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Past / Present U.S.-Russian Relations
In light of the Obama administration’s recent accusation that Russia was violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), I thought I’d revisit a piece I did back on April 30, 2009, following a trip to Iceland. After this, I then have some important comments on current U.S.-Russian relations from Dimitri Simes.
Having just been to Iceland, and having visited the scene of the historic 1986 summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, I thought I’d return to a piece I did 10 years ago, especially since arms control is back on the agenda between the United States and Russia, starting with the Antiballistic Missile Treaty that was signed between Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in 1972.
The treaty was designed to prevent the two nations from deploying antimissile defense systems that, it was felt, would lead to a further escalation in the arms race. The prevailing opinion is that if one side had a sizable defense, the other would have to build even more numerous, powerful offensive weapons that could be used to overwhelm the opponent’s defense, and the endless, deadly cycle would just get worse.
Enter Ronald Reagan. In 1982 he approved an effort to come up with a defensive shield, in theory at first. One year later, he announced to the nation that research would commence on the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) or SDI. Given Reagan’s antipathy towards the Soviet Union it was a bold move, though one that was ridiculed in the mainstream press.
Reagan had labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” yet a change had occurred at the top of the Kremlin in the form of Mikhail Gorbachev. The two of them held their first summit in Geneva - November, 1985.
The Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, was present in Geneva and Reykjavik. At one point the following conversation took place between the two leaders, as witnessed by Dobrynin.
Reagan: [Regarding SDI] “It’s not an offensive system. I am talking about a shield, not a spear.”
Gorbachev: “The reality is that SDI would open a new arms race...Why don’t you believe me when I say the Soviet Union will never attack? Why then should I accept your sincerity in your willingness to share SDI research when you don’t even share your advanced technology with your allies?”
Reagan was angry.
Gorbachev: “Mr. President. I disagree with you, but I can see you really believe it.”
Between 11/85 and 10/86, there were 25 personal messages between Reagan and Gorbachev. In February ‘86, Gorbachev had confided to Dobrynin and other close aides, “Maybe it is time to stop being afraid of SDI? The U.S. is counting on our readiness to build the same kind of costly system, hoping meanwhile that they will win this race using their technological superiority.”
Gorby thought the Soviet Union could come up with a way to overwhelm the system. But under the influence of the military-industrial complex, he gradually began to revert to his insistence on Reagan’s withdrawal from SDI as the condition for the success of a new summit on disarmament. He was persuaded that SDI would give the U.S. a first-strike advantage in nuclear conflicts. [Since the U.S. would feel secure behind its shield, the
U.S. could attack first with impunity].
The summit in Reykjavik was held October 11-12, 1986. There were supposed to be lots of different items on the agenda. Instead there was only one that the two leaders wanted to discuss; reducing nukes. Reagan and Gorbachev met for 9 hours and 48 minutes of face-to-face meetings. Gorbachev came armed with lots of proposals in nearly every area of arms control. He and Reagan astonishingly agreed on a first step to cut strategic nuclear forces in half. Then they got excited about the prospect of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether, including missiles and strategic bombers. “I have a picture,” Reagan said, “that after ten years you and I come to Iceland and bring the last two missiles in
the world and have the biggest damn celebration of it!”
Reagan would later say that “one lousy word” spoiled the picture. SDI. Gorbachev insisted on confining SDI to “laboratory” testing. And Reagan would not give up his pet project. Remarkably he offered to share it. Gorbachev was worried about the first-strike capability the U.S. might then possess. At midnight the talks broke off and they walked in silence from the conference site.
“Mr. President,” said Gorbachev when they reached Reagan’s car, “you have missed a unique chance of going down in history as a great president who paved the way for nuclear disarmament.” A gloomy Reagan answered: “That applies to both of us.”
I’ll never forget that scene on television. The media had a field day with Reagan. Gorbachev was the international darling of the moment. Clearly, it was Reagan who had missed a golden opportunity to make progress in the arms race. Meanwhile, his own aides were appalled that he had offered to give up all nuclear weapons.
But back in Moscow, there was a different feeling. Dobrynin wrote, “As an eyewitness at Reykjavik, I feel Gorbachev was no less responsible than Reagan for its failure because he held SDI hostage for the success of the meeting. It could have been postponed for further consideration if they had reached agreement on a deep reduction of nuclear weapons.”
Historian Paul Johnson has a different take. “The effect of SDI was to add to the stresses on the Soviet economy and thus eventually destroy the totalitarian states. SDI allowed the U.S. to make full use of its advanced technology, where it held a big (and, as it turned out, growing) lead over the Soviet Union. SDI was an example of Reagan’s ability to grasp a big new idea, simplify it, and give it all it was worth, including presenting it to the American people with consummate skill. It was the most important change in American strategic policy since the adoption of containment and the foundation of NATO.”
By February 1987, Gorbachev said he would no longer let SDI stand in the way of a treaty to remove missiles from Europe and Asia. The Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty the leaders signed on December 8, 1987, led to the first-ever agreement to destroy nuclear missiles: 859 of America’s and 1836 Soviet missiles with a range of 300 to 3400 miles. It was unprecedented and heroic, on both sides.
Personally, I get a kick out of those right wing members of my party who make idiotic statements like “the U.S. never benefited from an arms control treaty.” By sticking to SDI in ‘86, Reagan was able to accomplish a significant achievement in the elimination of the Intermediate Nuclear Force in Europe. Undoubtedly, we will have future conflicts with Russia. At least this is one class of weapon Europe doesn’t have to worry about.
*In light of Edmund Morris’ critical biography of Reagan, “Dutch,” I thought it would be interesting to share the thoughts of Anatoly Dobrynin. Dobrynin was in Reagan’s company on many occasions, more than a few of a tense nature. I trust his impressions more than those of Morris.
“One of the keys to the puzzle of this unique personality was that opponents and experts alike clearly underestimated him. The president proved to be a much deeper person than he first appeared. There is no denying that Reagan had a poor conception of our relations and did not like examining their intricacies, especially those concerning arms negotiations, yet he struck it lucky, and more often than any other president. His supposedly guileless personality also helped him to get away with many things; he fully deserved the nickname of the ‘Teflon President’ conferred on him.
“Reagan was endowed with natural instinct, flair, and optimism. His imagination supported big ideas like SDI. He presented his own image skillfully, and it appealed to millions. In no small measure it was rooted in his confident and promising nature, which was not necessarily prompted by wisdom and knowledge but by personal conviction and character. He skillfully manipulated public opinion by means of strong illustrative catchwords which oversimplified complex questions and therefore flew straight over the heads of the professionals into the hearts and minds of the millions, for good or ill.
“But his overriding strength lay in his ability, whether deliberate or instinctive I was never quite sure, to combine the incompatible in the outward simplicity of his approach and in his conviction that his views were correct, even if they were sometimes erroneous or untenable. The point is he knew they were nevertheless supported by the population and by his own evident stubborn and dogged determination to put his ideas into effect.”
“The American Century,” by Harold Evans
“A History of the American People,” by Paul Johnson
“In Confidence,” by Anatoly Dobrynin
Dimitri K. Simes is president of the Center for the National Interest, publisher of The National Interest, and my favorite Russian affairs expert. Following are a few excerpts from an essay he has in the July/August 2014 edition of The National Interest regarding U.S.-Russian relations and Ukraine.
President Barack Obama likes to say that America and the world have progressed beyond the unpleasantness of the nineteenth century and, for that matter, much of the rest of human history. He could not be more wrong. And as a result, he is well on the way to repeating some of history’s most dangerous mistakes.
Few would think to compare Obama to Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II. Nevertheless, Emperor Nicholas II, like President Obama, thought of himself as a man of peace. A dedicated arms controller, he often called for a rules-based international order and insisted that Russia wanted peace to focus on its domestic priorities. Of course, Obama’s philosophy of governance and world outlook differ profoundly from those of this long-dead autocrat. Yet there is one disturbing assumption they appear to share in foreign affairs; the idea that as long as you do not want a war, you can pursue daring policies without risking conflict or even war.
Consider Ukraine. In March, Obama said, “We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine." Nicholas II also declared that there would be no war between Russia and Japan on multiple occasions on the eve of their 1904-1905 conflict. How could there be a war if he did not want it, the czar said to his advisers, especially because he considered Japan far too small and weak to challenge the Russian Empire....
At first, Japan reluctantly acquiesced to Russian advances – but Tokyo soon began to warn of serious consequences. Overruling his wise advisers, Finance Minister Sergei Witte and Foreign Minister Vladimir Lamsdorf, the czar decided to stay the course. He saw Japan’s concessions as evidence that the “Macacas,” as he derisively called the Japanese, would not dare to challenge a great European power. When they did, the result was humiliation and a devastating blow to Russia’s global standing.
From the outside, the Obama administration appears to be following a similar trajectory in its approach to Russia. Top officials seem to believe that short of using force, the United States can respond as it pleases to Moscow’s conduct in Ukraine without any real risks.
The Obama administration should also be much more careful about its message to Ukraine’s government. Visible U.S. support is important, but Washington must avoid providing officials in Kiev with the same false sense of support that facilitated (Georgian President Mikheil) Saakashvili’s ruinous confrontation with Moscow (2008).
An escalating dispute in Ukraine could not but affect already-struggling European economies. Investor confidence could become especially shaky in the Baltic States, where Moscow could exploit any economic slowdown to mobilize significant and poorly integrated ethnic Russian communities in Estonia and Latvia to destabilize governments. Latvia’s capital, Riga, already has an ethnic Russian elected mayor who openly favors a closer relationship with Moscow.
Some will argue that Moscow could not risk this with NATO members. But notwithstanding President Obama’s references to Russia’s weakness, Russia has an impressive superiority in conventional forces vis-à-vis Ukraine and in Central Europe and a roughly ten-to-one superiority in tactical nuclear weapons, of which it has an estimated two thousand, compared to about two hundred deployed in Europe for the United States. Russian military planners consider tactical nuclear weapons an important component in the overall balance of forces and are preparing integrated war plans that include nuclear options. Even more dangerous, Russian generals might assume that NATO would recognize this imbalance and would therefore not dare to escalate.
Finally, while Russia may have limited options to impose direct economic harm on the United States, Americans should recognize that attempting to use U.S. dominance in the international financial system as an instrument against another major power will encourage not only Moscow but also other nations to see the American-centered global financial system as a threat. This could put new momentum behind existing efforts to weaken America’s international financial role and might even prompt some to seek to undermine the global financial system as we know it today. Since that system is a key source of U.S. strength and prosperity, Obama administration officials should think twice before weaponizing international finance. New reports suggest that Russian companies are already exploring nondollar settlements with Chinese firms; even if modest, this could open a Pandora’s box....
It is not merely intellectually inconsistent but also peculiar that the same officials and commentators who view Putin as an evil genius also expect him to accept Western punishment with a combination of easily dismissed bluster and toothless symmetrical action. Likewise, it may be politically convenient to ignore the very real possibility of Russia drawing closer to China, but it is strategically reckless. By any logical criteria, American leaders should see China rather than Russia as their greatest challenge.
China is both more central to the world economy and more integrated into the world economy than Russia. Despite its assertive conduct, Beijing is not seeking conflict with the United States. Like Russia’s leaders, however, Chinese officials see Washington as bent on containment and a potentially dangerous democracy-promotion policy. This is an important confluence of interests between China and Russia that U.S. leaders must consider. The post-Cold War world is over and a new world is emerging.
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