Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


Mathias Rust probably questioned his decision to fly again to Moscow.

In 1987, the then-19-year-old West German national breached the Soviet Union’s border in a rented single-engine Cessna, flew nearly 550 miles through what what supposed to be the country’s most heavily guarded airspace, and landed on a bridge near the Red Square.

Cover of Modern Trouble’s “Fly to Moskow,” dedicated to Rust and released in 1987.

After a show trial and a yearlong stint in prison, during which Reagan and Gorbachev inked the INF Treaty, Rust was released and allowed to go home.

It was now 2013. Rust had agreed to appear as a special guest on the talk show Pryamoi Efir, aired on one of Russia’s most widely-watched TV channels.

But, instead of being lauded as a daredevil hero that helped bring about the end of the Cold War, he had to endure a very public scolding and apologize for his actions. Worse still, he was forced to wrestle with a broad range of conspiracy theories about why his Cessna was able to proceed all the way to and land in the heart of Moscow.

The tone and substance of this conversation, parts of which I transcribe and summarize below for your reading pleasure, speak volumes about the ongoing attempts to question the legitimacy of Gorbachev’s leadership and, by extension, challenge the legitimacy of breakthrough security cooperation between Russia and the West that took place during the 1980s. This is both troubling and dangerous.

Before We Raise the Curtain

The hourlong show  “Mathias Rust-A Dove of Peace?” [watch in Russian] began with introductory remarks about the incident. Its young host then directed some questions to Rust. After that, he pretty much let his studio guests take over the conversation and the editorializing, save for a few commercial break transitions.

The text below is broken into several thematic Acts. The direct quotes are provided in quotation marks, as appropriate. However, because the key lines of argument were circular in nature, I summarized them together in Act 3 instead of providing a verbatim transcript. All of Rust’s remarks were dubbed by the show from German into Russian, so my translation is from that Russian.

Also, a small point of clarification before we begin: After Soviet air defense downed the KAL 007 flight in 1983, killing 260+ souls, an executive order changed procedures for engaging airspace intruders. Essentially, the decision to open fire now would have to be made on a much higher level. This, arguably, intended to protect the Soviet civilian and military leadership from dealing with the damaging political consequences of a similar incident (note, by the way, that Soviet air defense downed another KAL flight, the 902, in 1978). Thus, the counterfactual used in many of the emotional appeals below–if Soviet air defense had downed Rust’s Cessna in 1987, there would have been fewer negative consequences for the military–couldn’t be further from the truth.

And, finally, the disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this post are my own and not those of my employer or the University of Maryland, where I’m still a graduate student.

Act I: An “Alleged” Bridge of Peace

Host [to camera]: To talk to Gorbachev, [Rust] allegedly flew half the country without any obstacles and allegedly without being noticed. A lot of people didn’t believe this. Some said that this act was planned by secret services. But, if so, which [services]? … Some had benign explanations—Rust did the flight on a dare or even to get a girl.

Host: But behind the innocent humor lay a trauma for the Soviet military since General Secretary Gorbachev had used the incident as a pretense to fire 200 military officers including the [Soviet] Minister of Defense Sergey Sokolov and the head of [Soviet] Air Defense forces… Could it have been a coincidence that these were the individuals who were blocking the perestroika of the General Secretary?

Host: Today, Mathias Rust will look into the eyes of those whose lives he really turned upside down with his actions.

Host [to Rust]: Mathias Rust, in Russia again. Good evening!

Host: It’s been 26 years. It’s understandable that at that time you couldn’t talk about everything. But, now, tell us the truth… Why did you do this?

Rust: I used this flight to fight for peace. I wanted to create an imaginary bridge of peace. This was a time when the West was distrustful of Gorbachev’s peaceful initiatives. And I thought that I could intervene and also underscore that many people in Western Europe wanted peace as much as Gorbachev did at the time.

Host: I have a feeling that I’m taking this interview on the Red Square on May 28, 1987. Because this is exactly what you said when you were exiting your airplane back then.

Rust: That’s right. It’s been 26 years, and you can say that it feels that way.

Host: You were just 19 at the time. How did you decide to do this?

Rust: That was the reason exactly. I was very young. Now I probably would not have enough courage.

Host: How long did you prepare for this flight?

Rust: About six months… While I gathered all the maps, made the decision, and understood how best to fly to Moscow… in a theoretical sense, of course.

Host: If it took you six months, then you are contradicting what you had said previously. This was not done on a whim. Had you been to Moscow before?

Rust: I had not been to Moscow before. I became interested in politics when I was 15. I was so convinced that I was doing the right thing that I actually ended up going through with the flight.

Act II: We Value Human Life

An older, blond, and heavily made-up TV personality intervened with exasperation.

Older, blond, and heavily made-up TV personality: Did you realize that you could kill people… on the Red Square and during your flight?

Rust: Of course I had thought of this and all the risks related to this flight, and the risks this had for other people. But I had supposed that the risk was so small, that I could responsibly take it in order to build this bridge of peace.

An older, blond, and heavily made-up TV personality: What do you mean by small? If you had killed even one person, the risk you took would not have justified itself. Our peaceful-loving country did not touch you.

[The audience breaks into applause.]

Older, blond, and heavily made-up TV personality: Do you understand? It did not shoot down your aircraft… Because we value human life. And you… You flew…

Host [to Older, blond, and heavily made-up TV personality]: Admittedly, we had different ways of treating aircraft above our country…

Host [to Rust]: You said something amazing here. You were certain that the risk was small, but you were crossing one of the most heavily-guarded borders in the world, with one of the strongest air defense systems, and you say that the risk was small. What made you so be relaxed about this?

Rust: I think that this was idealism. I was young and, at 19, some things look much simpler.

 Act III: The Curious Case of the Missing Trolleybus Wires 

As if on cue, someone turned up the crazy dial. A series of “journalists and TV hosts,” “retired air defense officials,” “historians,” and “experts” went on the offensive. Rust was not a dove of peace, they claimed, he was just someone’s pawn. They peppered him with questions, let Rust attempt to answer them, and then offered their own speculations as final responses.

Why did you choose the Soviet holiday of Border Guard’s Day for the overflight? This choice had to have been deliberate.

Why were there professional cameras on the Red Square to film your landing? This was clearly staged.

Why was the overhead electrical wiring for trolleybuses removed from the bridge where you ultimately landed? The only explanation is that your landing was anticipated.

Were you aware that, prior to your flight, the Soviet the air defense field had not been updated for four straight days? It’s usually done on a daily basis. “The Soviet Union was expecting you with open arms.”

These were all coincidences, Rust maintained. I had no idea.

What was the speed of your Cessna? Your speed estimate is wrong. Take your cruising speed and the distance traveled, you should have been able to get to the Red Square in 4 hours.

Why did it take you 6 hours and 15 minutes instead of 4 hours to get to Moscow? You had to have landed your aircraft on Soviet territory to refuel.

At this point, Rust insisted that the “experts” were overstating the speed of the Cessna and that, instead of landing to hide from the interceptors, he descended and continued toward Moscow. There, he circled for an hour looking for a place to land.

Where did the atomic bomb sticker on your aircraft’s tail, visible in the Red Square images, come from? The pilots of the interceptors that were scrambled to identify you were certain that this sticker was not there at the time.

Where did you put on your orange jumpsuit? You had to have put it on when you landed to refuel and hide from the interceptors.

Rust denied all of these claims, explaining that the sticker was there before and that he had a lot of clothing, including the orange jumpsuit, on in order to stay warm during the flight.

Act IV: Just a Boy and His Plane?

As per the host’s hints at the beginning of the show, the key argument eventually emerged. Studio guests coalesced around the claim that the success of Rust’s flight was the result of a conspiracy between Gorbachev and intelligence services—either Soviet or Western. One of the guests, former Soviet ministry of defense official and failed nationalist presidential candidate Leonid Ivashov, articulated this explicitly.

Ivashov: I have no doubt that this was a special operation.

Host: If this was an operation, then who carried it out? With what aim?

Ivashov: [...] Rust here maintains that he was just a boy and he was flying. You know, I was chief of the general affairs department in the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Defense. And we looked at all the maps. First, he had a deep and precise knowledge of all radar coverage and he flew accurately through the zones which were not visible to radar.

Rust: I didn’t plan this. I didn’t know this. It just happened this way and that’s why my flight was so successful.

[The audience boos.]

Ivashov: Second, the aircraft he chose was a Cessna, the reflection from which is identical to flocks of birds.

At a later point in the show, however, the host and most of the studio guests agreed the air defense radar tracked Rust during his whole flight and the air defense forces scrambled interceptors. But now, they posited that Rust was successful because high-level air defense officials did not give a command to open fire. Instead, they said  “this is a flock of birds, don’t shoot it down.” Nevertheless, Ivashov returned to his argument about Gorbachev a little later…

Ivashov: I don’t have questions for Mr. Rust. He was used and mostly kept in the dark. But we feature him as the main perpetrator. This is not so. Let me give you two facts.

Ivashov: First, in March 1987, Mr. Gorbachev calls Minister of Defense Sokolov and asks for a brief on the air defense system, its European part. The Marshal goes to Gorbachev, and, upon his return, we realize that he doesn’t have a classified air defense map with him. So I go and tell [Sokolov] that he didn’t return this map. He says that [Gorbachev] asked to leave this map. I call Gorbachev’s assistant and ask him for some verification in writing. [...] And then I come to them the next day, and they search everything and can’t find it. We wait for Gorbachev and ask him [...], and he says, “what, do you think I carry it with me?” We couldn’t find this map for months, until the State Committee on the State of Emergency [aka, the coup against Gorbachev].

Ivashov: Second, when Gorbachev got into arms reductions and disarmament, he had a strong military opposition, with Marshal Sokolov at its helm. [...] So, he had to cleanse the military.

Act V: Pensioners Storm the “Bridge of Peace”

Another line of attack followed. Supported by the host and several “experts,” a retired air defense officer “went in for the kill.”

Retired air defense officer: How would you look in the faces of the people who, as a result of your actions, died from a heart attack, were demoted in rank, went to prison, lost their pensions? […] If you could look in their eyes, the eyes of their wives and children, and all of the people who you harmed with your dove’s flight.

Rust: I wasn’t the one making these decisions. Gorbachev made these decisions, and then he used my flight to remove individuals that were against him.

[The audience boos.]

“Journalist and tv host”: How can you sleep at night for these 26 years? There are people who were imprisoned because they saved your life. If they had shot you down, you would probably not be sitting here today and these people would be alive and not have been imprisoned.

The Grand Finale

Eventually, after 20 more minutes of “surround bollocking,” it was all over. The show cut to Rust’s admission of guilt and apology at his 1987 trial. Rust again was asked to apologize for his actions. He complied and said that he was sorry.

In a move that added a layer or absurdity to an already surreal hour of prime time television, the young talk show host closed with the following:

Host: This was a time when new wars were beginning to occur, information wars. Their tell tale sign is when the truth is mixed with lies… Maybe the main conclusion from this whole story for us today is that information wars did not end [with the end of the Cold War]. Today, they are going strong. The only way to survive through them is to have the ability to tell the truth from lies. And we should learn to do that.

And so, there you have it. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about 1987 Soviet paranoia–and its recent revival–but were afraid to ask. And, if you wish, a palate cleanser with some facts is available here.

A Concluding Note: Like Synthpop, Rust Has Come Back in Style

In 1987, several West Germans known as Modern Trouble released a synthpop “anthem” titled “Fly to Moscow.” Inspired by Rust’s flight, the single featured a dedication to Marshal Sokolov. Looking back, these lyrics still offer a decent summary of the incident.

Modern rebel Mr. Rust
Showed the world Moscow or bust
Flying in Red Baron’s shoes
Zig-zag course that leaves no clues
Kremlin says this can’t be true
Heads will roll ’cause this won’t do
Reuters, Tass, and CBS
Said this story was the best

However, the song itself, as well as the accompanying instrumental Air Defense Mix were pretty terrible. This is despite the fact that 1987 was still a relatively good year for synthpop.

Today, like synthpop, the story of Mathias Rust has come back in style. But instead of listening to good (or even decent) synthpop of both yesterday and today, and learning the right lessons from the Rust incident, some prefer to live in an alternative reality and listen to replays of Modern Trouble. And, that’s more than just shameful… It’s a sin.



A week ago, the State Department announced the imposition of sanctions for alleged supply of WMD and missile-related technology or destabilizing conventional weapons systems in accordance with the provisions of the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act (P.L. 109-353). Sanctions were levied against 13 entities from seven countries, as this Global Security Newswire story summarized. And Russia’s Rosoboronexport got sanctioned for dealing with Iran again.

In October’s ACT, Wade Boese offered up a great analysis of the Bush administration’s nonproliferation sanctions policy complete with some neat quotes on sanctions aficionado and the darling of this blog, John Bolton. But because Wade’s article chiefly focused on sanctions of Chinese and Iranian entities, I wanted to write something about the sanctions levied against Russian entities for their trade with countries of concern.

What bugs me here is State’s timing of the sanctions. In a true John Bolton fashion, the Russians got poked in the eye just as they were gearing up to talk START with State. Belatedly sanctioning Russia’s state conventional arms intermediary Rosoboronexport for a transfer of a short range air defense system that was completed in early 2007 seems silly. Yet, this latest imposition notwithstanding, an analysis of the number of State’s sanctions against Russian entities during the last eight years delivers surprising results.

The Russians Say Grrr…

The Russian response to last week’s sanctions determination was quite predictable.

In a 24 October release rus, Rosoboronexport complained that by imposing sanctions, the U.S. was engaging in “unfair competition.” And President Dmitriy Medvedev clearly followed the company’s talking points when he used the same “unfair competition” line a few days later.

However, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ official release and Sergey Lavrov’s personal reaction were more colorful.

We consider this absolutely unacceptable, as our entire trade and economic activities in Iran and military-technical cooperation with that country are strictly compliant with the norms existing in international law, with our international obligations and with the export control regime currently in force in Russia. Here there can be no explanations other than another instance of arrogant application by the United States in an exterritorial manner of its national American laws. If it seems to some people in Washington that the US will thus make Russia more pliant towards accepting the American approach to resolving the Iranian nuclear problem, this is a mistake.

The story got nice press coverage. WaPo’s Glenn Kessler even picked up on the peculiar fact that State apparently “granted [Rosoboronexport] a partial waiver to permit the sale of nearly two dozen Russian helicopters to Iraq.” This fact, by the way, was not mentioned by Russian officials or brought up in Russian press coverage.

However, Kessler’s story (along with many others) did not discuss what triggered the sanctions on Rosoboronexport. Kessler surprisingly settled for a non-response from State, writing that State officials “declined to specify why the companies were placed on the list, saying the reasons are classified.”

What Was Transferred and When?

The reason for the sanctions actually seems quite boring. The same Rosoboronexport press release rus, which got cited aplenty for the “unfair competition” line, says that

The decision of the State Department was triggered by Russia’s transfer of the 29 Tor-M1, which supposedly disrupted the balance of forces in the region, and could potentially threaten U.S. forces… The appearance of the Tor-M1 in Iran doesn’t do more than allow for enhancing the protection of most critical small-scale facilities of state and military administration, elements of infrastructure (including nuclear energy, chemical manufacturing, and electrical power stations) from precision weapons strikes.

What Rosoboronexport meant to say by issuing this clarification was that the Tor-M1 was the only thing the company had transferred since it was last sanctioned by State in December 2006. Thus, it had not (yet?) transferred the mighty S-300 to Iran.

On the face of it, State’s wrath for the seemingly defensive Tor-M1 is also not unusual. For about a decade, they’ve been compelled to sanction the Russians for every defense item ever sold — and not sold — to the Iranians. Yet, the Tor-M1 transfer was completed as far back as January 2007. The Russians were even preparing to get punished for the transfer that same month. Surprisingly, though, the sanctions didn’t come until a year and half later.

What’s the Deal With State’s Timing?

Short answer: Dunno. But I wonder…

It’s been pointed out to me that there is a bureaucratic delay between the time a determination is made that a transfer potentially punishable under U.S. law has occurred and the time the imposition of the sanctions is actually announced. Thus, it is quite plausible that the January 2007 transfer of the Tor-M1 was completed too late for State to punish Rosoboronexport as part of the April 2007 round of Iran and Syria Nonproliferation Act sanctions, the only round that seems to have preceded the October 2008 one.

But why haven’t we seen more rounds of Iran and Syria (and North Korea) Nonproliferation Act sanctions since April 2007? And does this have anything to do with a possible reshuffle in the Department of State’s bureaucracy as related to the imposition of sanctions? Just looking at the Federal Register notice, it’s quite clear that the point of contact is now at the Bureau of Verification, Compliance and Implementation instead of the usual Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

The Russians were certain to growl about the sanctions. Yet, State officials had to have known that due to Moscow’s interest in re-starting START, there wouldn’t have been any unexpected policy shifts. And by imposing the sanctions now, some at State might have figured that the Russians would easily swallow them as a farewell present from the departing politicos.

A Concluding Note on Russian Proliferation Trends

If instances of sanctions are to be held as any determinant of State’s perception of Russian proliferation trends, then here are the stats (conventional and WMD-related technology sanctions combined):

For purposes of comparison, during a 1998-1999 Congressional sanctions binge, a total of 14 Russian entities were sanctioned.

Yet, during and after the John Bolton sanctions spree, the record of sanctions on Russian entities and individuals was as follows: three times in 2002, just once in 2003, five times in 2004, five times in 2006 (sanctions on Sukhoy were lifted), zero in 2007, and just once in 2008 (the latter for the Tor-M1, transferred in 2007).

Seems to me the Russian record of proliferation to countries of concern, and Iran in particular, is today less of a cause for concern, at least according to the State Department. And this, of course, is a very positive thing.


The amazing Laura Holgate (with Robert Schultz) and the great Pavel Podvig are crossing swords over at the web edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The issue: Megatons to Megawatts.

Say Holgate/Schultz:

As Pavel Podvig points out in his July Bulletin Web-Edition column, the US-Russia “Megatons to Megawatts” program that is designed to eliminate 500 metric tons of HEU has been one of the most successful and cost-effective programs to reduce nuclear danger. Nonetheless, Podvig argues that extending or expanding the program could increase the risk of nuclear terrorism. Quite simply, he is wrong—his conclusion failing to take into account several key points that add up to a compelling case for moving faster and farther to eliminate HEU and its inherent risks.

Go have a read.


Thanks for all of your comments on the previous post. Yet, I am surprised that no one mentioned the one ongoing attempt to practically implement the multilateral nuclear approaches concept – Russia’s International Uranium Enrichment Center at Angarsk.

We all know the story. The idea grew out of Russia’s 2005 proposal that Iran share ownership of a uranium-enrichment plant, based in Russia. But when that fell through, Moscow committed to creating the IUEC at Angarsk, the first of a network of international centers that would provide nuclear fuel cycle services on a non-discriminatory basis. (By the way, Jane blogged about it here.)

The Angarsk IUEC concept can be summarized as follows:

  • Equal, non-discriminatory membership for all interested countries not envisaging the development of indigenous sensitive nuclear technologies and meeting the established non-proliferation requirements;
  • IUEC membership “advantages” (political, economic, scientific and technical) for the enrichment services recipient countries should outweigh the “disadvantages” of refraining from the development of domestic nuclear fuel cycle capabilities;
  • IUEC enrichment capacities are to be placed under IAEA safeguards; involvement of the IAEA in the Center’s management;
  • Foreign IUEC members will have no access to Russian uranium enrichment technology.

And since January 2006, when Vladimir Putin first announced the concept, the Russians have come a long way in terms of practical implementation of the IUEC. They have a dedicated facility, the IUEC is legally incorporated as a joint stock company and is allowed to own nuclear materials.

Russia also has already recruited two additional participants – Armenia and the uranium-rich Kazakhstan; both of the countries have committed not to develop domestic enrichment capabilities. They’ve also apparently clinched a commitment to participate in the IUEC from Ukraine (despite all of the problems in bilateral relations). (Here is a good summary of IUEC progress.)

But quite a few challenges and questions remain:

  • Membership: The IUEC obviously needs more members. Rosatom has promoted the idea to quite a few other countries, including Japan, South Korea, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Finland, Belgium, Uzbekistan, and even Mongolia. (Early on, it was also pitched to the Indians, conditioning their participation on the NSG exemption.) But what countries would you want to commit to the center and how much stake should they get?
  • Incentives for potential members: These take forever to figure out and negotiate on a case-by-case basis. Participation in Angarsk usually comes with a package of other “stuff” – for example, just for little Armenia, the Russian package included creation of joint venture for uranium prospecting, mining, and processing, a promise to assist with safety issues with Armenia’s Metsamor nuclear power plant, and a Russian commitment to stand ready to build an Armenian NPP. What cookies do you offer to interested countries to get them to commit?
  • IAEA safeguards: Transparency of the IUEC is key. In January 2008, Russia sent a note verbale to the IAEA regarding inclusion of the IUEC into the list of Russian facilities that could be subject to the IAEA safeguards. Yet, only the material at the IUEC will be safeguarded. Further, Moscow has been hoping to resolve practical safeguards issues with the IAEA since early 2008, but there still no official agreement. How do you balance transparency with nonproliferation?
  • U.S. involvement: The Bush administration has been supportive of the IUEC. Earlier this year, there was even some talk of possible U.S. “material” cooperation with the Russians in the IUEC. These discussion, however, seemingly died out after the U.S.-Russian 123 Agreement was withdrawn. But would U.S. participation be a good thing or a bad thing politically for the purported non-discriminatory nature of the IUEC?

But, ultimately, the two questions I think really need answered are these:

  • Does the fact that Moscow is seeking to profit take away from its commitment to the idea of sharing the fuel cycle for the sake of nonproliferation?
  • Does the IUEC effort matter if Iran and other “countries of concern” are NOT participating? (Not participating yet?)

Privet, dear Readers of Wonk,

Greetings from Monterey! By means of an introduction, I’ll say that I’ve been a loyal ACW reader for a long time (we probably have that in common). And as Jeffrey has already mentioned, I’m lucky to share a blog home with ACW alumnus Paul Kerr. I hope you don’t mind having me around this week. Think of me as a modest warm-up act for the other awesome guest blogger(s) that Jeffrey has in store for you.

To kick things off, here is a topic that isn’t oft discussed on ACWmultilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle. You’ve undoubtedly read the 2005 IAEA Expert Group report, which argued that “[s]uch approaches are needed and worth pursuing, on both security and economic grounds.” You’re also likely very familiar with the diverse proposals, which followed this report. All of them are available on the IAEA’s Revisiting the Nuclear Fuel Cycle page.

Rosatom's Children of the Nuclear Renaissance

Anyway, last month, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released a report on a two-year study jointly conducted with the Russian Academy of Sciences on the “Internationalization of the Civilian Nuclear Fuel Cycle.” Check out the project description and definitely download (and read) the whole report.

As part of this joint study, the NAS-RAS committee analyzed the “proposals and options for future international nuclear fuel cycles, including the incentives that might be required for countries to accept the fuel assurance guarantees and not develop enrichment or reprocessing facilities.” Not surprisingly, the committee endorsed creation of a “global system featuring a small number of centers for the sensitive steps of the fuel cycle.” Yet, the study also noted that

“the implementation of those elements that are feasible today, for example, assurance of fuel supply, should not be delayed while other options are being refined or explored both institutionally and technically.”

This concern about timing seems to be somewhat of a recurring theme. For example, the September issue of Arms Control Today has a great article by Fiona Simpson titled Reforming the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Time Is Running Out. Simpson, who also authored this ACT piece on multilateral approaches to the fuel cycle with IAEA’s Tariq Rauf four years ago, argues that

“[t]he next six months are likely to prove critical in determining whether any of [the] proposals becomes a genuine blueprint for a new approach to this issue or whether, like similar efforts three decades ago, they simply gather dust.”

So what say you, Readers of Wonk? Are discussions of internationalizing the nuclear fuel cycle losing momentum? Where do we go from here?