Russian-American Relations: Reset or Reload?

Yesterday’s issue of the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that our Ambassador-designate to Russia, Michael McFaul, was “one of the authors of the American-Russian reload.” I was familiar with President Obama’s efforts to reset Russian-American relations, so this seemed like an ominous new direction, especially for our ambassador to Russia. Fortunately, web searching showed that reload was used in some Russian accounts to mean reset, and was corrected in the version of the Kommersant article linked to above. But, for reasons given below, an important question still remains: “Are we resetting or reloading our relationship with Russia?”

The Kommersant article went on to quote McFaul as saying that we were deadlocked with the Russians over our plans for a missile defense system. (Given that this Russian publication might have misunderstood McFaul, misquoted him, or suffered from a translation error, I searched for and found confirmation of McFaul’s statement in a semi-official American source, a Radio Free Europe article.) The Kommersant article ended by quoting a source within the Kremlin as saying, “we know what we have to do now. … The response will be fairly cheap but extremely effective.”

That statement added to my concern because in 2008 a similar impasse over our missile defense plans came close to igniting a Cuban crisis that could have rivaled 1962’s. Because the 2008 incident was defused before it reached full-blown crisis proportions, almost no one is aware of it and almost no one is therefore paying attention to today’s early warning signs.

The Russians fear that our missile defense system is intended to weaken their nuclear deterrent. While obviously bad for them, it would also be dangerous for us. That’s because then, during a crisis, the Russians would have a strong incentive to strike first, while they still had enough warheads to be sure of overwhelming our defense. That’s a dangerous, unstable situation.

We have tried to calm Russia’s fears by telling it that our missile defense efforts are only intended to protect against a potential Iranian threat. The Russians aren’t buying this for several reasons. First, we are unwilling to give the Russians guarantees that it will not be used to weaken their deterrent. The Radio Free Europe article quotes McFaul as saying the two sides are at an “impasse” over Russian demands for such a guarantee. Second, during the 2008 Georgian war, John McCain led a group of Republican senators in advancing the value of the system for protecting Eastern Europe from Russian threats. Third, the Polish government has sold their participation in the system to a reluctant public by claiming it will protect them against Russia.

This difference in perspectives almost exploded in our faces in 2008, when the Russian newspaper Izvestia published an “official leak,” quoting an anonymous, high Russian Air Force official as saying that, if the US proceeds with its missile defense system, the Russians will counter it by deploying nuclear-capable bombers to Cuba. This fits with Kommersant’s Kremlin source warning today of a “fairly cheap but extremely effective” response if agreement cannot be reached.

Back in 2008, in response to the Izvestia article, US Air Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz warned that, if Russia deployed bombers to Cuba, “we should stand strong and indicate that is something that crosses a threshold, crosses a red line.” Fortunately, instead of disputing our ability to draw red lines in Cuba when we were not paying attention to related Russian demands in Poland, the Russian Foreign Ministry defused the crisis by issuing a denial of the earlier leak. We should not count on being as lucky this time, and need to decide whether we want to reset or reload our relations with Russia.

Martin Hellman

HOW YOU CAN HELP: Please consider signing our petition to Congress, asking it to authorize a National Academies study of the risks inherent in our current approach to nuclear weapons. The petition has been signed by retired four-star Admiral Bobby Inman, Stanford’s former President Donald Kennedy and Stanford Nobel Laureates Kenneth Arrow and Martin Perl, so you know it makes good sense for our national security.

Even better, circulate the petition to friends, either by email, with a link to the petition, or by downloading a printable version.

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, since 1982, 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, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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