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07.08.2006. Nuclear schoolboy tricks or provocations?

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs, a most respectable and the world’s most popular American magazine on foreign and defense policy, published an article by two young authors – an Assistant Professor and an Associate Professor of good, yet minor, U.S. universities. Having read the article, I smiled and recalled my young years when, during the Cold War, I spent – or rather wasted – more than a decade studying nuclear theology and writing numerous articles, memorandums and booklets on this issue. Two things in the article by the American authors struck me most – first, their utter unprofessionalism and an absolute lack of knowledge of the subject and even terminology. This is especially strange as the U.S. has for 60 years since the end of World War II been the leader and trendsetter in the theory of nuclear deterrence and produced many outstanding specialists in this branch of science or theology.

The second thing that struck me was the article’s main message: the United States may soon gain a first-strike disarming capability against Russia and China, that is, a capability to deliver a nuclear strike while remaining scot-free. This capability would let the U.S. break out of the restraining and civilizing bounds of the ‘mutual assured destruction’ theory, which thus far has kept countries from using nuclear weapons and made them exercise military and political caution in all other spheres.

Surprisingly, this article – which I would certainly reject as a university professor should it happen to be a Bachelor’s graduation paper or even a third-year student’s term paper – has been widely discussed in the Russian press. Serious newspapers and venerable authors published big articles in a bid to prove its wrongfulness.

The main point made in the article is that the United States’ current modernization programs, which involve “incremental improvements to existing [weapon] systems” rather than their buildup, will enable the U.S. to totally destroy Russia’s steadily shrinking and decaying nuclear arsenal by a first strike. The authors make the emphasis on a quantitative and qualitative decline of Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal. In doing so, they ignore Russia’s recent efforts to modernize its nuclear forces, and say that the U.S. missile defense, even relatively ineffective, can become effective in a situation where the United States gains a first-strike capability.

As regards the essence of the subject, it has long been proved that those who will be the first to deliver massive nuclear strikes, will be the second to die – even if because of the ecological consequence of those strikes.

It is even more obvious that no U.S. leader would ever dare deliver a first strike, because there is always a theoretical possibility that several retaliatory warheads may break through missile defenses. One must bear in mind that missiles might be launched on warning, and Russia’s early-warning system, which is not very reliable today, would increase the probability of such a strike, should we return to the state of nuclear confrontation. Therefore, from the point of view of the established strategic theory, fabrications of this kind are either a provocation, or nonsense of a very old type recanted even in the U.S.

As regards the U.S. antimissile defense, as far as I understand from comments by Russian and American experts and from defense publications, even its most zealous supporters admit that this system cannot and will not work even against a few single missiles – if of course the latter are equipped with systems enabling them to break through missile defenses. Having spent huge funds on the missile defense and related technologies, which must have given a boost to U.S. technological development, the United States is actually freezing the system’s construction. So we will hardly ever see even a remote likeness to the realization of the fairy-tales that we were treated to first by Ronald Reagan and then by other Republicans before the incumbent Administration came to power and during its first days in power. Finally, any expert, even with a slightest bit of knowledge, knows that a retaliatory strike – and actually any strike against a “potential enemy” – can be delivered without even launching missiles off one’s territory. This is why the United States, Russia and other countries are so afraid of the threat of the so-called nuclear terrorism. If nuclear warheads start spreading throughout the world, irreparable damage can be inflicted on any country without any declaration of war. This is just one of a dozen ways to prevent a strike against one’s territory.

The article made me recall my young years. In those times I wrote policy papers, books and theses and was one of the few people – and, I think, the only Russian – to have access to U.S. National Archives and read, for weeks on end, declassified Cold War documents of the National Security Council on strategic planning. I still keep quotes from them, so it gave me much pleasure to shake off the dust from the old files and draw my “good old weapon.” These documents suggest an absolutely unequivocal conclusion: nuclear war became unacceptable to the United States as far back as the early 1950s, actually since the year 1950 when American strategists concluded that Russian bombers were capable of bringing at least one bomb to U.S. territory. The rhetoric of threats continued, but the real strategy was soon reoriented toward prevention of war.

Many renowned official U.S. strategists wrote about this, among them Paul Nitze, one of the authors of the nuclear deterrence strategy. In 1954, during the discussion of National Security Directive NSC 5410, President Dwight Eisenhower expressed skepticism as to whether any nation would continue to exist – in the familiar way – after a nuclear war. He said that every single nation, including the United States, which entered into this war as a free nation would come out of it as a dictatorship. This would be the price of survival. This statement by the U.S. president deserves special attention. Eisenhower meant that the explosion of even one (low-yield by modern standards) nuclear bomb on U.S. territory would ruin the American way of life and the social system of America that its leaders loved so much and wanted to preserve. National Security Directive NSC 5440 of December 13, 1954, said that a U.S. military action against the Soviet Union to reduce the latter’s might should not be a priority either for the U.S. or its allies.

Being familiar with this and many other documents, I can say with almost absolute confidence that the United States’ political leadership has never planned to use nuclear weapons, fearing a retaliatory strike against the U.S. – even if the Soviet Union attacked its allies in Europe. (One must not be misled by the rhetoric and military plans that the U.S. presented to its allies who increasingly more disbelieved them.)
Eisenhower’s position was later supported by Presidents John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and I think all the other presidents. The strategy of the ‘extended deterrence strategy,’ i.e. U.S. readiness to use nuclear weapons in response to a hypothetical threat of Soviet attack against Western Europe, was a bluff – which worked, however, as did the Soviet bluff. Fearing a U.S. first strike in Europe, Moscow was building armies that were capable of immediately moving warfare to NATO territory. As a result, Russia had more battle tanks than the rest of the world taken together. Today, looking back at those policies, it is clear that both sides believed in that phantasmagoric idiocy and spent hundreds of billions of dollars on bluff.

It surprised me that a reputable American magazine published an article on a problem that had long been overcome and shelved by the political leaderships of the two countries, and that attempts are again being made to set our two countries against each other and make them “potential enemies.” As long as there exist nuclear weapons, there will be deterrence. But it has long been pushed into the periphery of Russian-U.S. relations.

Perhaps, the teachers of two American universities do not know that the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and later the U.S. and Russia declared their decisions not to aim their nuclear missiles against each other, that the two countries have made unprecedented efforts in cooperation in the nuclear field and actually become partners. Yet it is difficult to imagine that the authors can be that ignorant.
What caused the publication of this article then? May it be ordinary enthusiasm of provincial teachers or, perhaps, lack of material for publication?

Or, perhaps, someone wants to provoke Russia into a harsh political reaction and to aggravate the already fragile relations between the two countries. The tensions must be fueled by several groups in the American political establishment. Perhaps, this is being done to provoke anti-American, anti-Western and isolationist sentiments in Russia, strengthen the positions of such groups in this country. Then this move may aim to eventually weaken Russia, tie its hands and stop its foreign-policy progress which is becoming ever more obvious.

There is another possible explanation. One of the main objectives of the arms race was to bleed the enemy economically. The United States succeeded in these efforts to a much greater extent, although the Soviet Union, too, sometimes launched fake projects, causing the Americans to spend tens of times more money in response than the systems really cost. One of the main motives for the Star Wars theory and the policy for building a U.S. national missile defense was the hope that Russia’s political class would take the bait and launch a counter-system of its own. Thus the Star Wars theory was meant to undermine the already ailing Soviet economy. And that did happen, although on a much smaller scale than the Americans had hoped.

One can also assume that a group of people in the U.S. is provoking Russia into spending its petrodollars and money from the Stabilization Fund not on the development of cutting-edge technologies, education, creation of a multi-vector energy system, the country’s modernization, but on a senseless arms race.

Finally, the article may be intended to instill fear in China and prevent the natural Russian-Chinese rapprochement by implying that Russia is a weak ally. Meanwhile, neither Beijing nor Moscow has been planning to establish a mutual military-political alliance yet.

I do not insist on any of the above explanations, but if the latter three explanations are correct, it has been clumsy work.

On the other hand, it is perfectly obvious that in today’s ever more unpredictable and dangerous world Russia does need to modernize our nuclear potential. But we must do this economically and sensibly, in accordance with our requirements and capabilities, and must not react to bluff and let ourselves be involved in a new arms race.

// Rossiyskaya Gazeta