12 April 201912:44

Article by Deputy Director of the Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia Vladimir L. Leontiev “Message received. Attempt at distance communication with the U.S. State Department” published in the magazine "Independent Military Review" April 12, 2019

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There are times when it is hard not to be amazed at the cruel jokes played on the current U.S. administration by their practice of double standards and their ingrained absolute confidence about their exceptionality and infallibility. This was once again vividly illustrated by the remarks of Assistant Secretary Dr. Christopher Ford at the Deterrence and Assurance Conference that took place at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in early March.


The remarks were to focus on stability cooperation with the "third parties" possessing nuclear weapons and the use of diplomatic methods to reduce regional security risks. However, having started with India and Pakistan, Dr. Ford went on to examine strategic stability in the U.S.-Russian relations and expressed a number of notable ideas on the subject.

One can only guess why this top diplomat, instead of discussing these issues with representatives of Russia, whom the U.S. administration has been avoiding like the plague for these two years, opted for discussing them with the students and professors of a university of little renown. It appears that Washington had some reasons to believe that Omaha was the point best suited for passing the relevant message to Russians and that it would help the message to be understood better.

Nonetheless, the message has been received. Yet let me get straight to the matter from these secondary points and stress the following.

Let us start from India and Pakistan. Examining these two countries' nuclear missile program Dr. Christopher Ford, among other things, recommended them to "exercise restraint" and not to cross the line beyond which the specifications of their weapons can cause concern on the part of the neighboring nuclear-weapon states and jeopardize their national security interests. In other words, he advised them not to “trouble trouble until trouble troubled them”.

Well said, indeed. Why does not the United States set an example of such responsible attitude and take in consideration the legitimate interests of other nuclear-weapon states, namely Russia and China, while deploying its global missile defense? They cannot, because in reality the United States is guided by a contrary approach. They are building their missile defense without any regard for anyone's opinion. What is more, any concerns on this subject are demonstratively dismissed and ignored.

Russia repeatedly proposed to the United States that they jointly elaborate at least a minimum set of technical specifications for assessing the compliance of the U.S. missile defense with its declared purpose of countering limited missile threats originating from outside the Euro-Atlantic region. The United States consistently replied with a decisive no. They said that any criteria implied possible limitations, which they were not going to tolerate. Indeed, they did not and started deploying their strategic infrastructure elements almost in our backyard. Kinzhal, Avangard, Burevestnik and Poseidon missiles came as a logical reply. Is this what the United States calls "security and stability"?

How should Islamabad and New Delhi act in these circumstances? Should they be guided by Washington's "strong recommendations" or its real steps? And if these American recommendations are indeed as good as they seem, why should not the United States itself abide by them? Dr. Ford may know the answer, yet for some reason he failed to announce it in Omaha.


One should make a special mention of the review of "stabilizing" and "destabilizing" weapons offered by the U.S. official. What is notable is that he calls "stabilizing" precisely the strategic offensive arms possessed by the United States, while Russian arms, both existing and forthcoming, are naturally dubbed as "destabilizing".

What reasoning did he use and did it have ground? Dr. Ford examined specific examples, and so shall we.

First and foremost he confirmed that the United States remained concerned over Russia's heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) carrying multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles. In the context of strategic stability Washington is unhappy about the fact that placing a considerable number of warheads on a delivery vehicle allegedly provides the other party (the United States) with an incentive for pre-emption. This statement is all the more indicative taking in consideration that the possibility of such strikes has now been formalized in the United States' doctrines (for which the Russians, again, appear to bear the blame, as usual). American experts believe that a state possessing such weapons (i.e. Russia) should itself strive to launch them at the first sign of the threat.

One should acknowledge that it would be logical in case of a nuclear missile attack. However, it would be equally logical to launch such missiles in some other situations as well, for example, in case of a large-scale conventional aggression jeopardizing the very existence of the State – a scenario envisaged in the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation. Another possible scenario could involve an aggression with the use of high-precision conventional missiles that can also disable missile silo launchers and destroy the heavy ICBMs deployed there.

This, by the way, is a food for thought for the U.S. strategists who are reassuring the European allies by promising to deploy "peaceful and absolutely safe" conventionally armed missiles in Europe after the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Europeans might buy this story, but what about Russia's early-warning system? Moreover, one should take into account that it is technically impossible to verify what warhead a missile is carrying before its head is detonated.

Christopher Ford was proud to say that the U.S. abandoned silo-launched ICBMs with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) many years ago and, thus, allegedly made the situation much more stable. This is a disputable point, especially since he did not mention how the United States redistributed the quotas on nuclear warheads that opened up; the picture here is far being as pretty as the United States sell.

In particular, Dr. Ford should have better enlightened Omaha's audience on how the U.S.–Russia nuclear triads were formed, why they are asymmetrical, and what historical and geographical factors predetermined this asymmetry. He should also have explained that, initially, the Soviet Union was forced to opt for land-based missiles, since it was the only delivery vehicle capable of reaching the U.S. territory.

Unlike the United States, we had virtually no strategic aviation at the beginning of the nuclear era. Before that, the Soviet Union was bearing the brunt of the war against Hitler's Germany for four years. The front stretched from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea, and all the country's resources were naturally put into the front-line aviation – fighters, attack bombers, dive bombers, etc. The USSR produced a total of 93 long-range four-engine Pe-8 bombers, including prototypes and special purpose aircraft over the entire pre‑war and war period. However, none of these could reach America without intermediate stops, and, for certain reasons, we had no bases in Mexico, Canada or the Bahamas. As for the United States, during the war years it produced almost four thousand B-29 strategic bombers, which were the world's first nuclear-armed aircraft, and had at its disposal airfields in the countries of the former Rome-Berlin Axis they occupied, from where they could attack vital centres of the USSR. In fact, the United States maintains its leading position in terms of strategic bombers, and definitely does not intend to give it up.

As for the sea-based component of the SNF, it remained a matter of a distant future, however in this respect the U.S. was also in a much better position due to free access to two oceans. When the parties came to possess ballistic missiles submarines, this advantage became particularly obvious: the U.S. submarines could easily go on patrol, having neither to overcome potential enemy's anti-submarine, nor pass near its naval bases.

Under such conditions, there was no alternative to ground-based missiles. And it was the development of nuclear weapons delivery vehicles, such as Sergei Korolev's R-7 ballistic missile or Lavochkin design Bureau's Burya cruise missile, that made it possible to ensure parity and shape the basis of the nuclear relations that later became known as strategic stability. After all, the key pillar of the strategic stability in the traditional military sense of this term involves, first and foremost, the ability to reach the enemy. This is its central and determining factor. All other aspects, including those mentioned by Dr. Ford, are undoubtedly important, but secondary or derived from this fundamental one.

Assured retaliation safely ranks second among the most important factors defining strategic stability. Heavy silo-launched ICBMs, which Americans dislike so much, are intended precisely for that. Does this dislike owe to the assured retaliation rather than, as Christopher Ford assumed, attractiveness for preemptive strikes. And why, for example, should heavy bombers so favoured by the U.S. military be less appealing for preventive strikes? After all, the payload of B-52H exceeds twice that of the heaviest of the "heavy" missiles! In addition, in contrast to the silo-based ICBM, the coordinates of which are known to an accuracy of several metres and cannot be changed in a crisis, the bomber is capable, if necessary, of promptly reaching any place in the world with the basic infrastructure to receive it and carry out its maintenance, and to strike from over there. It can also move unpredictably long in the air, remaining inaccessible for the enemy. Apparently, that's what should be "knocked out" first and preferably before the takeoff! The good thing is that in peacetime bombers are pulled together and kept at the bases, while the ICBM silo launchers, as a rule, are scattered over a large area, well defended and need each an individual blow to be destroyed. Yet the U.S. seems to disagree and have no problem with it in terms of strategic stability. But they shouldn't...

Nevertheless, we would like to reassure our U.S. colleagues and Christopher Ford personally: Russia's deployment of Sarmats will not weaken strategic stability at all, but, on the contrary, it will significantly strengthen it. Moreover, if this happens before the START expires, they will accordingly be declared as a new type of ICBM and counted among ICBMs. The United States will be able to receive all relevant information provided for in the Treaty and inspect them. Attempts to "preemptively" disable Sarmats by any means may have the most negative consequences for the United States. Perhaps, in order to strengthen strategic stability it would be better for Washington to abandon such plans, rather than repeat the same old story about the "negative impact" of heavy silo-based ICBMs, which, as they say, impede unleashing a nuclear war against Russia on their own terms and following a best-case scenario. As Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, said, "that is the question!”.


The above also applies to the traditional Americans' "complaints" about "a significant number of various small nuclear weapons of the battlefield", or in other words, Russia's non-strategic nuclear weapons (TNW), which, of course, was a critical part of the "thematic" speech in Omaha. It's notable that at the same time Christopher Ford actually recognized that the availability of such weapons in the opponent's arsenal could make the idea of attacking him, to put it mildly, "less attractive". However, he preferred not to go into the subject and hastened to turn the conversation to "the dangers of losing control" and "catastrophic risks of inadvertent escalation".

Mr. Ford also said nothing about the American non-strategic nuclear weapons deployed in Europe as well as NATO's "joint nuclear missions", which, in clear contradiction with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), involve the transfer of American nuclear weapons to non-nuclear Alliance members and the use of their aircraft for delivering nuclear weapons to the target.

Nor did he mention the B61 aerial nuclear bombs modernization program, which provides for the customization of such bombs for battlefield use in the European theater of operations, as well as other American projects to deploy low-yield nuclear warheads, which in fact blurs the already notional distinction between strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons.

Still, for some reason, he brought up the Russian "Perimeter" system in this context, implying that it did "not make sense". It is up to the official from the State Department to express such opinions; nevertheless, assuming that everything written about this system is true, the Americans might really see no sense in a situation where, despite the fact that the Americans have neutralized the Russian leadership, Russia continues to fight and strike back, making it impossible for the USA to unfurl the "Mission Accomplished" banners, which had already left the USA with egg on its face on various occasions. But these are the opponents the United States has chosen on its own. People have always said that it is not enough just to kill a Russian soldier – you still have to knock him off his feet.


Yet, Christopher Ford was right about one thing: the forward deployment of nuclear weapons near foreign borders can really have the most negative impact on strategic stability – especially if the firing range covers vital centers and strategic infrastructure of the opponent. In this case the number of weapons, its diversity and the chain of command do not make any principal difference. Hence, it would make more sense for the United States to begin at home and at least bring its entire nuclear arsenal back to its national territory first if the United States was really eager to make the situation in Europe more secure and stable. In its time, the Soviet Union found the courage to do so. But these days Washington, unfortunately, prefers to take a completely different approach and act in the spirit of American Civil War admiral David G. Farragut who commanded his gunboats "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" through a minefield. Except this time the "torpedoes" are nuclear and a single accidental explosion could trigger the rest one by one, making the whole world as good as dead.

In his review of the systems seen by the United States as "destabilizing", Ford predictably mentioned "exotic new technologies and methods" but dwelled specifically upon unlimited-range cruise missiles. It looks like Washington just could not find any substantiation to declare Russian Poseidon robotic submarine complex – obviously unsuitable for launching a first strike in any hypothetical scenario of a nuclear conflict – "destabilizing". Perhaps, they also considered it premature to dot the i's and cross the t's on the Avangard and Kinzhal missiles. In its turn, the Burevestnik yet faced a hail of criticism for its "technical risks" and probable contamination of the atmosphere by its engine, which, of course, would be of utmost importance in case of a nuclear conflict. On the other hand, as long as American schools barely provide basic military training, we should not expect the Americans to be aware of the damaging factors of nuclear weapons in general and of the radioactive contamination of the area associated with a nuclear explosion in particular.

However, the probable "radioactive plume" is far from being the biggest concern of the United States. The State Department claims that Burevestnik's main threat to strategic stability stems from its capability to patrol the air for a long term in anticipation of an order to strike, which allows the "aggressor" to intimidate the "victim" and carry out "coercive diplomacy".

The logic is definitely fascinating at least due to the fact that it factors out the obvious questions: why did nuclear and non-nuclear deterrence fail and in what obscure way can those missiles in the air "elicit unpredictably escalatory responses"? Honestly, Ford should have never raised this topic. Now Europe, which may have also read his remarks, might start wondering: what is the point of the whole NATO's military build-up after all and what is the purpose of Americans' stockpiling their nuclear weapons in Europe if all that cannot prevent Russian aggression and subsequent nuclear Euroapocalypse?

And there is still more. Let us pretend that Christopher Ford, as they say, evoked evil by making evil prophesies: the Burevestnik missiles have been launched, the "coercive diplomacy" has worked out, Europe has surrendered and withdrawn from NATO while the entire European Union has joined the EurAsEC, the CSTO and the SCO. What shall we do about the nuclear-tipped cruise missiles remaining airborne in this case? Shall we keep them flying till the end of time? Or bring them back to base just as the Americans do with their drones?

In fact, the Assistant Secretary of State unintentionally provided extremely convincing evidence that definition 2 from Article II of the INF Treaty is not the only thing cruise missiles and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) have in common, they also have the same functional purpose, the fact which we have pointed out to our American counterparts for many years and they have kept denying. Indeed, the scenario Mr. Ford outlined in his speech is the spitting image of some combat mission of a Reaper or Predator over the Hindu Kush mountains (takeoff – standby – fire or abort - return to base). It is a great pity that the United States had launched the formal process to withdraw from the INF Treaty and cut off all the contacts with us in this field before Mr.Ford gave his speech in Omaha. This could add new bright colors to the discussions of the specialized expert groups and the sessions of the Special Verification Commission under the Treaty.

It is clear that the Burevestnik is not to the Americans' liking. But it does exist, and they have to reckon with it now. We were not happy about the Americans developing their global missile defense system and it getting progressively and explicitly directed against Russia. We brought this to the attention of the United States more than once or twice, but Washington did not find it necessary to heed our concerns. Well, sorry for that now.

It is true that Burevestnik missiles do not fall within the traditional strategic paradigm. It is also true that they may reach their targets after the exchange of ballistic missile strikes is already over. But the fact is, they will reach their targets (strategic stability factor No 1) and they will bring about assured retaliation (strategic stability factor No 2). "Those who have ears should not say they have not heard". At the same time, such systems are not well suited for a first strike: their launches are relatively easy to detect, which gives the adversary enough time to react and retaliate. So where's the instability here?


Finished with "hardware", Christopher Ford didn't fail to mention how important it was for the parties to have a clear understanding about each other's nuclear posture and doctrine. Again, one could not agree more. But does this mean that the U.S. is going to finally answer the questions about its nuclear doctrine and missile defense policy that we addressed to its authorities after the reviews had been released? In a broader sense, are they going to resume the bilateral dialogue at the level of military experts and diplomats, which they have discontinued and which is now becoming more and more relevant? If not, Mr. Ford's claim that the U.S. is "by far the most transparent of any nuclear weapons possessor" is kind of hanging in the air.

The U.S. authorities do make information concerning their nuclear posture public. But they put out only what they can turn to their advantage and use to promote their propaganda. A good case in point is publication by the State Department of the aggregate numbers of arms limited by the START Treaty. They use information that Russia and the U.S. exchange twice a year pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 4 of the Protocol to the Treaty. However, in publishing these figures, the Americans have understated the size of their nuclear arsenal for several years, illegally removing from accountability about one hundred В-52Н heavy bombers and Trident II SLBM launchers, which they have unilaterally declared to be "converted", in defiance of the Treaty requirements. As a result, the data that have been published by the U.S. authorities fail to show the real picture. So why be so proud of such "transparency" and arrogantly call on others to follow the U.S. model?

Unfortunately, that kind of "creativity" has become a hallmark of the current U.S. administration, and Christopher Ford's remarks were no exception. At the end of his address, he referred, in a very peculiar way, to Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, saying that according to its language, easing international tension and strengthening trust between states were key to achieving the stable and sustainable elimination of nuclear weapons. Of course, there is nothing wrong about the idea itself, yet Article VI suggests something entirely different. It provides that all States parties to the NPT have an obligation to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control. One can only guess whether the Assistant Secretary did not take time to read the text of the NPT or this Treaty, too, is no longer suitable for the Americans and they intend to try and "tailor" it to meet their current objectives, the way they did with the INF Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Either way, "Houston, we've got a problem!"

The subject of escalation in a nuclear conflict turned out to be the most vivid example of the U.S. applying a double standard. Judging by the official text, in his relatively short address, Mr. Ford happened to mention it as much as 12 times, with a constant emphasis on the risk of "unwanted" or "inadvertent" escalation. But if this "unwanted" or "inadvertent" – this point being particularly stressed each time – escalation is a universal evil and anathema in the eyes of the United States, then it means any escalation that is "wanted" or "advertent" should be viewed as an essential element of strategic stability – at least as far as its "crisis" dimension is concerned. But isn't it the very same "escalation for de‑escalation", which Russia has been accused of by Washington and its NATO allies? They accuse Russia guided solely by their own assumptions based on a "highly-likely" approach, completely disregarding the fact that the existing text of the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, which is widely available, including in English, contains nothing even close to this U.S.-NATO concept. So, we are left to wonder what these Americans have in mind…

To paraphrase a well-known formula: What is good for an American is, apparently, not that good for a Russian.


There is another alarming trend. Speaking about areas in which the U.S. is working to "manage a nuclear relationship without catastrophe," Mr. Ford mentioned a number of truly important issues. He referred, in particular, to "deterring aggression", "preventing a breakdown in deterrence", "extending deterrence to allies", "defusing proliferation pressures", "limiting proliferation opportunities", and "preserving crisis stability and unwanted escalation". He failed to mention one thing though – arms control, preserving the existing and drawing up new agreements in this regard. This is the issue that the State Department, and Christopher Ford's bureau in particular, should be dealing with in the first place.

It would be helpful to know what was behind such statement of the issue: is it just a matter of misspeaking or is there something more? Because if the U.S. administration no longer regards arms control as its operational priority in the field of security (and there are indications of that), then it's time to call Houston again and report another problem, a big one this time.

To sum up, even this brief review of a single address by a representative of the U.S. administration clearly shows how many pressing and relevant problems have piled up since Washington decided to discontinue the "strategic" dialogue with Russia and unilaterally cut off all channels that had been established for that purpose. We have repeatedly proposed to our American colleagues that we turn the page and resume professional discussion on issues related to international security and stability, first of all in the bilateral format because a lot of things in the world depend on our countries, and if we agree on something, others tend to follow.

All our proposals remain on the table. However, if the U.S. would rather maintain "distance" communication, we are ready to work in this format, too. In this case, though, we should agree on a better way to exchange "smoke signals" or at least to inform each other of the most important statements and publications. For our part, we will be ready to make such a commitment, should that be necessary.

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