Russian Reactions to Minimal Deterrence Study

If you have followed Russian news media recently, you might have gotten the impression that FAS and NRDC are in charge of U.S. nuclear strike planning and are recommending increasing nuclear targeting of Russia.

Of course, neither is true.

Yet major Russian news media – and apparently also the chairman of the Russia’s parliament’s international affairs committee – have so misread and misrepresented the FAS/NRDC study From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence that we are compelled to publish this rebuttal.

Pravda Article Gets It Wrong

A Pravda article under the headline “U.S. retargets nuclear missiles to 12 Russian economic facilities” misrepresents the study as saying that the United States has already developed a new doctrine that is “going to retarget their nuclear missiles from large Russian cities to 12 most important economic facilities.”

The headline and first paragraph of this Pravda article misrepresent what the FAS/NRDC study From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence actually says.

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Rather, our study does not say U.S. nuclear weapons are targeted at Russian cities. In fact, we believe cities are explicitly off-limit to U.S. nuclear strike plans unless vital military targets are present.

Nor does the study conclude it has to be 12 industrial targets.  Rather, it includes a nominal list of 12 industrial targets for illustrative purposes.

Nor does the study say the U.S. has developed or is implementing a doctrine to retarget nuclear weapons at Russia’s 12 most important economic facilities. Rather, based on U.S. government documents, which we reference in the study, we estimate that U.S. nuclear strike plans already hold at risk nuclear (and other WMD) forces, command and control facilities, military and political leadership, and war-supporting infrastructure.  What we’re proposing is to end nuclear planning against the first three of those target categories and limit the remaining effort – in a transition period toward elimination of nuclear weapons – against a sharply curtailed subset of the fourth target category.

Our correction sent to Pravda has so far been ignored.

Konstantin Kosachev Interview

Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Russia Duma, misrepresents the FAS/NRDC report.

Duma Committee Chairman Also Gets It Wrong

In an interview with Russia Today, Konstantin Kosachev, who is chairman of the Russian parliament’s international affairs committee, said he had discussed the study with Carl Levin, chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, “in the presence of the U.S. ambassador to Moscow.”  Their reaction, Kosachev said, “was something like, ‘strange, we should detarget not retarget our missiles’….”

The interviewer then suggested, and Kosachev agreed, that “reports such as this” can have the effect of “scaremongering” people and “derail relations between the United States and Russia.” Kosachev added that, “This type of reports make [Russian hawks who oppose disarmament] even stronger.”

Yet the U.S. nuclear war plan already contains strike options against facilities in Russia (and other countries with WMD) – and it’s surprising if the chairman of the International Affairs Committee is not aware of this.  Russia is not an “immediate contingency,” but it’s very much a contingency because of its large numbers of nuclear weapons and history.  The recommendations in the FAS/NRDC report would not “retarget” but significantly curtail existing planning.

“Detargeting” is a controversial word that refers to the 1994 bilateral agreement between Russia and the United States (a similar arrangement was made between China and the United States) according to which the two countries pledged not to store targeting coordinates for the other country in their respective missiles.  As a result, U.S. Trident SLBMs and Peacekeeper ICBMs were said no longer to store target coordinates in their onboard computers, and the Minuteman III ICBMs, which for technical reasons had to store some coordinates, were targeted on the oceans.

The objective was to avoid an accidental launch of a missile striking the other country.  It was a symbolic “detargeting” agreement, not a constraining “nontargeting” agreement, and both countries continue to design and maintain detailed strike plans against each other.  Close to 2,000 warheads are on alert, ready to fly within minutes, despite the “detargeting” agreement.

Our report is proposing that we replace that form of planning with a much more constrained policy during the transition period where the United States and Russia figure out how to retain national security without nuclear weapons.

Vice-Chairman of Russian Council Foreign Affairs Committee Also Gets it Wrong

Vasily Likhachyov [Lykhachev], the Vice-Chairman of the Russian Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee told RIA Novosti that our proposal to go to a minimal deterrence posture represents “an infringement on the fundamental principles of international law.”  The basis for this assessment apparently was the 1994 detargeting agreement that he said Russia “strictly adheres to,” and that targeting of facilities in Russia demonstrate “disrespect for the soverignty of the Russian Federation.”

Again, the 1994 detargeting agreement is not a nontargeting agreement (see above), but it is particularly interesting if a member of the Russian Council indicates that it would be against international law if the Russian military targeted the United States with nuclear weapons.

Mr. Likhachyov also questioned our calculations of expected casualties from strikes on Russian infrastructure targets arguing that “anyone who knows what a nuclear weapon is also understands that the effect of an atomic explosion spreads over tens and even hundreds of kilometers.”

But as we explain in the report, the selection of “soft” surface targets such as industry allows the Optimum Height of Burst to be set high above the surface, thus avoiding the generation of large amounts of fallout that Mr. Likhachyov appears to assume comes from any nuclear detonation.

Resources: FAS/NRDC Press Release and Full Report

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One Response to “Russian Reactions to Minimal Deterrence Study”

  1. 3.1415 April 17, 2009 at 10:03 am #

    If a Russian think tank published a similar report listing potential targets in the US, CNN or Fox might get it wrong, too. Some Congressmen and Senators might also get it wrong and then the news would fan the wrong interpretation even further. People read reports through their own corrective lenses, filtering out the caveats and conditions and amplifying things that they like or hate. The challenges in removing counterforce doctrine in US nuclear war planning lie not in Russia or elsewhere; it is in Washington, DC. Analyzing hypothetical body counts in any foreign country will not be taken well by that country, however well-meaning the original intentions are. If you do not believe it, just think about how a Chinese general’s comments on hypothetical war scenario in Taiwan has been interpreted in the US. Many people who have doubts on China’s NFU so eagerly use his comments as hard evidence that China is going to abandon NFU in a crisis.

    If one really wants to interpret the Russian reactions, one would argue that perhaps some Russians in power do not want the US to abandon counterforce. If that happened, Russia would be under great political pressure to negotiate with the Americans about “a world free of nuclear weapons”.

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