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Paranoia and Defense Planning: Why Language Matters When Talking About Nuclear Weapons

Image courtesy of the White House/Flickr

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 10 October 2018.

The U.S. ambassador to NATO has, when one thinks about it, just one job. No matter who holds the job, the U.S. ambassador to NATO has many priorities, as one would expect for a role that involves dealing with dozens of countries and trying to get them to agree on a coherent defense policy. But one would think that not provoking a nuclear war with Russia would be at the very top of the ambassador’s list of priorities. This seems like a no-brainer, but it helps to focus on the simple things. The United States has a special obligation to be the “adult in the room” and to keep the alliance focused on constructive responses to collective threats.

The United States has had good and bad ambassadors to NATO, but each managed, one after the other, to navigate disputes such as the Berlin and Euromissiles crises, and to extend the postwar peace through seven decades. Then, in early October, Kay Bailey Hutchison — the U.S. permanent representative to NATO and erstwhile senator from Texas — put that streak in jeopardy for no good reason, threatening to preemptively attack Russia before it deployed a new cruise missile in violation of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). In response to a series of questions from journalists, Hutchison used imprecise language, culminating in a strangely worded statement:

“Getting them to withdraw [deployed missiles] would be our choice, of course. But I think the question was what would you do if this continues to a point where we know that they are capable of delivering. And at that point we would then be looking at a capability to take out a missile that could hit any of our countries in Europe and hit America in Alaska. So it is in all of our interests, and Canada as well, I suppose. So we have our North Atlantic risk as well as the European risk. …”

This suggests a preemptive missile strike. Perhaps that’s not what she meant, but it is what she said. Hutchison has now issued a clarification, so perhaps someone has reminded her that her job is no longer riling up voters, but engaging in diplomacy. Threatening a nuclear-armed power is not something to be done lightly.

But the clarification, however welcome, does not undo the very real damage that Hutchison has done. The real issue is less the cavalier nuclear threat and more that Hutchison’s lapse risks feeding a particular strain of Russian paranoia. What Hutchison meant to do was convey a perfectly reasonable sense that our patience is not infinite when it comes to Moscow’s continuing violation of the INF Treaty.

The United States is, quite rationally, looking to signal to Russia that its violation of the treaty will not be cost-free. Russia is deploying a pair of intermediate-range missiles that threaten to upset strategic stability: The much-discussed 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile that the United States asserts is a violation of the agreement, as is the RS-26 ballistic missile, which is a clone of the SS-20 missile prohibited by the INF Treaty. Dealing with the deployment of these two systems poses a clear challenge, and it will require a careful balance of military responses and arms control diplomacy. There is little room for loose talk and badly mangled talking points will not help.

Russian Paranoia and Aggressive America: From Andropov to Putin and Reagan to Trump

The INF Treaty is inextricably tied to Moscow’s fears of decapitation. During the Cold War, the deployment of U.S. ground-launched cruise missiles in response to Russia’s growing arsenal of SS-20 ballistic missiles resulted in a deep, year-long crisis popularly known today as “The War Scare of 1983.” 

At the time, U.S. policymakers did not appreciate the depths of Soviet paranoia. (Even today, there is some dispute as to how worried the Soviets truly were.) But the Soviet Union’s ailing leader, Yuri Andropov, became convinced that President Ronald Reagan might launch a preemptive attack against the Soviet Union. This was driven, in part, by Reagan’s rhetoric but also by Andropov’s increasingly paranoid worldview. The nadir of this crisis occurred as American intermediate-range nuclear forces were being deployed in Europe and NATO staged a command post exercise called Able Archer. At least some officials in the Soviet Union worried that the exercise was, in fact, a ruse to hide a coming attack. NATO noticed unusual upticks in the alert rates of different Soviet forces. In hindsight, U.S. officials concluded there had been a serious crisis — but that no one in the United States had known this. Writing shortly after the war scare, Reagan confided his surprise in his diary:

“I feel the Soviets are so defense minded, so paranoid about being attacked that without being in any way soft on them, we ought to tell them no one here has any intention of doing anything like that. What the hell have they got that anyone would want.”

The lesson should be obvious: Whether we think Moscow’s fears are reasonable or not, we must live with them — and their consequences.

In 1983, Soviet leaders became convinced that the United States might attack them. It is extremely important that U.S. officials not carelessly feed similar fears today. And yet that is precisely what Hutchison appeared to do, issuing a specific threat and a specific timeline.

While in 1983, Soviet leaders were worried about ground-launched cruise missiles, today Russian President Vladimir Putin has a different sort of decapitation fear. He is convinced that, in a crisis, the United States would convert missile defense interceptors in Poland and Romania into nuclear-armed offensive systems. Like Andropov before him, he fears these systems would be used to kill him in a crisis.

The Russians have made this fear clear repeatedly. In 2009, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained:

“[T]he Russians believed, despite our best efforts to dissuade them, that the ground-based interceptors in Poland could be fitted with nuclear weapons and become an offensive weapon like a Pershing and a weapon for which they would have virtually no warning time.”

Then-Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Jim Miller later told a meeting at the Arms Control Association that he was shocked to hear Gates say that in an unclassified setting. During the negotiations over the New START treaty, Russian officials insisted on treaty language prohibiting the emplacement of offensive systems in missile defense silos. This was a significant point of disagreement between the two parties that Russia raised repeatedly, and ultimately succeeded in including in the treaty text.

Putin himself has made the point in public. He told Oliver Stone:

“[T]he launching pads of these anti-ballistic missiles can be transformed within a few hours [into] offensive missile launching pads. Look, if these anti-ballistic missiles are placed in Eastern Europe, if those missiles are placed on water, patrolling the Mediterranean and Northern Seas, and in Alaska, almost the whole Russian territory would be encircled by these systems.”

And he told a meeting of defense industry officials:

“[The] launchers, to be deployed after the radar stations in Romania and Poland go on stream, can easily be used for the deployment of intermediate and short range missiles. The conversion can actually happen in a very short time, and we will not even know what is happening there.”

The last sentence is particularly worrisome — if the Russians believe that the conversion can take place without their knowledge, then in a crisis they may well experience a kind of analytic slippage, going from a hunch that a conversion might have taken place to a belief that it actually had.

All of this seems bizarre. There are no nuclear weapons in Poland or Romania, nor are there plans to convert these missiles to offensive purposes. The problem is that such a conversion is feasible and it is the kind of thing that American officials occasionally propose. For example, in the Senate report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2018, there was a call for “evaluating existing U.S. missile systems for modification to intermediate range and ground-launch,” including — among other systems — the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3). The SM-3, of course, is the missile deployed in Poland and Romania. The final version of the NDAA cast a wide net and called for a report on the feasibility of modifying current American missile systems to have an INF range (between 500 and 5,500 kilometers).

This is the same congressional action to which Hutchison referred in her remarks, when she said Congress “has spoken.”

The Bigger Picture: Looming Instability in Europe

Of course, the United States is extremely unlikely to convert missile defense launchers in Europe to strike Russian leadership targets. However, the United States is exploring the possibility of responding to new Russian missiles with its own noncompliant systems, reviving concepts from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Obama administration even adopted that same peculiar phrase from the Carter administration — countervailing strategy — to describe the American response. The countervailing strategy was to have an array of systems capable of responding to various scenarios. At the time, the countervailing strategy was explicitly about the ability to not merely destroy Soviet forces but also to kill Soviet leaders. Obama administration officials may have forgotten this. Their Russian counterparts have not.

The Russian actions are a worrying signal for the future of stability in Europe. Moscow appears close to deploying the INF-violating cruise missile, the 9M729. In parallel, Russia has also “circumvented” the INF by developing a RS-26 ballistic missile. This missile was tested to a range in excess of the INF cap and then declared as a strategic system under a separate arms control treaty, New START. However, Russia appears to have increased the number of warheads on the RS-26, which decreases its range to a medium-range system. Russia, therefore, appears ready to field a duopoly of systems to target Europe in a way eerily reminiscent of the years before the 1983 war scare.

So now what? The tit-for-tat deployment of missiles in the 1980s was not stabilizing. It increased tensions and paranoia and, for a brief moment in 1983, risked nuclear war. The limiting of medium-range systems was designed to reinforce deterrence and increase superpower predictability. Whether the United States likes it or not, Moscow is frightened of a sneak attack from launch sites in Europe. Nobody wants to die. If one accepts reality, this means that a future political solution to the growing arms race in Europe will require that both sides make concessions and the use of arms control to pressure governments to forego or give up the development of new nuclear systems.

For the United States, a longer-term emphasis on arms control may seem like a dissatisfying outcome to a clear Russian provocation. However, an unencumbered Russian build-up of medium range systems offsets clear American advantages in aerial and naval missile systems. It is therefore prudent to explore how to entice Russia to return to treaty compliance, in the case of the 9M729, and to eliminate the RS-26, possibly as part of a follow-on to New START. To do so, the United States should be prepared to consider limits on defenses, particularly in Europe. It is simply impossible to imagine a future for arms control, so long as the United States refuses to grapple with the obvious linkages between missile defenses in Europe and Russian development of its own offensive systems, including the 9M729. Such an approach might also help manage Russian paranoia about these potential use of such sites for decapitation strikes. In return for American limits on missile defense in Europe, Russia would be required to come back into compliance with the INF and take reciprocal measures to limit its own development of conventional missile defense systems now being fielded in larger numbers around Moscow.

As for the RS-26, the Russians deftly – and entirely legally — exploited a loophole in New START to their advantage. During the ratification debate over the INF Treaty, it was clear that a loophole existed: Russia could build an intercontinental range ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range long enough that it did not count under INF, then pack it with warheads so that it would be an intermediate-range system. This problem was clearly understood at the time and a decision was made to address it with low ceilings in future strategic arms control agreements. (Since these missiles would count against START limits, trading ICBMs for Intermediate range ballistic missiles would be undesirable for Moscow.) But in New START, U.S. negotiators insisted on unnecessarily high numbers of delivery vehicles, reasoning that Russia could not afford to build a large number of ICBMs and that it would be unwise for the United States to trade away a potential advantage in deployed delivery vehicles. This judgement seems to have been in error as Moscow appears to have used these empty slots to deploy an intermediate-range system that is a modern clone of the SS-20 prohibited by the INF Treaty. Moreover, Putin has signaled an open-ended commitment to developing an array of new and exotic delivery vehicles – some of which may be captured by New START, others of which may not.

As the United States grapples with the future of arms control and engages in early discussions about New START extension and a follow-on agreement, it would be wise to challenge the long-held assumption about delivery vehicle limits. It may seem counterintuitive, but the United States would be better off with lower limits on delivery vehicles. The American position should ensure that Moscow would face real trade-offs when deciding how to structure its nuclear forces. The American insistence on a large number of strategic delivery vehicles allows Russia to use a portion of these missiles for the medium-range mission, without making sacrifices to its capabilities to credibly strike the United States.

Russia’s violation of the INF requires an allied response that mixes military deployments with arms control. For the American ambassador in Brussels, it also demands precision with language and a familiarity with terms, so that the United States does not needlessly contribute to Russia’s deep paranoia about decapitation. Arms control should also be used to make life more uncomfortable for Moscow. To do this, the United States should reconsider its own long-held beliefs about the efficacy of higher numbers of delivery vehicles and its emphasis on missile defense. Absent any change, the two sides appear poised to continue to build up systems to counter the others perceived advantage. This is called an arms race. And this is not stable or in anyone’s interest.


About the Authors

Jeffrey Lewis is a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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