By Sergei Plekhanov
UPDATE #2: Check out these three new pieces relevant to nuclear proliferation:
Mikhail Gorbachev’s column advocating nuclear disarmament (Wall Street Journal, Jan. 31, 2007)
Bruce Blair’s article “Primed and Ready,” about the danger of accidental nuclear war (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jan.-Feb. 2007)
Shultz, Perry, Kissinger and Nunn advocate a nuclear-free world
(Action of Citizens for the total Dismantling of Nukes, Jan. 5. 2007) (Note: Article is a .pdf file.)
UPDATE #1: The Nuclear “Doomsday Clock” Ticks Two Minutes Closer to Midnight
Watch professor Stephen Hawking explain why the clock was moved.
Editor’s note: A former arms control expert in the Soviet Union argues that Bush, in his obsession with North Korea and Iran’s relatively minuscule nuclear threat, has effectively ignored the much more perilous threat of Russia’s 10,000-strong nuclear arsenal.
This week, the international crisis that started in September with U.S. discovery of stepped-up uranium enrichment activities in Iran is expected to trigger a nuclear war between Russia and the United States. In the past few weeks, international attempts to defuse the crisis failed, as Russia, supported by China and North Korea, increased the readiness of its armed forces and made several threatening moves. In his address to the citizens of Russia, President Valdimir Putin called the situation “grave” and expelled U.S. diplomats from Moscow. President Bush invoked the War Powers Act. A Russian reconnaissance plane collided in midair with a U.S. plane in the vicinity of U.S. ballistic missile defense installations. It is expected that in the next few days, Russia will launch a strategic nuclear strike at American command centers and armed forces. The U.S. will retaliate.
This is the gist of the scenario, called Vigilant Shield ‘07, for this year’s Homeland Defense Exercise, currently being conducted by the U.S. Northern Command, according to Washington Post columnist William Arkin’s Early Warning blog (“Russia Supports North Korea in Nuclear War” and “The Vigilant Shield 07 Exercise Scenario”). War games are a peculiar genre, easy to make fun of, but the logic of this scenario merits serious attention, as it reminds us of an important reality we usually prefer to forget about.
When we think about the danger of nuclear war nowadays, the mind zeros in on North Korea and Iran and stays there, preoccupied with the fact that North Korea has a few nuclear bombs, while Iran may or may not build a few of its own in the next decade. The international community is tying itself in knots trying to respond to the colossal threats to world peace and security that these two countries present.
Now, the reality is that of the world’s estimated 22,000 nuclear weapons, about 21,000 belong to the U.S. and Russia, each of the two possessing nearly equal numbers and keeping about 1,000 of them ready for launching within 30 minutes. The rest are distributed in batches of a few hundred among France, the UK, China and Israel, while the new members of the “nuclear club,” India and Pakistan, possess a few dozens each (Nuclear Issues—CDI).
If we should worry about the existence of nuclear weapons with their unique capacity to put an end to human life on this planet, it is odd that we overlook the thousands and peer at the murky single digits through a magnifying glass and tremble with fear.
What happened to the clarity of mind that defined world thinking about nuclear weapons 20 years ago, when it was obvious that the really dangerous nukes were those in massive numbers that the Americans and the Russians trained on each other and were ready to use on a few minutes’ notice? Recognition of the danger and willingness to do something about it was then a mark of supreme statesmanship. So, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan jointly proclaimed in Geneva in November 1985 that “nuclear war can never be won and should never be fought,” it resonated through the global community, generating hopes that maybe, just maybe, they really meant it and would do something real to reduce the nuclear threat. And they did. They worked out a series of agreements to bring the Cold War to a close and start the process of nuclear disarmament. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the momentum of nuclear arms reduction continued for a decade. And then, at the dawn of the new century, just as we stopped worrying about the big bombs because they seemed to be on the way out, a Second Nuclear Age began. One of its hallmarks is that both Washington and Moscow have rediscovered the political value of nuclear weapons and are working to make sure that their still-enormous arsenals can be used, quickly, for unleashing a war that would cripple this planet beyond repair.
The existing architecture of nuclear arms control, composed of dozens of international treaties and institutions created to monitor their implementation, was built in the 1960s-1990s primarily to reduce the threat of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Underpinning the architecture was U.S.-Soviet strategic parity. In a very real sense, the energy of the global East-West conflict fueled the efforts to contain and regulate it. And Washington and Moscow became joint custodians of international arms control. Today, that joint enterprise seems to be on the way to Chapter 11.
There are a number of reasons for this.
First, there is complacency. Since the 1980s, the sense of urgency that had stimulated arms control efforts in the past has progressively weakened. The fear that the U.S. and Russia might use their fearsome arsenals gave way to a fear that the Russian economic crisis might make the post-Soviet arsenal easy prey to organized crime and terrorism. Safe dismantlement and storage of the redundant weapons and submarine reactors was becoming a more important area of U.S.-Russian cooperation than mutual reduction of the arsenals.
Even more important is the impact of the new U.S.-Russian strategic disparity. The fact that both countries have continued to maintain roughly equal numbers of nuclear arms has been increasingly at odds with the real dimensions of the two sides’ international influence. While Russia reeled under the impact of its calamitous transition to capitalism and the Kremlin’s attention largely turned inward, the United States claimed the role of the world’s hegemonic power intent on remaking the global order.
In the Clinton-Yeltsin era, the new Russian state, more virtual than real, presiding over a collapsed economy and a massive social crisis, was preoccupied with its own survival and incapable of, or even interested in, pursuing any coherent and active foreign policy. The Democratic administration in Washington saw management of U.S.-Russian relations as its No.1 foreign policy concern because it viewed Russia’s post-communist crisis as a source of major threats to U.S. and global security. In the 1990s, the U.S. was deeply involved in designing and implementing Russia’s transition to capitalism, and in order to create a safer environment for that transition, Washington ostensibly treated Russia as an equal, agreeing to establish a strategic partnership. A key condition of that partnership, even if not spelled out officially, was Russia’s willingness to follow America’s lead. It was in the framework of that partnership that START-I and START-II treaties were signed by both sides, providing for deep cuts in the strategic offensive arsenals of the two sides. This progress in arms control reflected the liberal internationalist worldview of the Clinton administration, which believed that U.S. interests would be better served by significant progress in nuclear arms control. As far as Russia was concerned, it needed deep reductions both because it could not afford the Soviet-era capabilities and because its new leadership, accepting the basics of the liberal internationalist outlook, did not need those capabilities.
In 2000, governments were changed in both capitals, and U.S.-Russian relations entered a new stage.
In its first months in office, the George W. Bush administration treated Russia as a basket case of botched transition and a failing state. Engagement with Russia and adherence to parity with it were now viewed as redundant baggage from the liberal ‘90s. The neoconservative shift in U.S. foreign policy produced a different attitude to nuclear arms control: Existing treaties were now seen as hangovers from the Cold War era—and as unnecessary constraints on the exercise of global power by the United States.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, served as a trigger for full-scale enactment of the neoconservative program: the declaration of war on international terrorism and “the axis of evil,” the assertion of U.S. military superiority, the doctrine of preemptive war, the weaponization of space, etc. There was no place in this program for measures to strengthen the global nonproliferation regime, for meaningful reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, or for a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing. Russia, like every other country, now faced an ultimatum: Support the new U.S. war or fall into the category of an enemy.
By declaring early and unqualified support for the U.S., President Putin secured some political capital with Washington. The Bush administration’s original dismissive attitude to Russia gave way to a new appreciation of Russia’s value as a possible ally in the “war on terror.” The resulting positive impulse in U.S.-Russian relations made it possible for the two sides to sign the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty in 2002. But the treaty reflected the ambivalent nature of the new stage in U.S.-Russian relations. On the one hand, it confirmed the principle of parity and a commitment to further reduction of offensive nuclear arsenals. On the other hand, it seemed almost a sideshow to the more important things going on in U.S. foreign policy. Glaring weaknesses in the treaty’s provisions, coupled with Washington’s decision to abrogate the ABM Treaty, reflected the new U.S. interest in nuclear weapons as key tools of global hegemony, with arms control serving as political cover for the drive for nuclear primacy.
As the weaker power of the two, Russia has little to gain from the dismantlement of arms control structures—and Moscow has so far remained committed to their preservation and strengthening. But it takes two to tango, and Moscow began to modify its posture to take account of the new U.S. approach. In their new relationship, in which they cooperated on terrorism but were increasingly at odds on major issues of East European and Eurasian geopolitics and security, the two countries, one confidently, the other reluctantly, nearly abandoned their traditional joint role of the chief custodians of global arms control.
Instead, each of the two went about its own way. As the Bush administration pushed for full U.S. military dominance, Russia took it as a direct challenge to its security; in response, it increased its reliance on nuclear arms. The effectiveness of Russian nuclear deterrent became a matter of debate. In a highly controversial article published in Foreign Affairs in early 2006, two American analysts, Kier A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, argued that the U.S. is on the verge of acquiring an ability to fight and win a major nuclear war. They wrote, “Today, for the first time in almost 50 years, the United States stands on the verge of attaining nuclear primacy. It will probably soon be possible for the United States to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike. This dramatic shift in the nuclear balance of power stems from a series of improvements in the United States’ nuclear systems, the precipitous decline of Russia’s arsenal, and the glacial pace of modernization of China’s nuclear forces. Unless Washington’s policies change or Moscow and Beijing take steps to increase the size and readiness of their forces, Russia and China—and the rest of the world—will live in the shadow of U.S. nuclear primacy for many years to come.” (See Foreign Affairs, “The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,” Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press. See also discussion in Foreign Affairs, “Nuclear Exchange: Does Washington Really Have (or Want) Nuclear Primacy?” Peter C. W. Flory, Keith Payne, Pavel Podvig, Alexei Arbatov, Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press.) In other words, Gorbachev and Reagan were wrong, and we are freer in the new century than we were in the last one: American nuclear primacy will assure that nuclear war can be won and just might be fought, if the need arises.
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.