US Misses Putin’s Nuclear Message (1/2)

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Russian President Vladimir Putin sparked a wave of U.S. media panic with a speech announcing upgrades to his government’s nuclear arsenal. But MIT professor emeritus and missile technology expert Theodore Postol says the reaction missed the real story

Story Transcript

AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. In a speech last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that upgrades to his country’s nuclear arsenal would render US missile defenses, “useless.” Putin showed video footage to preview new hardware, including an intercontinental ballistic missile and drone submarines. Putin said that Russia has no plans to be an aggressor but will respond to any attack.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Translator): Any use of nuclear weapons against Russia and its allies, small or medium or any strength will be perceived as a nuclear attack on our country. The response will be immediate and with all due consequences.

AARON MATÉ: In his comments, Putin also cited the recent US Nuclear Posture Review, which lowers the threshold for nuclear use, calls for expanding the US arsenal and names Russia as a key target. He also faulted the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. Putin said that move has eroded the global arms control efforts, which he called for reviving. At The White House, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Russia is in fact violating its treaty obligations.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Russia has been developing destabilizing weapons systems for over a decade in direct violations of its treaty obligations. President Trump understands the threats facing America and our allies in this century and is determined to protect our homeland and preserve peace through strength. US defense capabilities are and will remain second to none and now, because of the new defense budget of $700 billion, our military will be far stronger than ever. As the President’s Nuclear Posture Review made clear, America is moving forward to modernize our nuclear arsenal and ensure our capabilities are unmatched.

AARON MATÉ: So, in the aftermath of Putin’s speech and Trump’s recent Nuclear Posture Review, what does the future hold between these two nuclear armed powers? Well, joining me is Theodore Postol, Professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy at MIT.

Welcome, Professor Postol. There’s been a lot of discussion about Putin’s speech last week. Many saw it as a dangerous sign to the world to nuclear security. What is your takeaway from his comments?

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I wonder who the many, I mean, what you’re referring to, but the press coverage was really terrible on this speech. It really didn’t get at any of the fundamental underlying issues that must be addressed by both Russia and the United States. Basically, what he said, and incidentally I should say, that he laid out a factual historical statement prior to talking about these new weapons. There is nothing that is even mildly spin with regard to those facts. Those facts are absolutely solid and nobody who knows their history could dispute any of the statements he made about the facts. So, his interpretation, we can talk about. But basically, what Putin said is that the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002. He pointed out that in 2000, two years before that, United States was already talking about withdrawing from the Treaty and that the Russians were arguing against the wisdom of doing that, very strongly, that none of the things that the Russians said influenced the United States and we withdrew from the treaty in 2002. He then points out that the Russians continued to try to get some kind of discussion on missile defense going with the United States. I was actually a firsthand witness to some of this because I have been involved in analysis of missile defense systems for quite a few years. And he correctly and accurately stated that every proposal that Russia had, every one of them, and he emphasized that and I emphasize that, was just simply dismissed by the United States.

So, his position is simple. He says the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty. It is working on missile defense systems. These missile defense systems have the appearance of a role of being used to defend against a Russian attack after an American nuclear attack on Russia that would be aimed at destroying the bulk of its nuclear retaliatory forces, and he doesn’t think that’s a good thing. He thinks it’s very dangerous and he doesn’t believe the United States could successfully do it. But he intends to make it clearer and clearer through the development of new weapon systems that it will not in any way, either theoretically or otherwise, be possible for the United States to get away with this kind of scenario.

Now, it may not be that the United States, whatever that means, the United States is interested in this kind of a scenario but there are certainly people in the US government and elsewhere who seem to think that this kind of a scenario is a possibility that we ought to be planning for. And Putin is worried about that, and he’s made it clear that “Don’t try. I don’t want any trouble, but don’t try it because we will respond.” and that’s basically his message.

AARON MATÉ: But surely he must have known that a speech like this, where he’s previewing a new arsenal, would then prompt those in the US who favor expanding the nuclear arsenal here to use that to expand it even more. So, if that’s the case, why then showcase this brand new arsenal?

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, first of all, he said something in this speech, not in just a sentence but elaborated on it, and something he said before. What he said was basically, “No matter how much I explain that there is a problem here and I try, or we, the Russians, to try to talk to the Americans, it’s basically never, there’s no response. The Americans don’t seem to understand anything we say to them. They don’t acknowledge what we say to them, and they don’t respond to what we say to them. So, we have no choice but to do what we need to do to discourage the Americans from thinking they can get away with certain kinds of things.” He was very clear about that, and then-

AARON MATÉ: All right, Professor-

THEODORE POSTOL: So-

AARON MATÉ: All right. Listen, on that front, let me ask you then. I think it would be helpful to explain the significance of the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002. That’s a decades-old treaty established in the early ’70s, based on the concept of mutually assured destruction, in which the US and Russia can only place missile defense systems in one region. Russia had it near its capital. The US had it around North Dakota. The Bush administration withdrew from that. Why was that so concerning to Russia, and so concerning that Putin felt compelled to mention it in his speech?

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I think he used language that actually the Americans have used to describe the ABM Treaty as the cornerstone of stability, of nuclear stability. The reason the ABM Treaty was originally put into place in 1972 was because both sides, Russia and the United States, were trying to limit the spiraling upward growth in the numbers of nuclear weapons in both their arsenals. Both sides agreed that this was a bad thing, that it was going to lead to instability, increase the chances of an accident that could lead to nuclear war and just generally be a tremendous cost and danger to both parties.

They agreed that they wanted to limit the number and even reduce the number of nuclear weapons on both sides, but the ballistic missile defense activities of both sides were also a concern of each side. The reason is is that if I build a missile defense, even if it’s not very capable, you will always have some uncertainty in your mind about how well it might work and you will tend, because so much is at stake when you talk about nuclear deterrents, you get overwhelmingly strong forces to increase the size of your nuclear force to offset the fear that this defense might work better than you might otherwise believe. And each side has this reaction. Each side looks at the other and has this tremendously powerful incentive or concern that leads internal forces in each country to lobby strongly for increasing the size of their nuclear arsenals.

So, both sides said, “Well, these defenses really don’t offer enough protection to save either of us from the mortal consequences of a nuclear war, so let’s just limit them. We take that out of the equation so that if I reduce the size of my nuclear force, I’m not worried that the United States could take advantage of it or vice versa because there’s no defenses to deal with.” What Putin is saying is that, “Well, we, the Russians, are talking about, we’ve been agreeing to reduce our nuclear weapons along with the United States,” and the United States has been building up these fantastically large elements of ballistic missile defenses, of missile defenses. This creates a potential imbalance.

I should say that in an earlier statement that was quite impressive, I thought, in the summer, it may have been this last summer. I can’t be sure if it was last summer or the summer before. There was an economic conference in St. Petersburg and Putin sat down with some journalists and gave a not very well publicized interview. In that interview, he actually said he doesn’t believe the American missile defenses can work, which is quite, it shows a large, high level of understanding of their limitations and he explained why.

But then he said, and I think he was correct also, that we don’t know where this could lead, we don’t know what kinds of beliefs people could incorrectly have that could lead them to take actions that might cause an action-reaction cycle that leads to the use of nuclear weapons. And we have seen that. I mean, we have President Trump talking about ballistic missile defenses that almost everybody I know, including some pretty conservative Republicans, do not have any confidence can even defend against a small number of North Korean ICBMs.

Yet, these systems raise questions that cause the Russians to be concerned about what might happen in the future. So, the Russian reaction has simply been to say, “Okay. If you think, even though incorrectly, that these missile defenses have some capability, I’m going to show you some weapon systems that, no matter what you think, no matter how ill-informed you are about your own missile defense systems, you will be able to understand your missile defense systems can do nothing about them.” That’s the way I see the Putin’s strategy at this time.

AARON MATÉ: Right. Let me say, in comments that were not reported at all, because so much of the attention here, as you discussed earlier, was focused on this new arsenal, but Putin also said, he talked about Russia’s willingness to return to arms control talks, and I’ll quote him. He said “There is no need to create more threats to the world. Instead, let us sit down at the negotiating table and devise together a new and relevant system of international security and sustainable development for human civilization.”

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I believe him. I mean, disregarding issues of his domestic politics and his behavior with regard to his own election, disregarding that, I think he, everything he has done and said in the past, including things that resulted in Russian actions that we didn’t like, were things that he had warned about and then followed up on when we didn’t heed the warning. So, I take him as a man of his word, whether I like it or not, with regard to these issues.

AARON MATÉ: That is going to wrap part one of my conversation with Theodore Postol. Join us in part two.