On Sound Treaties

Pavel Palazhchenko served as chief Russian translator for some of the most crucial events in modern history, including many Soviet-US arms control negotiations. He was, and remains today, a close aide and interpreter for Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.

By Pavel Palazhchenko | 2020-04-01 12:00:00

Sound treaties are agreements elaborated and signed in good faith, based on realistic understandings of the interests of the parties involved. Such treaties often retain their importance and influence even after they, for some reason or other, are no longer in force and legally binding.

I can cite three examples of sound treaties—the ABM Treaty, the INF Treaty, and the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the so-called Iran nuclear deal).

I was directly involved in INF negotiations, but let me start with the ABM Treaty.

Both the US and the USSR were working on the idea of ballistic missile defense since the early 1960s. The premise was this: if one can shoot down aircraft with anti-aircraft weapons, one should also be able to build weapons to shoot down ballistic missiles.

The idea was crazy from the very beginning, not only because ballistic missiles fly at much higher speeds than aircraft, but also because the cost of failure of anti-aircraft defense cannot be compared with the massive damage resulting from the penetration of an ABM system by even a few ballistic missiles.

Nevertheless, both sides were proceeding with these projects, while the Americans were publishing or conveying to us through various channels information that they were at a more advanced stage than was really the case. The Soviet leadership considered ABM a good thing, because it was a “defensive, not offensive weapon,” and therefore not subject to any limitations. This is how Soviet Premier A.N. Kosygin put it after meeting with President Johnson at Glassboro in 1967\. In the USSR, chief designers Kisunko and Chelomey developed their rival concepts of ABM defense. Chelomey, a talented and ambitious person, called his proposed system “Taran” (Battering Ram). It was unfeasible for financial and technical reasons and therefore rejected. Kisunko’s concept was partially implemented, and the system defending Moscow from a missile attack still exists, though mostly as a “monument.” The basic idea is that the enemy’s incoming missiles will be intercepted by detonating nuclear warheads at a certain altitude.

Strategic Defense Skepticism

When the USSR and the USA started talks on strategic weapons with the participation of ranking Soviet generals who had real influence on decision-making, the parties rather quickly reached an understanding that, first, offensive and defensive weapons were interrelated, and, secondly, that the only possible use of anti-ballistic defenses of those days would be to intercept highly unlikely accidental or unauthorized launches.

The ABM Treaty limited ABM systems to two sites for each party; later, an additional protocol reduced that number to one site for each.

In the early 1980s, I got to know and respect Lt. General Nikolai Nikolaevich Detinov, who was a member of the Soviet delegation at the INF talks. A person of outstanding intellect and technical knowledge, he understood better than many how monstrously costly the arms race was. It was with his active participation that the program of the “ABM defense of the national territory” was abandoned.

When Ronald Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative, Detinov regarded its prospects with great skepticism, as did most scientists. Unfortunately, our reactions then and later were not optimal, but the fact is that the program never reached the stage of real testing and deployment.

In the early 2000s George W. Bush abrogated the ABM Treaty. Russia’s reaction was extremely sharp at the propaganda level and more moderate at the level of government policy. One of the reasons was the conviction of our politicians that “we are better off with Republicans,” even though the record of the past 25 years or so offers no proof of that, not to mention the fact that in general it is better to do without such dogmas.

But what is more interesting is the question: did the US withdrawal from the treaty have serious consequences? Did an arms race begin in space or at least on Earth? It did not, and, judging by the budgetary allocations and known plans and projects, it will not begin in the foreseeable future. The reason is that the conceptual foundation of the treaty that has been relegated to history remain strong and stable, and it looks unlikely that they could be somehow abolished.

The same is to a large extent true of the INF Treaty. I have worked at the initial, unsuccessful talks on this issue, held in 1981-83, from the beginning to the end. At any talks, a deadlocked situation, especially if it continues for months and years, exhausts the participants and may even demoralize them if they really care about the outcome. So, no one was happy with the collapse of those talks. But we did manage to clarify some conceptual issues, which would help reach an agreement later when the political situation changed.

Setting global limitations

First, the parties came to a common understanding that land-based missiles in Europe, especially ballistic missiles which required a very short time to reach their targets, were dangerous and could destabilize the strategic situation by increasing the probability of war in case of crisis. Secondly, there was understanding that the mobility of those missiles required global limitations on their numbers. Third, both the USSR and the USA understood that it was unrealistic to raise the issue of nuclear weapons belonging to third countries due to their limited numbers and the impossibility of a balance that would “include all”. Finally, no one ever mentioned Cuba at those talks: there was no desire not just to repeat the experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but even to recall it.

The abrogation of both the INF and ABM treaties turned out to be more political than military moves, aimed at demonstrating that the US would feel more comfortable in a world where no factors, including treaties, would constrain its freedom of action. But the fact remains that the conceptual arguments against real deployment of INF weapons, especially ballistic missiles, are very serious, and at this point there are no signs of the beginning of a serious race in this sphere. (I am not discussing the question of Russia’s actions here, since I think that, whether American allegations concerning the 9M729 missile were justified or not, that particular issue could have been resolved). Our main concern, of course, is whether intermediate-range missiles will be deployed in Europe. I don’t think they will be. The arguments mentioned above remain firmly embedded in European minds.

As far as the JCPOA is concerned, it is also a political issue for Donald Trump. He thinks, like some American politicians and experts, that the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program should have been used to change Iran’s behavior in the region. In my view, if the issue had been posed this way, the talks would not have even started. The result achieved by the Obama administration — putting rigid, strict and verifiable limitations on Iran’s nuclear program, which was frozen and partially abandoned — looks bad to Trump simply because “this is Obama”. The American walkout from the deal made the situation more complicated and less predictable, and then the winter crisis which no one really wanted exacerbated it further. Still, the deal has turned out to be resistant to damage.

Don’t Trust, Don’t Verify?

I should note that the US and Israeli concerns about the Iranian nuclear program have always been somewhat exaggerated. I recall a meeting Mikhail Gorbachev had with Henry Kissinger during one of his visits to the US in the late 1990s or early 2000s. The meeting was attended by Ambassador Frank Wisner, an expert on this matter. The Americans were interested in Gorbachev’s opinion about chances of a dialogue with Iran. Of course, Gorbachev said that the Iranians were ready for a dialog, and that was borne out by subsequent events. The dialog, in and of itself, helped slow down Iran’s nuclear program, and all these years, it has never presented an “existential threat” to Israel. If it had, Israel would have struck at any really dangerous sites without a second thought, as it has done at least twice in the past.

What has happened after the US dropped out of the Action Plan? Iran has stayed in it. It has not taken any substantial steps toward intensification of its nuclear program. The suspension of some parts of Iran’s obligations (not the most important ones, except the number of uranium enrichment centrifuges) remains on paper so far. The main limitations — above all, those having to do with the configuration of the Arak nuclear reactor, which in its past version could have been used to produce weapons-grade plutonium — are still in force, as are the information sharing regime and the IAEA inspections.

In reality, the Iranian nuclear deal is in everybody’s interest, even if it may not suit somebody’s political interests. The current “alternative” — huffing and puffing and foot-stomping — is bad enough, but not the worst that could be imagined. I hope we’ll never get to the worst. And, if the political situation should change, it won’t be difficult to restore the limitations. JCPOA is a robust, well-built structure which continues to work and which can be successfully reset.

Ronald Reagan liked the Russian proverb “Doveryay, no proveryay” (Trust but verify). Today’s situation looks like “Don’t trust, and don’t verify”. I think that we should at least verify.

Translated from Russian by Sergei Plekhanov

Peace Magazine April-June 2020

Peace Magazine April-June 2020, page 6. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Pavel Palazhchenko here

Peace Magazine homepage