Jeffrey has penned an outstanding column “The Sources of Putin’s Conduct.” Jeffrey artfully—in his wonderfully irreverent style—painted a picture of Vladimir Vladimirovich’s motives. His diagnoses of Homo Sovieticus narcissism and endemic Russian paranoia hit the right points, from the Long Telegram to Putin’s time in Germany. I give Jeffrey an “A” for his answer to the second “eternal Russian question”—Who is to blame? Putin is, of course. But on the first eternal question—What must be done?—I do not agree with him.
As a long-time student of Russia, the only firm conclusion I ever developed was that Russia is a place of extremes. When I first went to Russia many years ago, Russians could not show you their own borders on a map. A friend tells a story of getting lost outside St. Petersburg. When finding the map they used led them into a field with no road, an old Russian gentlemen explained “maps are meant to confuse German tank formations, not find your way around.” The single greatest problem facing modern Russia is its failure to develop a politically active, stable middle class. Putin skillfully used the greed of the oligarchs of the 1990s to install himself and the siloviki (almost literally, “the powerfuls,” i.e., state security services) in their place. He killed, imprisoned and exiled the oligarchs, retaking their assets for the state. He created a place wherein if you want to be political so long as your politics are Putin’s you are largely left alone. Challenge Putin, and you will find yourself indefinitely detained in Russia’s other modern failure, its kangaroo courts, complete with corrupt judges and absurd laws. Russian life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness come from the state, not any organic, rational concept of liberty such as in Europe or the United States. Russia has become a retrograde society, and Putin is fighting the creation of a stable, politically independent middle class. Such people are harder to control and they see little threat in a neighboring country’s economic and individual liberty, let alone NATO. For these reasons, Russia has not just closed its Window on the West, it has bricked it over, opting for post-modern imperialist nationalism (“sovereign democracy,” in the lingua franca).
Jeffrey turns to arms control as means to deal with the modern gilded Russian two-headed eagle (borrowed from Byzantium after the fall of Constantinople in 1453). Of course he would—that’s his expertise. Jeffrey is certainly right that in the Soviet past, we used arms control as means to open a closed society. But The Center (the cryptic Russian term for where the Big Brain that runs Russia lives, at Lubyanka) now feels no desire to revisit Geneva for talks on new nuclear weapons reductions. Jeffrey’s discussion of the “dual-track” policy that lead to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is correct, but I disagree with its applicability to today. Even if Russia has time-warped itself into the Russian Empire Prime or Soviet Union, Part II, there is not a sufficient case for an arms control deal to be made with Putin, or how it would fix our present problems in Crimea or even deal with Russian fears. Jeffrey notes the role arms control negotiations and treaties played, but he left out that the dual track meant deploying more nuclear weapons, not reducing them, first. Currently, nobody in Europe, apart from Russia (allegedly), seems ready to do the former and the United States still maintains an official postion of the latter. The fear and lamentation over a return to the Cold War is understandable, but, yet again, Moscow seems prepared to do its worst.
The fundamental problem confronting us today is that a better reason for arms control than reductions or disarmament is needed. As Stephen Hadley noted during Senate hearings on the New START Treaty in 2010, “you just can’t keep reducing by a third every ten years.” Jeffrey knows, as well, that past reductions were the coins used to purchase the verification and access we used to open up a closed society. Sadly, we lost more verification capability in New START than we gained, and the only real reductions were those the United States will make, even though, on balance, as James Schlesinger also said of New START in 2010, we were “obligated” to ratify it.
If we seek to reduce the risk of major war in Europe, or anywhere else, weapons like submarine-launched cruise missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles and other nuclear weapon-delivery platforms—none of which are truly covered by any treaty—are the sources of risk. Non-deployed nuclear warheads are not a military threat. Neither Russia nor the United States really wants to negotiate lower limits on these or other items before we know what the future holds. That was why former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said he liked the New START Treaty. It gave us seven years to see how things work out before we had to meet its central limits—he did not say that if Russia was already lower, then we should just go ahead and act like its 2018 (the year in which both countries must have not more than 1,550 warheads on 700 deployed missiles and heavy-bomber weapons). It’s a good thing, too, because Putin is acting like it’s 1853 in Crimea. Accelerating reductions wouldn’t fix anything and is not required.
We are not relying “on nuclear weapons to prevent Moscow from sending Spetsnaz special forces posing as concerned citizens and biker gangs to stir up Russian-speakers in the Baltics or to dig trenches in Donetsk” as Jeffrey states (out of context, that looks worse than it was in the piece). We’re doing worse: The United States has for far too long not sold enough tactical air platforms and air defense weapons in Europe to newer NATO Members. Initially, there might have been no reason for it. Russia was conventionally weak and did not threaten its neighbors. And while I fully support President Obama’s European Reassurance Initiative, I know that the Administration stood in the way of a large number of arms sales to certain countries in Europe so as not to offend Moscow. The Administration did little to prevent French and German arms sales to Russia, as well.
Russian conventional forces performed with a high degree of effectiveness in the Crimean invasion and occupation, successfully setting the conditions needed for Russian annexation. Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridis noted that Russia “played their hand of cards with finesse.” This “finesse” included the use and manipulation of both diplomatic and military means and rapid isolation and termination of Ukrainian command and control with advanced, coordinated and effective electronic warfare. All this while Russia simultaneously carried out “snap” conventional forces exercises, on land and at sea, around Ukraine, and a major exercise of all three legs of Russia’s nuclear triad. Russia’s conventional presence now massed could, in as little as 12 hours, move against Ukraine. As NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove, USAF, noted in April, “This is a combined-arms army, with all of the pieces necessary should there be a choice to make an incursion into Ukraine…supported by fixed-wing aircraft…rotary aircraft…all of the logistics required in order to successfully make an incursion if they needed.” This force—and Russia’s use of it—led one observer to note “the old tired excuse that Russia must rely on nuclear weapons because its conventional forces are weak and broken is now demonstrably absurd.”
(An aside to Paris and Berlin: This nonsense and this other nonsense really makes one want some Freedom fries with some Freedom dressing. Guys, we’ll buy your “hospital ship” and as for the other stuff, Berlin appears to be waking up. But heck, maybe Moscow didn’t want to play Die Wacht am Rhein while the Preobrazhensky honor guards march during the annual Victory Day Parade?)
Nuclear weapons do not “make it much harder for NATO to work together.” NATO’s nuclear sharing is a marvel of modern military alliance management. Or it was, until certain folks started to mess it up in 2009. It’s one that our allies in Asia might someday try to replicate, too. We would look like complete fools today had Obama agreed to remove U.S. non-strategic weapons from Europe in 2009. Jeffrey’s description, and others, of current NATO nuclear sharing is dead wrong. These weapons are not “politically divisive”—the only reason they were was because of a disarmament movement that tried unilaterally to get rid of them in the last decade. And it failed. It tried hard to find a way to replace the nuclear guarantee of Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, but never found one. It is a good thing that is the case, today, after Crimea.
What I might propose is that we study the past a bit more to better understand our present. An excellent series of declassified documents over at the National Security Archive describe ABLE ARCHER and the 1983 nuclear war scare in Europe that was “the last paroxysm” of the Cold War. What the record shows is that Moscow liked to make NATO nukes into a divisive issue. I dislike arms control advocates who now use many of the same Soviet arguments to divide allied opinion in NATO over nuclear weapons. Jeffrey is certainly not guilty of any Soviet sympathy, but I caution him and others to be more careful and recall more of the past when reforming or recasting the single most successful military alliance in history. ABLE ARCHER’s history also shows us where we, and NATO, were dead wrong when it came to Soviet nuclear war plans. Alarmingly those plans, now Russian, have unlikely gotten better with age.
Arms control aims to reduce the risk of use nuclear weapons, but it does not proscribe it. The best task of arms control has been to detect the signals of intention in order to reduce the risk of nuclear war—not to end all wars or to get rid of all nuclear weapons. We will do better to start from this premise when dealing with Putin than not. If you offer Putin more disarmament, you will likely see only more Russian revanchism.