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Russia

New Russian Nuclear Design Shown

A broadcast on Russian state television of a Nov. 10 meeting in Sochi between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military officers revealed...

December 2015

By Kingston Reif

A broadcast on Russian state television of a Nov. 10 meeting in Sochi between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military officers revealed a document showing the design of a purported new underwater nuclear-armed drone that could rain radioactive fallout on enemy coastal areas.

In a Nov. 10 post on his blog Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, Pavel Podvig, a researcher with the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, said the Russian name of the system shown in the document translates to English as “Ocean Multipurpose System ‘Status-6.’”

According to Podvig, a short summary included in the document described the mission of the proposed weapon as “[d]amaging the important components of the adversary’s economy in a coastal area and inflicting unacceptable damage to a country’s territory by creating areas of wide radioactive contamination that would be unsuitable for military, economic, or other activity for long periods of time.”

At the meeting where the underwater drone design was revealed, Putin, reiterating a long-standing Russian complaint, criticized U.S. missile defense plans, claiming they are intended to “neutralize” Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent.

Putin said Russia would respond by developing “strike systems capable of penetrating any missile defenses.”

The United States says its missile defenses are not aimed at Russia but instead at smaller adversaries such as Iran and North Korea.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, in a Nov. 12 statement to the Russia news agency Interfax, said that “some secret data fell into the field of view of these cameras.”

“We hope such a thing will never be repeated,” he added.

According to Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and current director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution, the airing of the document was no accident.

“The picture was aired because the Kremlin wanted it aired and wanted the world to believe that Russia has plans for a large nuclear torpedo,” Pifer said in a Nov. 18 blog post.

“That fits with Moscow’s pattern of nuclear saber-rattling over the past two years,” he added. 

What's New Text: 

Posted: December 3, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Nuclear Weapons and Nixon’s Madman Theory

William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball’s new book on President Richard Nixon’s use of coercive nuclear feints during the Vietnam War should put an end to academic debates...

December 2015

Reviewed by Michael Krepon

Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War
By William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball
University Press of Kansas, 2015, 448 pp.

One debating point in academic circles about nuclear weapons is whether they confer leverage in crises and in war.1 For those confused by or skeptical of the methodologies employed in these arguments, the best way to reach a conclusion is by delving deeply into case studies.

There will be no better book-length case study on coercive nuclear diplomacy than the one just written by William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War. Burr is one of the keepers of the National Security Archive, an essential resource for researchers, writers, and diplomatic practitioners who wish to be informed by history. Kimball is a professor emeritus at Miami University in Ohio and the author of Nixon’s Vietnam War. (He also is the father of Arms Control Today’s publisher.) Burr and Kimball document in significant detail the story of how, in 1969, President Richard Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger sought to avoid a “long game” in Vietnam. In October 1969, they authorized coercive nuclear feints designed to incline North Vietnam to be more receptive to U.S. offers and the Kremlin to be more helpful in arranging an early settlement.

The modus operandi of Nixon and Kissinger for Vietnam was similar to the one they used for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with the Soviet Union. They set in motion bureaucratic inquiries into policy options that they did not intend to pursue, operated through irregular channels, and tried to keep some key individuals out of the loop.

Burr and Kimball were not granted access to the Kissinger papers at the Library of Congress, which will remain closed to all but a privileged few until five years after his death—a constraint that the authors declare to be “the last standing abuse of power of the Nixon era.” They also did not gain access to archives in China, Russia, or Vietnam to offer greater insight into how these countries assessed the motives and intentions behind Nixon’s nuclear messaging.

They still managed to gather enough material to provide great detail on the veiled nuclear alert and to conclude that it was directed primarily against Moscow. They also provide compelling arguments for why these feints failed in their intended purpose. This book should put an end to academic debates over the diplomatic utility of nuclear weapons to leverage outcomes, but it probably will not.

During the Vietnam War, the United States possessed the largest and most capable nuclear arsenal in the world. It was bogged down in a brutal, extended war with a state that did not possess nuclear weapons. North Vietnam was helpless to stop U.S. aerial bombardment and could not be sure that its patron, the Soviet Union, would respond militarily to U.S. nuclear strikes on North Vietnam. Even under these circumstances, the Nixon administration’s attempts at coercive nuclear diplomacy failed miserably.

The Soviet Union failed to react in hoped-for ways, nor did it overreact. Evidence of the failure of veiled nuclear threats in the fall of 1969 can be found in the war’s prolongation until the armistice agreement signed in January 1973 and ultimately in the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, after what Nixon and Kissinger termed a “decent interval” of two years.

A case can be made that more conventional military means of suasion—for example, the stepped-up U.S. bombing and mining campaigns in 1972—had more influence on the North’s leadership than the veiled nuclear threats. Burr and Kimball argue otherwise. They conclude with reasonable evidence that these endgame measures were directed more at President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam, who was balking at the terms that Kissinger was negotiating, rather than the North Vietnamese leadership.

Most of this book is about Vietnam. The portrayals of Nixon and Kissinger are by now familiar, with new flourishes recently added by Bob Woodward’s book The Last of the President’s Men, based on a trove of documents and the recollections of Alexander Butterfield, Nixon’s deputy chief of staff. In the Burr-Kimball book, Nixon and Kissinger sometimes egg each other on. Kissinger flatters Nixon while occasionally evading Nixon’s exasperated instructions. The tide of the Vietnam War and anti-war sentiment are working against them; escalation measures succeed more in inflaming domestic opposition than in bringing the war to a satisfactory conclusion.

Those interested in whether nuclear weapons provide political utility can profit from reading the first chapter of Burr and Kimball’s book, which summarizes nuclear threats made prior to the Nixon administration, as well as the chapter providing particulars about the 1969 nuclear alert, which was characterized as a “readiness test” to avoid raising domestic and diplomatic hackles.

The record of senior U.S. officials believing that nuclear weapons could provide diplomatic leverage begins with President Harry Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson after World War II, when they initially considered the atomic bomb to be a “master card,” and Secretary of State James Byrnes, who believed that nuclear weapons would make the Soviet Union “more manageable.” Yet, Truman declined to use nuclear weapons during the Korean War, and Stimson soon had second thoughts and sought to eliminate these weapons.

President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles spoke repeatedly about the utility of nuclear weapons, but they too backed away from use in Korea and Vietnam. Military figures argued for restraint because of the absence of suitable targets and the requirements for a large troop presence after using these weapons. Diplomats warned about the likelihood that such use would horrify U.S. allies in Europe and the prospective alienation and outrage in Asia. Other concerns related to the uncertainties of Soviet and Chinese responses. These arguments were persuasive.

The Eisenhower administration faced more crises with nuclear dimensions than any of its predecessors or successors. In September 1954, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) went on alert after the shelling of Quemoy and Matsu, two islands held by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government off the coast of mainland China. In January 1955, the Eisenhower administration ostentatiously moved nuclear-capable aircraft closer to the Taiwan Strait. SAC readiness levels were raised again in July 1958 during a crisis in Lebanon and yet again in response to heightened threat levels in the Middle East and along the Taiwan Strait in early 1959. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev also used nuclear threats during the October 1956 crises sparked by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal.

The absence of battlefield use during the Eisenhower administration was pivotal in establishing what international relations scholar Nina Tannenwald calls a taboo against using nuclear weapons.2 After two presidents, a Democrat and a Republican, managed to avoid using nuclear weapons during the Korean War and in multiple flash points in the Middle East and Asia, the bar was set extremely high for Nixon and Kissinger. The administration of Lyndon Johnson did not seriously consider using nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

Nixon brought to the White House the conviction that his predecessors acted wisely in making nuclear threats, and he was determined to use coercive nuclear diplomacy to shorten the Vietnam War. Kissinger was on Nixon’s wavelength, heartily endorsing the use of conventional force and nuclear threats to bring the excruciating and costly war to a close. The two men considered both tracks in 1969 and settled initially on nuclear feints. Left with the prospect of a long war when this failed, they then chose to raise the ante by conventional means.

Burr and Kimball present no evidence that Nixon and Kissinger were serious about nuclear weapons use but ample evidence that they were intent on nuclear coercion to help persuade Moscow to use its good offices in Hanoi to shorten the war. Both men were convinced that nuclear threats could be translated into leverage even though the track record of previous threats was ambiguous at best. It was as if the absence of horrific consequences when threats were conveyed equaled a successful application of influence even when, as in the cases cited above, outcomes were either indifferent to or immune from nuclear threat-making.

Nixon’s distinctive stamp on coercive nuclear diplomacy was to leave the impression that he might just be off his rocker, thereby lending credence to threats that seemed implausible to Hanoi and Moscow. Nixon apparently remained convinced of the utility of nuclear threat-making long after his resignation from the presidency. He told an interviewer at Time in 1985 that he considered Khrushchev to be a master of this art “because he scared the hell out of people.”

Nixon described this approach as the “Madman Theory,” a phrase he coined during his presidential campaign in 1968 when he spoke with his prospective chief of staff, H.R. (Bob) Haldeman, whose notes of the conversation appeared in Haldeman’s book The Ends of Power: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button.’”3

Burr and Kimball define the Madman Theory as “[t]hreatening an adversary with the use of extreme or excessive force—force that normal people would consider disproportionate to the issues in dispute and, beyond that, senselessly dangerous because it risked a larger conflict that would also imperil the vital interests and security of the threatener. Adversaries would or might assume that the threatener was genuinely crazy—even though he was not—and therefore capable of irrational, imprudent, unpredictable acts.”

The alert, carried out between October 13 and 30, 1969, was termed the “JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] Readiness Test,” or “Increased Readiness Posture.” The American public was not told about the alert, but some journalists and congressional staffers got wind of it. NATO allies were kept in the dark. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and his military assistant, Colonel Robert Pursley, were apprised of the plan. Secretary of State William Rogers was not directly informed of the reasons behind it, and even the JCS chairman, General Earle Wheeler, might not have been, although both men quickly learned the reasons for these feints. (Nixon and Kissinger executed similar maneuvers bypassing Rogers prior to and during negotiations on the SALT I treaty.)

Commanders in the field who received orders to increase readiness for the employment of nuclear weapons, such as raising the number of bombers and tankers on ground alert, were kept in the dark about the geostrategic game plan behind these moves. They raised objections to actions that would degrade pilot training and proficiency while worrying allies. Other particulars of the readiness test included radio silence, increased surveillance of Soviet shipping, higher alert rates for SAC aircraft, the dispersal of bombers, and increased U.S. reconnaissance flights.

These readiness measures were intended to get the Kremlin’s attention but not so much as to bring the superpowers to the precipice. The Pentagon’s orders to commanders in the field sought to draw a fine line between avoiding steps that might be deemed threatening and provocative while taking “unusual and significant” measures. The DEFCON—a formalized sequence of alert levels for crises with nuclear consequences—was not raised during the readiness test, as it was subsequently during the 1973 crisis in the Middle East.

The readiness test ended amid much puzzlement and ineffectuality less than three weeks after it began. It failed to mobilize the Kremlin to do the Nixon administration’s bidding with North Vietnam for several reasons. The means Nixon and Kissinger employed for coercive nuclear diplomacy were undercut by their concern over domestic and allied blowback. It proved impossible to scare the Kremlin sufficiently without scaring the U.S. public and European and Pacific allies. When Nixon met with Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, during the readiness test to underscore U.S. messaging, the wily envoy, having been through the crucible of the Cuban missile crisis, correctly interpreted the mixed messages he received as bluff.

Confusion and constraints were compounded because of Nixon and Kissinger’s habit of circumventing regular chains of command and cutting out those presumed to be skeptics of the White House’s methods. Burr and Kimball provide considerable evidence that these maneuvers were amateurish and would have been risky if the Kremlin had taken them more seriously. The Soviet Union noticed what the Nixon White House was trying to do and responded in a low-key way. The Kremlin liked its hand and was not persuaded to do Washington’s bidding. The coercive nuclear gambit ended with a whimper, after which Nixon and Kissinger ramped up bombing and mining campaigns. Despite being a nuclear superpower fighting a non-nuclear-weapon state, the United States was unable to restrain North Vietnam from seeking achievable and embarrassing gains.

U.S. leaders eventually figured out the limits of coercive nuclear diplomacy, but other states continue to ascribe enormous persuasive powers to weapons that have not been used in battle for seven decades. President Vladimir Putin reminds the world of Russia’s nuclear arsenal while engaging in military expeditions in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seems quite confident that he can keep adversaries at bay with nuclear threats. When breakdowns in deterrence do not lead to catastrophe in South Asia or when crises are successfully managed, national leaders in Pakistan give significant credit to their nuclear deterrent. Burr and Kimball have written a fine book that challenges these assumptions and tactics.

ENDNOTES

1.  For an argument that they do confer leverage, see Matthew Kroenig, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve: Explaining Nuclear Crisis Outcomes,” International Organization, Vol. 67, No. 1 (January 2013): 141­171. For the opposite argument, see Todd Secher and Matthew Fuhrmann, “Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail,” International Organization, Vol. 67, No. 1 (January 2013): 173-195.

2.  Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

3.  H.R. Haldeman with Joseph DiMona, The Ends of Power (New York: Times Books, 1978), pp. 82-83.


Michael Krepon is the co-founder of the Stimson Center. He is the author or editor of 21 books, including Better Safe than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb. This year, he received the Thérèse Delpech Memorial Award from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for lifetime achievement in nongovernmental work to reduce nuclear dangers.

Posted: December 3, 2015

Avoiding War in Europe: The Risks From NATO-Russian Close Military Encounters

With NATO-Russian relations in their current state, a single event or combination of events could result in a war, even if neither side intends it...

November 2015

By Ian Kearns

A Russian warship moves through the waters near the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol on March 7, 2014, as part of a blockade of Ukrainian ships. [Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images]On March 3, 2014, a Russian warplane with its transponders switched off came within seconds of colliding with a Danish civilian airliner carrying 132 passengers from Copenhagen to Rome. SAS flight 737 averted a collision that day only because of evasive action taken by its pilot.1

An almost identical incident occurred nine months later, on December 12, again involving a Russian warplane and a civilian airliner that had just left Copenhagen.

Barely a year after the first incident, in March of this year, Russian Su-30 multirole fighter jets used two NATO warships in the Black Sea as targets in high-intensity training exercises.2 The purpose of the exercise appears to have been to provoke the NATO ships into taking defensive action so that the pilots of the Russian aircraft could observe that action and practice countermaneuvers.

Over the last 18 months, the European Leadership Network has logged more than 60 such dangerous incidents in the Euro-Atlantic area.3 The wider catalogue of events includes mock Russian cruise missile attack runs on targets in North America and Denmark, instances of Russian and Western fighter aircraft coming within meters of each other while on maneuvers, a series of submarine hunts off the coasts of Scotland and Sweden, and the abduction by Russian agents in September 2014 of an Estonian security service operative on Estonian, and therefore NATO, territory. In recent weeks, as Russian air operations have commenced in Syria and instances of Russian violations of Turkish airspace have come to light, the theater of these close and dangerous military encounters and incidents appears to have broadened from the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, and Atlantic Ocean to the Middle East.

There is a wider military and political context to these events that makes them all the more worrying. In addition to the close NATO-Russian military encounters now occurring, a general deterioration in the relationship between Russia and the West has become visible in an action-reaction cycle of military exercises being conducted in Europe. Russia is conducting more exercises than NATO, and the two sets of exercises are dissimilar in scale. A Russian “snap” exercise conducted in March, for example, brought together 80,000 military personnel in operations focused on the Arctic and the Baltic Sea regions whereas NATO’s largest exercise in many years, Trident Juncture, which started last month, drew about 36,000 military personnel. Moreover, while NATO exercises are aimed at reassuring allies in the eastern part of the alliance in the context of Russian support for separatists in Ukraine, Russia is using its exercises at least partly to intimidate and unsettle its neighbors.

Despite these important differences, however, there are similarities in the exercises of the two sides. These similarities say something important about what is occurring.

Both sides are using their exercises to practice a rapid mobilization and redeployment of forces over long distances to strengthen what they perceive to be their most strategically exposed areas. NATO is conducting exercises with a view to being able to protect the Baltic states and Poland. Russia is focusing on its border areas with Latvia and Estonia; Kaliningrad, the Russian territory between Lithuania and Poland; the Arctic; and occupied Crimea. The exercises of both involve ground, air, and naval forces in joint operations and include high-intensity combined arms training, the conducting and repelling of amphibious assaults, and engagements with low-level irregular forces.

Most importantly, despite protestations by both sides that the exercises are aimed at no particular adversary, it is clear that each side is exercising with the most likely war plans of the other in mind. The Russian military is preparing for a confrontation with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a confrontation with Russia. This does not mean either side has the political intent to start a war, but it does mean that both believe a war is no longer unthinkable. Many in NATO believe that the demonstration of resolve that the NATO exercises and additional force deployments in eastern Europe represent is essential to deterring Russian aggression and therefore to keeping the peace in Europe. In NATO’s view, the exercises are not a problem, but a virtue. Whether this view is justified—given Russia’s recent behavior, it may well be—the total effect of the developments described here is to generate a growing sense of insecurity on both sides. Russian exercises are seen as a provocation and a threat in the West, and NATO exercises and new deployments are seen as threatening in Moscow.

The developing situation also has a nuclear dimension. In a documentary made for a domestic Russian audience in March 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated that he had considered putting Russian nuclear forces on alert during the operation to annex Crimea. Just a few weeks later, the Russian ambassador to Denmark appeared to tell that country that if it took part in NATO’s emerging missile defense shield, it could expect to go on the target list for Russian nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict. These instances of what are seen as nuclear intimidation and nuclear saber rattling are creating pressure for a NATO response.

Last month, in response to Russia’s recent behavior, Adam Thomson, the UK ambassador to NATO, said that since the end of the Cold War, NATO has conducted exercises with conventional weapons and nuclear weapons but not “the transition from one to the other.” Now, however, “[t]hat is a recommendation that is being looked at. It is safe to say the UK does see merit in making sure we know how, as an Alliance, to transition up the escalatory ladder in order to strengthen our deterrence.”4

Meanwhile, Crimea and Ukraine have become flash points of a much more fundamental political disagreement. Not only are there significant policy differences between Russia and the West, but on the Russian side, a growing number of military and national security officials appear to believe Western policy is aimed at overthrowing Putin and weakening the Russian state to the point where it can be effectively destroyed and dismembered. Claims that the removal of the Yanukovych government in Ukraine was a Western-backed unconstitutional coup and a trial run for a “color revolution” in Russia itself are dismissed as rhetoric in the West, but are more deep-rooted in Moscow than some Western policymakers appear willing to acknowledge.5 It therefore seems safe to assume that current Russian behavior is driven as much by a concern for regime survival as it is by a concern for geopolitical advantage or by disagreement with specific policies of the West.

Many in the West at the same time believe that Russia is seeking to change the post-Cold War settlement, or perhaps even the post-World War II settlement, in Europe in a number of ways, including by use of force if necessary. The charge sheet here concerns changes to the borders of the Georgian state since 2008 and events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine over the past two years. It also includes the provision of funding and support to nationalist political parties hostile to the European integration project in central and western Europe and the use of energy as an instrument to influence the domestic and foreign policy choices of a number of states in NATO and the European Union. For many, it is becoming apparent that Russia is a revisionist power in western as well as eastern Europe.

Whether or not the current situation amounts to a new Cold War, the upshot is a confrontation in which both sides now perceive their fundamental interests to be at stake.

At the Mercy of Events

Too few appear to recognize that the current cocktail of incidents, mistrust, changed military posture, and nuclear signaling is creating the conditions in which a single event or combination of events could result in a NATO-Russian war, even if neither side intends it. To understand why this is not an exaggerated concern, one might consider the sequence of events that easily could have transpired if the aforementioned SAS civilian airliner en route from Copenhagen to Rome had collided with the Russian warplane.

The outrage and uproar in Western capitals at what would certainly have been a very serious loss of life would have been understandably huge. Media and public pressure to act quickly against Russia would have been irresistible. A demand for an immediate cessation of Russian military flights with transponders switched off, especially in civilian air corridors, would have been issued. If that demand did not elicit an immediate positive response from Moscow, a move that might imply acceptance of guilt, previously routine civil aviation flights in European airspace would have been declared at risk. In that situation, those flights would have to have been suspended, which would have been politically unacceptable and economically very damaging, or NATO would have needed to begin military interdiction of Russian aircraft. Any European government not willing to support such interdiction would have been taking its future in its hands, exposing itself to claims that it was weak in the face of unacceptable Russian behavior or risking a further incident while doing little or nothing to prevent it.

Amid this kind of uproar in the West, Putin would be highly likely to exhibit sadness at the loss of life and to offer full Russian assistance in any inquiry to get to the bottom of what happened. At the same time, he almost certainly would point out that Western military aircraft themselves fly with transponders switched off and that the Russian military aircraft involved in this particular incident was operating in full compliance with international law and was in international airspace. Although not ruling out talks to manage the situation, his domestic political persona would constrain his options. He has invested a lot of time and effort in portraying himself to his own people as a strong leader, capable of standing up to the West while making Russia respected again on the international stage. Capitulating to Western pressure outright would be politically damaging.

Diplomacy might save the day, but that could not be assumed. The scene would be set for the planes, naval vessels, and land forces of a nuclear-armed state and a nuclear-armed alliance to continue coming up against each other. This time, however, the close encounters would not be part of planned exercises or a game of brinkmanship, which is dangerous enough, but would come amid a real standoff over who had the right to fly where and under what circumstances, with everyone’s fundamental interests and full political prestige at stake.

Little or nothing is being done to avert this kind of crisis, which could be triggered by any one of the other dangerous incidents and encounters that have taken place over the last 18 months. This absence of action is shocking. If such a crisis resulted in military hostilities, there would be no telling where those hostilities might lead and, given the nuclear arsenals on both sides, what the end result could be.

Agreements on Avoiding Incidents

The Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on and Over the High Seas, usually known as the Incidents at Sea Agreement, was signed by U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at their summit in Moscow in May 1972. It is a technical military-to-military agreement rather than a statement of political principle. It requires each side to avoid dangerous maneuvers, refrain from mock attacks that might simulate weapons use against aircraft or ships, and avoid dropping objects close to ships to hinder their navigation. It also requires the surveillance ships and aircraft of one side to communicate with the other.

The agreement was a response to a dangerous pattern of military activities, including instances of each side’s warships maneuvering very close to those of the other, and a pattern of dangerous maritime air surveillance involving close overflights of warships. The latter was often perceived as harassment by the ships’ commanders. The agreement proved its worth when, during the Arab-Israeli war in October 1973, it helped ensure there were no serious incidents while 150 U.S. and Soviet warships shared the crowded waters of the eastern Mediterranean.

The Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities was signed on June 12, 1989, and entered into force on January 1, 1990. Like the Incidents at Sea Agreement, it governs the activities and personnel of each side when operating in close proximity to the other in peacetime. It focuses on four categories of military activity: military operations by one side near the territory of the other; the use of lasers, particularly those directed at aircraft cockpits, which could be harmful to personnel; operations in areas of high tension, which either party could designate as a “special caution area”; and interference with command-and-control networks. In each of these areas, the agreement requires caution, communication to avoid dangerous incidents and misunderstandings, and action to terminate injurious activity if a problem is identified by the other side. Unlike the Incidents at Sea Agreement, it incorporates certain operations on land as well as those at sea and in the air. It also sets out agreed communications signals and frequencies to be used by the aircraft, ships, and ground vehicles of each side. A joint military commission was set up to issue an annual assessment of compliance and consider how the agreement could be enhanced.—IAN KEARNs

    Negotiating a New Instrument

    The risk of a serious crisis and the absence of action to prevent one led to a recent paper from the Task Force on Cooperation in Greater Europe, made up of senior figures from Russia and the rest of Europe. This group called for the NATO-Russia Council to be convened urgently to discuss a possible new memorandum of understanding (MOU) between NATO and Russia on rules of behavior in air and maritime encounters between the two sides. This proposal has been signed or endorsed by a total of 78 senior military, political, and diplomatic leaders drawn from across the European continent.

    The task force proposal draws explicitly on an agreement signed by China and the United States in late 2014. This U.S.-Chinese MOU sets out the principles and procedures for communication during encounters between military vessels and aircraft and requires each side to give timely hazard warnings if military exercises and live weapons firing are to take place in an area where the military vessels and aircraft of the other may be operational.6 It also sets out a series of rules for establishing mutual trust. These include a commitment, when conducting operations, to communicate in a timely fashion about the planned maneuvers of military vessels and military aircraft. They also include a list of actions that should be avoided, such as simulation of attacks by aiming guns, missiles, fire control radar, torpedo tubes, or other weapons in the direction of military vessels and military aircraft encountered.

    The agreement specifies the radio frequencies to be used for communication and the signals vocabulary to be used if pilots, commanding officers, or masters of vessels experience language difficulties as they communicate with one another. It also contains a provision for each party to conduct an annual meeting, led by senior military officers, to assess application of the agreement in the previous year and to deal with any problems or issues that have arisen during that time.

    With regard to the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship, the 1972 Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on and Over the High Seas, usually known as the Incidents at Sea Agreement, and the 1989 Agreement on Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities (see box) operate in a similar way. These two agreements could serve as the basis for a more multilateralized arrangement involving all NATO members and Russia and even NATO partners such as Sweden and Finland. Russian and NATO officials should pursue this objective with urgency.

    Some apparently still think such a deal is not necessary. In off-the-record conversations, some military commanders stress that close military encounters of the kind now under way in Europe were a fact of life during the Cold War and that well-trained, professional military personnel are more than up to the task of handling them without incident.7

    Furthermore, some diplomats and politicians, particularly in eastern Europe, see the proposal as dangerously corrosive to Western unity with regard to Russia. This latter group sees any attempt to negotiate a mechanism for reducing the risks of close military encounters with Russia as a reward for aggressive Russian behavior and as an unwelcome opportunity for some Western countries, suspected of wishing to return their relations with Russia to “business as usual,” to advance their case. According to this view, a move to negotiate a new instrument would encourage further aggressive Russian behavior and dissipate the message of resolve, deterrence, and a commitment to collective defense that NATO has been trying to construct and maintain since the annexation of Crimea.8

    On the Russian side, there also are some voices arguing against this proposal, seeing in it a Western tactic aimed at distracting attention from matters of greater significance, such as the eastward enlargement of NATO, the failure of the West to engage in dialogue on future arrangements for European security as a whole, and a lack of willingness to address wider Russian security concerns from missile defense to developments in conventional prompt global-strike systems.

    The arguments on all sides are understandable in the context of what is now a total breakdown of trust between NATO and Russia and a lack of confidence among some allies within NATO. Ultimately, however, they are not persuasive.

    The very existence of the recent U.S.-Chinese MOU validates a concern over the risks that are run when the military forces of states that are not allies come into close proximity with one another. That agreement makes clear the importance of having protocols and military procedures in place to manage events in real time rather than relying on agreements to refrain from certain kinds of activity in the first place. Although some military commanders seem less worried about such incidents, many more believe leaving the outcome of close military encounters to chance or the split-second decisions of individual pilots and other military personnel is unnecessarily dangerous.

    The more recent dialogue between Russia and the United States on the subject of “deconflicting” the roles of the U.S.-led coalition and Russian military forces deployed in and around Syria is another timely recognition of the need for and logic of a new multilateral instrument to manage the risks.

    Although there has been some concern about the ultimate diplomatic consequence of negotiating such an instrument in Europe, the necessity of having the conversation with regard to Syria was realized almost immediately once it became clear that the Russian military presence in Syria was being increased and was changing in character and capability. To put it bluntly, it became evident to everyone that U.S. warplanes operating over Syria could be accidentally shot down by Russian air defense systems being deployed there, embedded U.S. special forces on the ground could be the victim of Russian air attacks, and Russian and U.S. military aircraft could be operating in an uncoordinated way in the same airspace. This overall situation and several instances of Russian warplanes entering Turkish airspace from Syria prompted NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to tell a press conference on October 6 that “Russia must deconflict its military activities in Syria” and that “it’s unacceptable to violate the airspace of another country, and this is exactly what we were afraid of, that incidents, accidents may create dangerous situations.”9

    It is difficult to see why dialogue and the negotiation of more-formal arrangements makes strategic sense between China and the United States in the East and South China seas and why deconflicting makes sense in Syria, but neither apparently makes sense between NATO and Russia in Europe.

    Deterrence Is Not Enough

    NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on October 6.  [Photo credit: Thierry Charlier/AFP/Getty Images]The argument that an attempt to negotiate a new instrument between NATO and Russia in Europe could weaken deterrence also is not persuasive. It is a reasonable concern, echoing debates on whether to engage in détente and associated steps toward superpower conflict prevention and crisis management during the Cold War. Yet, it is important to recall that the underlying rationale of détente was a lowering of tension with the Soviet Union to avoid the possibility of an accidental conflict and the potential for catastrophic nuclear war. Détente emphatically was not nor was it intended to be the end of superpower competition or of differences between the Soviet Union and the United States.

    The impetus for dialogue in that period, as manifested in the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, to cite two examples, was an acceptance of the need for mutual restraint and the adoption of measures to avoid accidental war. This approach was seen as the only basis for mutual survival. The nuclear shadow was ever present, and the fear of nuclear war was the driving force. In essence, what followed the near catastrophe of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 was a developing belief that the task of avoiding war between nuclear-armed states could not be left to deterrence alone. Other mechanisms were needed to keep the peace and, no matter what disagreements and confrontations existed, these mechanisms needed to be negotiated and implemented.                 

    Looking at the current absence of dialogue between NATO and Russia and at arguments against negotiating a new instrument to manage close military encounters, one is struck by what appears to be nuclear amnesia, nuclear complacency, or both. If a military confrontation between Russia and NATO were to develop today, for whatever reason, the risks and the potential consequences would be the same as they were during the Cold War.

    For these reasons, the case for a new instrument to help manage the risks in the Euro-Atlantic area, and in particular to manage the risks between NATO members and Russia, is strong. The call for negotiation of such an instrument chimes with the times and with approaches being used in other theaters. Above all, it reflects the lessons of history. To pretend the status quo is safe or acceptable is to abdicate the responsibility of leadership and to leave the security of Europe and potentially of the world at the mercy of events.


    Ian Kearns is co-founder and director of the European Leadership Network. He previously was acting director and deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research in the United Kingdom and deputy chair of the institute’s independent All-Party Commission on National Security in the 21st Century.


    ENDNOTES

    1.  “SAS Flight in Russian Spy Plane Near Miss,” The Local, May 8, 2014, http://www.thelocal.se/20140508/sas-plane-in-russian-spy-plane-near-miss.

    2.  Government-owned Russian media even bragged about this incident. See Sputnik International, “Russian Jets Penetrate NATO Ships’ Air Defenses in Black Sea,” March 19, 2015, http://sputniknews.com/russia/20150304/1019036875.html.

    3.  Thomas Frear, Łukasz Kulesa, and Ian Kearns, “Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters Between Russia and the West in 2014,” European Leadership Network (ELN), November 2014, http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/medialibrary/2014/11/09/6375e3da/Dangerous%20Brinkmanship.pdf. For a further update on incidents, see Ian Kearns, Łukasz Kulesa, and Thomas Frear, “Russia-West Dangerous Brinkmanship Continues,” ELN, March 12, 2015, http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/russia--west-dangerous-brinkmanship-continues-_2529.html.

    4.  “Britain Backs Return of Cold War Nuclear Drills as NATO Hardens Against Russia,” The Telegraph, October 8, 2015.

    5.  The term “color revolution” is a reference to labels used by the world’s media to describe previous waves of revolutionary change in a number of countries. Examples include the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004.

    6.  “Memorandum of Understanding Between the Department of Defense of the United States of America and the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China Regarding the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters,” November 9, 2014, sec. 1, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/141112_MemorandumOfUnderstandingRegarding
    Rules.pdf.

    7.  Between March 2014 and October 2015, the author conducted face-to-face, telephone, and e-mail interviews on background with a number of senior military figures from NATO countries and Russia. The statement made in this paragraph reflects the view of a minority of those interviewed.

    8.  Since the publication of the position paper by the Task Force on Greater Europe calling for a new memorandum of understanding, this view has been expressed in August 2015 to the author directly by a former Baltic state defense minister and by several ambassador-level diplomats from the same region.

    9.  “Pre-Ministerial Press Conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg,” NATO, October 6, 2015, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_123471.htm. NATO defense ministers met in Brussels on October 8.

    Posted: November 2, 2015

    Latest New START Data Shows Nuclear Posture—and Nuclear Posturing

    Charting the data exchanged under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between Russia and the United States from February 2011 to September 2015 shows that Russia reversed course two years ago and began increasing the number of warheads deployed on long-range ballistic missiles. Russia has now exceeded the treaty limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads in each of the last three data exchanges, which occur twice per year. The treaty requires that the ceilings be met by February 2018. The U.S. trajectory for New START-accountable deployed strategic warheads, meanwhile,...

    Latest New START Data Shows Nuclear Posture—and Nuclear Posturing

    Charting the data exchanged under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between Russia and the United States from February 2011 to September 2015 shows that Russia reversed course two years ago and began increasing the number of warheads deployed on long-range ballistic missiles. Russia has now exceeded the treaty limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads in each of the last three data exchanges, which occur twice per year. The treaty requires that the ceilings be met by February 2018. The U.S. trajectory for New START-accountable deployed strategic warheads, meanwhile,...

    Dealing with Putin's Russia

    Rarely are foreign and security policy challenges characterized by such strong countervailing pressures or outcomes so replete with irony as in the conduct of U.S.-Russian affairs after Moscow’s 2014 military intervention in Ukraine. As Washington policy-makers and politicians try to settle on new guidelines for the bilateral relationship, they should seek a tough-minded but pragmatic diplomacy, realizing that, without U.S.-Russian negotiations, there will be no significant progress on either nuclear nonproliferation or nuclear disarmament. Number One Enemy? Americans now view Russia as the...

    France Pays to Settle Mistral Dispute

    By Jefferson Morley

    Ending a 10-month-long impasse, French President François Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed Aug. 5 to sever a 2011 contract in which France had committed to selling Russia two Mistral-class amphibious landing ships.

    The contract is worth 1.2 billion euros (about $1.3 billion), according to French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. It became controversial after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and began arming separatists fighting the Ukrainian government. On the eve of a meeting of NATO allies in September 2014, Hollande demanded that Russia agree to a ceasefire and a political settlement as a condition for scheduled delivery of the first ship in November 2014.

    When no ceasefire materialized, France and Russia entered into negotiations early this year to dissolve the financial arrangement.

    “The price in the [termination] agreement, which is the best possible, will be less as Russia will be repaid to the nearest euro the advance payments that have been made,” Le Drian told a radio reporter Aug. 6.

    Reuters reported that France had offered a settlement of $866 million. Russia has asked for compensation of $1.28 billion, according to the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant.

    A French official told Arms Control Today in an Aug. 18 e-mail that the exact amount of the settlement is not public information but will be shared this fall with the French Parliament, which has to ratify the settlement. The official said the French compensation “will be inferior to what Russia has spent” and therefore less than $1.3 billion.

    Hollande’s statement on the cancellation agreement made no mention of Russian military intervention in Ukraine. The French president said he and Putin agreed that the negotiation took place in “a warm, open climate of partnership,” adding that he and Putin “agreed that the matter was now closed.”

    What's New Text: 

    Posted: September 2, 2015

    New Nuclear Cruise Missile Won’t Control Escalation, Will Erode Stability

    Arms Control Today recently reported on emerging details of the Air Force’s plan for the long-range standoff weapon (LRSO). The LRSO is a replacement for the Air Force’s current, 1980s-vintage air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). The Air Force plans to build 1,000-1,100 of the new cruise missiles at a projected acquisition cost of about $9 billion. After adding the $7-9.5 billion cost of life-extension for the associated warheads (according to estimates of the National Nuclear Security Administration), the total cost of replacing the existing ALCM could be close to $20 billion. Producing a...

    Russia Still Violating INF Treaty, U.S. Says

    Russia remains in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, according to a State Department report.

    July/August 2015

    By Kingston Reif

    Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work testifies at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on June 25. He said the United States would not allow Russia “to gain a significant military advantage through [its] violation of an arms control treaty.” (DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Clydell Kinchen)Russia remains in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, according to an annual State Department report released on June 5.

    The report, which surveys compliance with arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament commitments by the United States and other countries, reiterated the finding, first announced in the 2014 version of the report, that Russia is violating its INF Treaty obligations “not to possess, produce, or flight-test” a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers or “to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.” (See ACT, September 2014.)

    The new analysis says the Obama administration had noted concern about Russia’s compliance “in earlier, classified versions” of the report but did not publish a formal noncompliance determination until 2014.

    The INF Treaty, signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, marked the first time the two superpowers agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals and utilize extensive on-site inspections for verification. The treaty eliminated almost 2,700 intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles, most of them Russian.

    The U.S. government has raised its concerns about Russian noncompliance with the INF Treaty on multiple occasions over the past two years. Moscow continues to deny that it has violated the agreement.

    As in the 2014 report, this year’s report did not specify the type of Russian cruise missile in question, the number of tests conducted, or the location of the tests.

    Some media reports have focused on Russia’s R-500 Iskander-K short-range cruise missile as the missile that precipitated the U.S. allegation. That system uses a road-mobile launcher, similar to the Iskander-M, which is a short-range, nuclear-capable ballistic missile.

    But in a June 23 interview with the Russian news agency Interfax, Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said the R-500 is not the missile that the United States has “determined is in violation” of the treaty. She added that the U.S. government is “confident that the Russian government is aware of the missile to which we are referring.”

    The 2015 report contains two paragraphs not in last year’s report that highlight treaty provisions stating that “if a launcher has been tested for launching a GLCM” or “contained or launched a particular type of GLCM,” then “all launchers of that type shall be considered to be launchers of that type of GLCM.”

    In a June 7 posting on the blog Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, Pavel Podvig, an affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, said that these additions “seem to support” his theory “that the violation is a technicality” involving tests of a long-range sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) from a mobile GLCM launcher.

    The testing of a SLCM from a mobile launcher would constitute a violation of the treaty, Podvig argues, because the treaty requires that any missile that is not a GLCM covered by the treaty should be test-launched from a fixed land-based launcher used solely for test purposes and distinguishable from GLCM launchers.

    A Congressional Research Service report on Russia’s compliance with the INF Treaty, released on June 2, questioned the SLCM explanation, stating it “seems imperfect.” 

    “U.S. officials have repeatedly referred to the violation as a test of a ground-launched cruise missile, lending less credence to the view that the United States might have misidentified tests of a sea-launched missile,” the report says.

    In a June 11 statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry described the allegation in the State Department report as “completely false.” 

    The statement reiterated Russian concerns about U.S. military activities that “are based on a very loose interpretation of the INF Treaty provisions,” such as “plans to deploy the vertical missile launch systems . . . at missile defense bases in Romania and Poland,” use of “target missiles with characteristics similar to those of intermediate- and shorter-range missiles” in missile defense tests, and the manufacture of armed drones that “fall under the INF Treaty definition of ground-based cruise missiles.” According to Moscow, those actions constitute violations of the treaty.

    Gottemoeller disputed these counterallegations, stating that the “United States remains in compliance with the INF Treaty.” 

    In testimony at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on June 25, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work reiterated that the United States “will not allow the Russian Federation to gain a significant military advantage through [its] violation of an arms control treaty.”

    He said the Defense Department is “developing and analyzing response options” for President Barack Obama and will consult with its allies on the options. 

    Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said in December 2014 that the range of military response options under consideration includes “active defenses to counter” INF-range GLCMs, “counterforce capabilities” to prevent attacks from these missiles, “and countervailing strike capabilities to enhance U.S. or allied forces.” (See ACT, January/February 2015.)

    Posted: July 8, 2015

    Mixed Messages on Missile Defense

    The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff delivered an unusually clear and coherent speech on U.S. missile defense polic y at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) May 19 in Washington. Although Adm. James A. Winnefeld, Jr. emphasized in his remarks that U.S. missile defenses should be of no concern to Russia or China, it is easy to see how parts of his comprehensive presentation could be viewed from Moscow or Beijing as hypocritical, or at least deeply ironic. Not About Russia and China During his presentation, Winnefeld reiterated the long-standing position of the...

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