Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT

National Missile Defense and Russian American Relations

by Walter C. Uhler

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December 3, 1998 found Arizona's U.S. Senator Jon Kyl extolling the merits of national missile defense (NMD) to a large gathering of like-minded enthusiasts in Washington, D.C. Although his was a decidedly preliminary performance, designed to wet the appetite for the main event -- a pro-missile defense speech by Lady Margaret Thatcher, Kyl urged immediate steps -- perhaps first utilizing the Navy's AEGIS cruisers in a ship-based system -- to protect the entire (not just continental) United States from a missile attack by a "rogue" state, such as Iran, Iraq or North Korea.

Dramatic events during the summer of 1998 appeared to support Kyl's sense of urgency. In July, the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, headed by former and future Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, issued its recommendations to Congress. Not only did the commission conclude that, within five years, Iran and North Korea could develop missiles able to strike U.S. territory, it also found that "the threat to the United States posed by these emerging capabilities is broader, more mature, and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the intelligence community."1

Events on the ground appeared to buttress the commission's conclusions. In May, Pakistan and India had conducted underground nuclear tests. Iran flew its first Shahab 3 medium range missile in July. And, most ominously, on August 31, North Korea launched a three-stage Taepodong-I missile over Japan in an attempt to put a satellite in orbit -- leading to speculation by some analysts that it could strike parts of Alaska or Hawaii.

Senator Kyl knew quite well that the missile defense systems he advocated would violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1972. Kyl also knew that Russia, the only state possessing a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the United States, believed that the treaty remained the cornerstone of strategic stability. Nevertheless, he seemed quite willing to risk alienating Russia in order to deploy missile defense. Knowing that his words were being broadcast by C-SPAN, I sought the reason for his unconcern about Russia. Our exchange went something like this:

UHLER: Senator Kyl, I'm Walt Uhler -- with the Department of Defense. What about Russia's sensibilities concerning missile defense?

KYL: During the Cold War there were two schools of thought about how to deal with the Soviet Union. One school thought the Soviet Union should be accommodated. The other, led by President Reagan, forced the issue. We now know who was right. Like Reagan, I feel that we should explain our point of view to the Russians, but if they object, we must proceed. They eventually will come along.2

Although Kyl did not specify how Reagan "forced" the issue, it is safe to conjecture that every conferee knew what he meant. For it is an unquestioned assumption among political conservatives in the United States, and among an even a broader segment of its populace, that President Reagan's massive arms buildup during the 1980s -- especially his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, also known as "Star Wars") -- precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union.

National missile defense enthusiasts are not shy about this matter. On June 20, 2001 one of the biggest NMD cheerleaders, U.S. Representative Curt Weldon, was more explicit in an article titled, "Bush can follow Reagan's lead in policy on missile defense," published in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Congressman Weldon is the author H.R 4, which made it the policy of the United States to deploy a national missile defense.

According to Weldon, "when George W. Bush made his first visit to Europe recently, it was like a rerun of Ronald Reagan's first visit to Europe in 1982, when a new president with a new defense vision faced skittish European leaders and a hostile Russia.

What did Reagan do in the face of such opposition? He did what comes naturally to wise statesmen facing decisions of great consequence. He faced down the protests, reassured our allies, called Moscow's bluff, and went ahead." Although Weldon does not specifically identify the elements of Reagan's "new defense vision," he does assert that calling Moscow's bluff led to a "sweeping" international victory.3

Although Weldon's article attempts to connect Reagan in 1982 with Bush in 2001 on the issue of national missile defense, Reagan's famous Star Wars speech was not delivered until March 1983. True, in October 1981 the president had discussed missile defenses as a potential solution to the vulnerability of America's ICBMs.4 And it also is true that America's 1982 Defense Guidance urged the pursuit of "competitive strategies;"5 or the development of "weapons that are difficult for the Soviets to counter, impose disproportionate costs, open up new areas of major military competition and obsolesce previous Soviet investment."6 Specifically proposed was "prototype development of space-based weapon systems."7

But 1982 also was the year when the nuclear freeze movement gained great momentum. The most persuasive evidence indicates that Reagan's Star Wars speech was intended to halt that movement, to "break something new"8 that would "provide the nation with something reassuring that might stem the growth of the freeze."9

Furthermore, Weldon's historical revisionism overlooks the fact that Reagan's rhetoric and arms buildup brought the world to the edge of the nuclear abyss. The Soviet Union's KGB inaugurated Operation RYAN (Raketno Yadernnoe Napadenie), or an unduly frantic search for evidence that America was contemplating a surprise nuclear attack, soon after Reagan's inauguration.

In late September 1983 -- the year of Reagan's "Evil Empire" and "Star Wars" speeches and shoot-down of Korean Airlines flight 007 by a Soviet interceptor -- and thus when mutual suspicions were at their peak, "an Oko satellite reported that a massive U.S. ICBM launch had taken place."10 Fortunately, the duty officer, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, concluded that it was a false alarm and did not pass the warning up the chain of command.11 Unfortunately for Petrov, he was removed from his position and forced into early retirement.12

In November matters became even more serious. A U.S. - NATO exercise, called Able Archer, tested "the command and communications procedures for the release and use of nuclear weapons,"13 prompting Moscow KGB "Center" to issue a flash alert for all information indicating that the U.S. was preparing an imminent nuclear strike. This was subsequently seen to be an extremely serious matter because, "prevailing nuclear doctrine at the time held that in the face of an impending nuclear attack, the Soviets should have sought to avoid disaster by launching a preemptive nuclear attack of their own."14

Moscow did upgrade "the alert status of twelve of its nuclear-capable fighter aircraft" and "in East Germany and in Poland, Soviet forces began to prepare for a retaliatory nuclear strike,"15 lending credence to the conclusion of Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky that these events brought the Soviet Union and the United States closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis.16

A former CIA director, Robert Gates, attributed the Soviet Union's alarmist behavior to being "out of touch"17 or to their "growing desperation."18 But surely, much of the blame for this hair-trigger tension can be traced back to the reckless rhetoric and behavior of the Reagan administration. Even Reagan professed to be "perplexed but disturbed"19 by the KGB's response, and the thought that the Soviet leaders might believe the United States capable of such action "contributed to his desire for face-to-face contact with Soviet leaders."20

Thus, one might ask what, indeed, did President Reagan's Star Wars program accomplish prior to the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev on the world's stage in March 1985.. Except for the hair-trigger tension of 1983, we have Matthew Evangelista's considered conclusion that it accomplished nothing. As of March 1985, according to Evangelista, "none of the Reagan administration's expectations for the SDI's impact on the USSR had come true. There was no massive, economy-busting increase in Soviet military expenditures, no concessions on arms control, and no interest in 'sharing' SDI with the United States."21

The main thrust of the Star Wars argument, however, concerns moves made by Mikhail Gorbachev. I heard it, most recently, on June 28, 2001, when another NMD enthusiast, Robert Pfaltzgraff (Professor of International Security Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and President of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis) told a gathering of national missile defense enthusiasts in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania that Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At the end of his presentation, I rose to request evidence to support his assertion. Rather than answer me, however, the floor was turned over to Ambassador Henry Cooper, former head of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization under the elder President Bush. Cooper assured me that, based upon his personal involvement in arms control negotiations, especially with Marshall Sergei Akhromeyev, the Soviet leadership knew it was defeated when Mikhail Gorbachev failed to persuade Reagan to abandon in his SDI program at Reykjavik in October, 1986.

Adjournment of the afternoon session immediately after Cooper's response prevented further dialogue. But his history had a familiar ring to it. It had been presented in a book by Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy that Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union. And it was just as erroneous.22

First, Schweizer erroneously claims that Gorbachev's "perestroika was a consequence of Reagan policy" because "with the Reagan administrations commitment to high-technology systems such as the Strategic Defense Initiative, economic reform became a necessary evil."23 Anyone familiar with the thinking of Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov might find such an assertion to be plausible. But actual participants, such as V. V. Shlykov (Department Chief of the Main Intelligence Administration of the Soviet General Staff, 1980-88), Roald Sagdeev, former head of the Soviet Space Research Institute, and Aleksandr Yakovlev, one of Gorbachev's closest advisors, claim otherwise.

According to Shlykov, "The notion that Gorbachev's perestroika was started as a result of Reagan's Star Wars program was concocted in the West and is completely absurd."24 Sagdeev told American Sovietologist, Matthew Evangelista, that SDI had "absolutely zero influence"25 on the origins of perestroika.

When Yakovlev was asked to assess the impact of Reagan's defense spending on the new leadership, he stated that "it played no role. None....Gorbachev and I were ready for changes in our policy regardless of whether the American President was Reagan or Kennedy, or someone even more liberal. It was clear that our military spending was enormous and we had to reduce it....There have been better and smarter Presidents. I can't say that Reagan played a major role..."26

Schweizer correctly notes that Star Wars worried influential individuals within the Soviet military and the scientific community.27 In fact, in 1983 Yuri Andropov authorized the Soviet Union's ongoing investigation into potential ballistic missile defense applications to escalate from Fon-1 (advanced concept and technology development) to Fon-2 (engineering development).28 Nevertheless, some of the Soviet Union's most prominent scientists, such as Yevgenii Velikov and Roald Sagdeev, "quickly focused their attention on the dangers posed by an arms race in space weaponry, including SDI."29

A clear indication that Schweizer's effort is more a political polemic than a serious work of history can be found at the end of his book. The last chapter of his book, discounting the five-page epilogue, ends with the Reykjavik Summit of October 1986. Although Gorbachev had been in power but nineteen months at the time of this historic meeting (and had five more years of rule ahead of him) Schweizer claims that "the Reykjavik Summit proved a watershed meeting in many ways."30


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1) Bradley Graham, Hit to Kill: The New Battle Over Shielding America From Missile Attack (New York, Public Affairs, 2001) p.44.

2) Walter C. Uhler, "Misreading the Soviets," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2000, p. 69.

3) U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon, "Bush can follow Reagan's lead in policy on missile defense," The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 20, 2001.

4) Frances Fitzgerald, Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan Star Wars and the end of the Cold War (New York, Simon & Schuster, 2000), p. 519, note 197

5) Walter C. Uhler, "Misreading the Soviet Threat," The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, March 2001, p. 171.

6) Fitzgerald, p. 200.

7) Ibid.

8) Ibid. p. 203.

9) Ibid.

10) Steven J. Zaloga, The Kremlin's Nuclear Sword: The Rise and Fall of Russia's Strategic Nuclear Forces (Washington DC, Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002), p. 201.

11) Ibid.

12) Ibid.

13) Garthoff, The Great Transition, p. 138.

14) Beth A. Fischer, The Reagan Reversal: Foreign policy and the End of the Cold War (Columbia, MO, University of Missouri Press, 1997), p. 131.

15) Ibid. p. 130.

16) Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story (New York, Harper Collins, 1990), p. 605.

17) Robert M. Gates, From the Shawdows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 273.

18)18 Ibid. p. 258.

19) Garthoff, p.139.

20) Ibid.

21) Matthew Evangelista, Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War (Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1999) p. 245.

22) Beth Fischer (The Reagan Reversal, note 14) assigns much personal credit to Reagan for bringing the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion -- but not in a manner that can give much comfort to those who cite Reykjavik as the turning point. Fischer concludes that, in 1984 -- after Reagan learned how close the world came to accidental nuclear war in November 1983 -- he subordinated his hard line Soviet policy in order to pursue "cooperation and understanding." Fischer, p.142. She adds, however, "Gorbachev's role in bringing about the end of the cold war cannot be overstated." pp.145-46.

23) Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union (New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994), p. 198.

24) Michael Ellman and Vladimir Kontorovich ed., The Destruction of the Soviet Economic System: An Insider's History (Armonk, NY, M.E. Sharpe, 1998), p. 57.

25) Evangelista, p. 242

26) Aleksandr Yakovlev, The New Yorker, November 2, 1992

27) For example, "Col. A. I. Sazhin ... told a group of diplomats and intelligence officers that military officials believed the SDI system might prove 90 percent effective." Schweizer, p. 215

28) Zaloga, p. 205

29) Evangelista, p.237

30) Schweizer, p. 276

Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT, 2002