuclear war has begun (“The Russell-Einstein Manifesto and the Origins of Pugwash”).
Interestingly enough, military people on both sides seem to be more receptive to the idea than the politicians. Perhaps this is because it is the military people who are keeping their fingers on the nuclear triggers and therefore are more keenly aware of the dangers inherent in LOW. The challenge is to persuade the politicians.
Actually, “persuade” is too soft a word. We need to demand accountability from them. There is something totally absurd and even criminal about the fact that the giant machines of nuclear omnicide, created in the last century on the basis of bankrupt Cold War premises, are still standing ready for war, 24/7, waiting for orders from their commanders in chief. It is time for us to question their right to give such orders.
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