Nuclear punditry can be a dangerous game

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In an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, the US-based journal, Keir Lieber of the University of Notre Dame and Daryl Press of the University of Pennsylvania lay out results of calculations according to a model they have developed. They show that the US has developed nuclear capacity sufficient to launch a strike guaranteed to wipe out Russia and China, without the risk of suffering a return strike.

They also provide a detailed explanation for Russian and Chinese leaders of the purpose of America’s anti-missile defence system. The system is not about preventing the threat of attack from “rogue” nations, they argue, but rather, about enabling the US dramatically to reduce the risk of a nuclear counter-strike by Russia and China after a nuclear attack by the US.

America is a free country and what these two authors wrote in their article, entitled “The Rise of US Nuclear Primacy”, is their business. The trouble is, when addressing such a delicate issue, it would be good to understand the responsibilities that go with it.

I am a professional economist who once headed the government of a nuclear state, and I have some expertise both in models and nuclear weaponry. When I read passages about how US cruise missiles launched from B-52s would “probably” be invisible to Russian air-defence systems, I am struck by the word “probably”. My question is: if the authors’ guess about the invisibility of these weapons turns out to be wrong, to whom do they plan to explain the reasons for their mistake?

The world came closest to nuclear war in 1962, in the Cuban missile crisis. At the time, dramatic events were occurring within 60 miles of the US coast. US military planning was based on the assumption there were no Soviet tactical nuclear weapons on the island, as supported by data from the CIA and US military intelligence. Just a reminder: these events took place in a country nearly 155 times smaller than modern-day Russia. Acting on its hypothesis, the US drew up plans for bombing and invading Cuba. Only 27 years later was it discovered that, at the time, more than 100 Soviet tactical nuclear charges were already in Cuba. Anyone who knows their cold war history might envy the authors’ confidence in their complete understanding of how the potential enemy organises its nuclear forces and control systems. Once again, the authors enjoy an indisputable advantage – if proved wrong, no one would be left to tell them.

All this could be labelled as mind games, if not for the critical international consequences. There are plenty of Russians who have a similar global vision and believe that the US is preparing its capability for a nuclear strike against Russia. However, the publication of such ideas in a reputable US journal has had an explosive effect. Even Russian journalists and analysts not inclined to hysteria or anti-Americanism have viewed the article as an expression of the US official stance. As China is more closed, it is harder to gauge the authorities’ reaction, although I fear it may be similar.

Since Soviet times, I have disliked the word “provocation”. But if someone had wanted to provoke Russia and China into close co-operation over missile and nuclear technologies, it would have been difficult to find a more skilful and elegant way of doing so. Soviet military planning rested on the concept of the “return-counterstrike”. That meant if a threat from an enemy arose, a Soviet nuclear strike would follow. The chances of a comeback for this doctrine are stronger now – which will hardly help strengthen global security.

Over the past few years, I and many colleagues have fought for Russia to maintain a sound economic policy amid high oil prices. Russia’s Stabilisation Fund, into which windfall oil taxation revenues have been paid, constituted one element of that struggle. Now I fear the battle is lost. It is not hard to guess where the resources from this fund will now be directed.

The world is confronting a serious challenge associated with Iran’s nuclear programme. The united stance of the US, Europe, Russia and China is a key prerequisite if we are to deal with this challenge. In the circumstances, mutual suspicion of nuclear strike preparations form the worst backdrop for such co-operation. Were I an Iranian leader, I would have paid a handsome fee for such an article.

When you are provoked, it is important to keep cool and look at who is trying to get you to lose your temper. Let us hope that Russian and Chinese leaders will have enough common sense to understand this.

The writer, former prime minister of the Russian Federation, is director of the Institute for the Economy in Transition

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