A dedicated band of anti-arms controllers, led by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, sought to foil President Ronald Reagan’s pursuit of nuclear arms reduction treaties with Moscow. One tactic was to publish charge sheets of Soviet treaty violations. For example, the Kremlin constructed a large phased array radar in the interior, instead of the periphery of the Soviet Union, where it belonged under the ABM Treaty. Threat inflation turned this radar and Soviet air defense programs into a comprehensive, game-changing, master plan to build national missile defenses. This didn’t happen when the Treaty was in force, and it hasn’t happened since its demise. The Soviet Union also blatantly disregarded the provisions of the Biological Weapons Convention. Other perceived violations relating to nuclear testing were subsequently disproven by intrusive monitoring. The largest category of transgressions related to treaty provisions that Washington sought but that the Kremlin cunningly refused to accept.
Critics of arms control rallied around these reports. One was finalized just prior to President Reagan’s first summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva. On November 18, 1985, while Reagan was en route to the summit, the Washington Post ran a front page story written by Walter Pincus headlined “Weinberger Urges Buildup over Soviet Violations.” The story cited a private letter from Weinberger to Reagan, accompanied by an eleven-page summary of the latest compendium of Soviet treaty violations, warning that “current and future Soviet violations pose real risks to our security and to the process of arms control itself.” The letter’s purpose was to dissuade Reagan from seeking new treaties by reminding him of the Kremlin’s premeditated, systemic “policy of treaty violations.”
Some concluded that Weinberger, who didn’t accompany Reagan in Geneva, or someone else in the Pentagon, leaked this material to sabotage the summit. Anti-arms controllers might well have wanted these documents — which were not only unclassified, but also lacked “for official use only” markings — in the public domain. But they didn’t leak them. I did. They were sent to me by someone who didn’t work at the Pentagon, and I passed them along to Pincus.
Reagan couldn’t have been pleased about the timing of this leak, but he was on Weinberger’s wavelength – at least with respect to treaty violations. In his very first presidential press conference, Reagan characterized Soviet leaders as having “openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat.” Even so, Weinberger and Perle were unsuccessful in steering Reagan away from pursuing ambitious nuclear arms reduction treaties.
These ambitions are now in short supply. No-one mistakes Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. New treaties seem unlikely any time soon, but this hasn’t stopped the usual suspects from taking blocking actions and gnawing away at useful cooperative practices with Moscow. True, the Kremlin is back to its old tricks, unhappy with the treaty negotiated by Reagan and Gorbachev. Missile flight tests that either circumvent or violate the INF Treaty’s provisions warrant tweaks in Pentagon programs; Putin’s annexation of Crimea warrants more than tweaks.
In my view, Putin’s actions provide more than sufficient reason to cast off the fixed pursuit of deficit reduction in the United States. US friends and allies have always taken cues about Washington’s resolve by looking to the Pentagon’s budget, and continued shrinkage invites more trouble abroad. Reversing this trend in applicable, non-pork barrel, and non-nuclear ways would send useful signals. This would require making new deals on Capitol Hill over defense and domestic spending, reassessing political orthodoxy, and having the White House do some heavy lifting. If these requirements continue to be in short supply after this fall’s election, they would provide further evidence, if more were needed, of Washington’s deep dysfunction.
What punishments make the most sense in response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea? How about a one percent reduction in Russia’s economic growth? Capital flight? A lowering of ratings to near-junk bond status? A weakened currency? The drying up of foreign direct investment? Economics is not my strong suit, but these seem like these meaningful measures, and more economic penalties appear likely. Putting in motion and implementing a five-to-ten year plan to substitute US for Russian natural gas exports to Europe seems like a no-brainer.
What punishments don’t make sense? Messing with cooperative US-Russian practices that continue to serve US national security interests. Cooperative aerial overflights under the Open Skies Treaty, as discussed here previously, certainly fall into this category. Messing with collaborative efforts on nuclear security is another.
The Nunn-Lugar CTR authority has ended, and continued cooperation with Russia’s Ministry of Defense will be hard to resuscitate. The United States has made significant investments in upgrading security at Russian nuclear weapons storage sites. It would be wise to seek collaborative sustainment of these upgrades, which were given impetus by President George W. Bush and Putin at the Bratislava summit in 2005. Work on these security upgrades managed to survive Russia’s military action in Georgia.
In 2003, the Bush administration also negotiated a new, fifteen-year framework agreement to allow for security upgrades at Rosatom facilities. Some on Capitol Hill now wish to predicate their continuance on reversing Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Trickle-down security upgrades at Rosatom facilities are as uneven and unreliable as trickle-down economics in the United States. US assistance with physical security and material accounting in the past have undeniably improved Russian efforts to prevent acts of nuclear terrorism. There is no evidence that nuclear security initiatives in Russia would be maintained, let alone improved, if Congressional opponents had their way, and considerable reason to conclude otherwise. Much of this work is done by the US nuclear labs, which would be penalized by their supporters on Capitol Hill if nuclear security programs with Russia were stopped.
Why take aim at collaborative steps to reduce nuclear dangers and cross-border tensions, especially when bilateral relations are deteriorating? Caspar Weinberger’s arguments were not convincing to President Reagan. Will they now be convincing to Reagan Republicans?