Enhancing National Security By Reassuring Russia

This week, American soldiers began installing Patriot guided missiles at Poland’s Morag military base, less than forty miles from Russian territory. Russia’s Foreign Ministry criticized the move as diminishing both security and trust. Many Americans see Russia’s criticism as unwarranted meddling in other nations’ affairs, but how would we react to a similar Russian move in Cuba?

It is noteworthy that US troops conducted military maneuvers in Georgia less than a month before that nation went to war with Russia, and that misunderstandings over missile defense came close to precipitating a 2008 Cuban crisis that could have rivaled 1962’s.

Given Russia’s ability to destroy us in under an hour, it would enhance our national security to clarify that we have no ulterior motives. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen proposed doing that by making missile defense a joint effort between Russia and NATO. Rasmussen noted, “If we build a security roof together, people from Vancouver to Vladivostok will know that they are part of one community, sharing real security, meeting a real threat, using real technology.”

Rasmussen’s proposal is similar to one I suggested back in 1986 for overcoming Russian fears that Ronald Reagan was being less than truthful when he said they had nothing to fear from his Strategic Defense Initiative. As with missile defense today, the Russians worried about ulterior motives, leading to the little known Able Archer incident. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called Able Archer “one of the potentially most dangerous episodes of the Cold War.” In his memoirs*, he questions: “Had the United States come close to a nuclear crisis … and not even known it?”

While there is only a small chance that installing Patriot missiles in Poland will precipitate a crisis leading to war, if one plays Russian roulette often enough, eventually the gun will go off, no matter how many empty chambers it might have. Before it is too late, let us learn from history and start paying attention to how our actions are perceived by our adversaries.

Martin Hellman
Member National Academy of Engineering
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering, Stanford University

* Robert M. Gates, From the Shadows, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York, 2006, pages 270-273.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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