Russia's propaganda explains to its citizens that one of the main reasons for Russia's current "Crimean–Ukrainian" policy is the need to respond to the challenge posed by the West, which is attempting to trespass on Russia's vital interests. According to this messaging, the West doesn't take Russia into account; the United States, circumventing the United Nations, interferes in all local conflicts; NATO, under U.S. leadership, is constantly expanding eastward, not only admitting the Baltic States, but also turning its attention to other former Soviet republics; It is imperative to rebuff this outrageous conduct, and thus to reinforce Russia's military-political security.
We asked Professor Vladimir Dvorkin, a retired major-general and leading military expert on these issues, to explain what is actually going on with Russia's security at present.
General Dvorkin is the former director of the Fourth Central Research Institute of Russia's Ministry of Defense (1993-2001) and one of the authors of policy statements on Russia's strategic nuclear forces and strategic missile troops. He served as an expert during the preparation of the SALT II, INF, START I, and START II treaties. Currently, he is a leading associate at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
— In your view, how has Russia's security environment changed since the annexation of Crimea and the start of the "hybrid war" in southeastern Ukraine? Has Russia become more secure?
— I am a military professional—not a politician—so I can comment primarily on Russia's military security. Its military security—in terms of direct threats—has not been affected either by the annexation of Crimea or by our involvement in southeastern Ukraine.
Military security must be assessed in terms of potential scenarios that might undermine it in one way or another. What are such scenarios? I did not take into account scenarios involving relatively minor conflicts—such as, for example, the Georgian war—since no local wars at Russia's borders can directly diminish its level of security. To some extent, such conflicts might demonstrate our capacity to conduct local military operations, but on the whole they have no influence on security.
What other scenarios might we consider? That NATO would take military action against Russia? Such a scenario is inconceivable since Europe and NATO have no security interests that might cause them to take preventive action against a nuclear-armed Russia.
— What if there's a threat of aggression against a NATO member state? Such apprehensions can be heard in the Baltic countries and in Poland.
— I don't think that today any scenarios with "little green men" in, say, the Baltic states are possible. It may be that someone is considering such scenarios, but in the context of sanctions and isolation, it's unlikely that the Russian leadership would take such a step. I took part in the last Munich Security Conference—the discussions there were hard to believe. I've never heard so many attacks, rebukes, criticisms of Russia, coming literally from all sides. Under such circumstances, to expect Russia to take further actions in other countries is, for me, an inconceivable scenario.
— A little over a year ago, that which is taking place between Russia and Ukraine also seemed inconceivable.
— That's true. It's unlikely that anyone could have predicted such a course of events. But I'm talking about a threat to Russia's military security, and I repeat that I see no realistic scenario of aggressive action on the part of the United States or NATO against our country. I also see no readiness to engage in analogous actions on Russia's part.
— But might not there be a dangerous escalation of the conflict, which would increase unpredictability and lead to a loss of control over the way events unfold? And in an atmosphere of propagandist psychosis and militaristic rhetoric, this might lead to the brink of war.
— If the situation in southeastern Ukraine doesn't get resolved for an extended time and if the Minsk agreement isn't fulfilled, then an escalation of the conflict is possible. Other forces from the Ukrainian side will become involved, and this will be followed by increased support for the separatists on the part of Russia. What would this lead to? It would certainly result in increased bloodshed in the region. But would it lead to a direct collision between Russia and NATO? I don't envision such a scenario. But dragging out the conflict in the southeast with new destruction and casualties? Yes, that's possible.
— And consequently, growing isolation, the severing of contacts between Russia and the rest of the world…
— By the way, despite the complicated environment, contacts in the realm of space exploration have been renewed. Five launches of Dnepr space launch vehicles are now scheduled from Russian launch sites. Dnepr is a version of the Voevoda heavy missile—modified for space launches—which up to now has been part of our strategic missile forces. It was developed and manufactured in Ukraine, although some of the technology and the launch facilities were made in Russia. The Zenit space launch vehicle is a purely Ukrainian rocket, which will continue to be launched at Baikonur. Currently, Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye Design Bureau in Dnepropetrovsk and Khartron in Kharkov have no permission to take part in designer supervision and to extend the service life of the Voevoda heavy missile.
Yet the launches of Dnepr space launch vehicles are also indirect extensions of their storage life, because Dneprs are launched on rockets that have already completed their service life.
— I have the impression that Western countries, despite their tough stance on Russia's policies toward Ukraine, are ready to seize on and try to expand any positive opening in the current nightmare of mutual misunderstanding. An agreement was reached on Iran and immediately the State Department made an announcement about Russia's "constructive role." Polish citizens were airlifted from Yemen on a Russian plane, and this was followed immediately by expressions of gratitude. In other words, they're trying to hold on to any inkling of conversation and cooperation. Is this correct?
— Well, yes. By the way, there was a big article by William Burns, who is now the president of the Carnegie Endowment. He has vast experience in government, served as a deputy for several secretaries of state and as ambassador to Russia. He said that the U.S. cannot completely cut itself off from Russia: Russia is too big a country and it influences very many international processes. As an example, he cited the Prague START treaty. It remains in effect. Inspectors continue making visits and carrying out checks. On both sides, mutual information exchanges about the condition of armaments, their movements, and new designs continue. He also listed Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and North Korea as countries where the U.S. and Russia hold similar positions. He said: We cannot ignore Russia.
— Let's go over several separate questions. Cooperation with NATO: It used to exist, but has now been terminated. Correct?
— Yes, cooperation has practically completely terminated. Only the Treaty on Open Skies has been preserved. In 2014, Russia carried out 39 flights over the U.S., Canada, and Europe. There have been 35 flights over Russia.
— So are we better off because this cooperation no longer exists? Or have we lost something?
— We've lost something. We used to have up to 20 different working groups, committees, and other structures working jointly on fighting terrorism, combating piracy, conducting search and rescue missions at sea, and eliminating the consequences of accidents at nuclear sites. We also observed each other's military exercises.
Over sixteen years, we had eight command post rehearsals in ballistic missile defense with the U.S. and NATO. These were joint exercises with the participation of Russian and NATO officers which were carried out on a rotating basis in Moscow, in the United States, and in Germany (in the first five exercises, all of the NATO officers were American, but in three others, officers from other NATO countries participated as well). They worked together wonderfully in making joint plans, assessing possible threats, carrying out simulations of missile intercepts…
The last exercises took place in Germany where the officers even agreed to carry out full-scale training exercises in the future. But all of this has collapsed as Russia and NATO have severed ties.
— What was the purpose of these exercises?
— They were very important. First of all, they were useful in interoperability and in exchanging experiences. We always believed that we should take part in various joint operations, and this requires interoperability in communications, operations, algorithms, and so on. That is what was being developed. And this was useful to us, because it allowed us to understand the Americans' standard operating procedures. There were also some things we could adopt, while they assessed what we were capable of. This has now come to an end.
Information exchange and transparency—both indispensable for mutual trust—were the most important elements of these exercises. We have lost all of that. Although in the realm of nuclear issues, we have not lost it completely.
— Because the stakes are higher?
— Because the Prague New START treaty of 2010 is in effect and will remain in effect for a long time. Because of the treaty, we have absolute transparency. The kind of transparency that we have with the United States in this realm—the Americans don't have it with the French and not even with the British.
— So there's no threat of a new Cuban Missile Crisis?
— No, of course not. Both sides continue to maintain predictability and transparency. This is a little off topic, but when I taught a seminar at the Rand Corporation in Washington D.C. in the mid-1990s, I was foolish enough to say that we were already almost allies and that "our relations in the nuclear sphere can be like the ones you have with Great Britain and with France." And when I said the word "France," they all jumped up and started yelling: "We don't need the kind we have with France!"
Thus, the reduction of strategic nuclear arms remains under mutual control. It is in both our and the Americans' interest to maintain all of this, because it remains an important channel of communication.
— It seems that the Ukrainian crisis has led to an increase in discipline within NATO. And also to great changes in public opinion in countries that used to be against joining NATO. I'm talking about Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. There have also been statements by Finnish and Swedish representatives about possibly entering NATO.
— This is still just talk.
— But there was no such talk before.
— I think this is a consequence of the mutual psychosis. And that's connected to the fact that all ties between Russia and Europe, NATO, and the United States have been severed. And on top of everything, the financial appetites of NATO's military leadership, Russian military leadership, and the military industrial complex are heating up. I remember how Vice President Biden concluded his speech in Munich. He said that all countries must pay for defense. Since the financing of defense budgets was constantly being reduced, the contribution of the European countries to NATO was constantly falling. Four to five years ago, Europe's defense consciousness was practically zero. Now, everyone's been heated up and the Europeans have agreed to dedicate two percent of their budget for defense.
— But we were responsible for the heating up; we were the ones who "turned on the stove."
— Yes, we did, but the Americans gladly got in on the action. They're sending their airplanes and armored vehicles to the Baltics and to Poland; they’re conducting maneuvers. We're also conducting maneuvers. And all of this is riding on a surge of psychosis. In reality, I repeat: This has no relation whatsoever to the military security of Russia and NATO.
— I have a suspicion that one of the important components fueling the psychosis on our side is the desire to implement enormous rearmament programs, which only two years ago met with serious criticism from many Russian experts and certain politicians. Just recall how they were criticized by Kudrin, who was then still a member of the government. Now, given this pervasive military madness, the conditions for increases in military spending…
—… have become extremely favorable. Although the difficult economic situation has affected military programs.
— Were they cut?
— Not exactly cut, but their implementation deadlines have been extended to beyond 2020.
— Actually, the need to increase military spending, the need to rearm, was being seriously discussed long before the Ukrainian crisis. But without a "foreign threat" and a corresponding domestic mobilization of society, it was more difficult to implement reforms. Now, it's easier. But might these programs undermine our economy, which has entered a turbulent period as it is?
— You see, our military industrial complex and Defense Ministry have very clever, successful lobbyists. Meanwhile, there's no system in place for filtering out all these programs at the top. No one today can make an informed assessment about the efficacy of developing one or another major system and gauging its indispensability from the point of view of balance of powers and our security interests.
— In other words, there are no advisory councils?
— Not just advisory councils (though they would be a sheer blessing). But there aren't even any competent people at the top who can assess all this. In the Soviet Union, for example, we had the State Committee on the Military Industrial Complex. It was made up of people with a deep knowledge of all these technical and political details. These were people who, when you talked to them, you had to use your intellect to its fullest capacity. They defended the interests of the cause; if necessary, they fought and acted against Ustinov, the powerful defense minister. They didn't always succeed, but they did many things very sensibly and correctly by filtering out requests from all important general secretaries and other members of the Politburo. Now, nothing like this exists.
— In other words, everything comes straight up to the level of the president’s administration?
— If not directly to the president.
— So what if we now get pulled into another arms race?
— In the nuclear sphere, we have to adhere to the Prague START treaty. But we're unable to attain the levels that have been set. According to the latest data, we have only now caught up with the Americans in terms of warheads; both we and they have approximately 1600. But in terms of delivery systems, we're far behind and trying to catch up. So we're not talking about any kind of race here. Admittedly, a new expression has appeared in our doctrine: "non-nuclear deterrence." In this respect, of course, the Americans are far ahead of us—at least ten or fifteen years.
— You're talking about precision-guided munitions?
— Yes, exactly. Here, we have some catching up to do.
— That requires a lot of money and a high level of technological knowledge.
— Naturally. And there's an extreme shortage of it now. A great deal has been destroyed.
— In logistics, in personnel?
— In logistics, in personnel, in education, in technological expertise. It has been destroyed by the military and by industrial organizations. There have even been cases when the tactical-technical demands of the defense ministry didn't comply with the laws of physics and mechanics. The professional qualifications to work on these issues have fallen as low as they can go. And this has happened at all levels, from the bottom to the very top. And this is a collapse that can't be rectified in a year, in two years, or even in five years.
You know, during the crisis of 2009, I listened a great deal to the leaders of various countries, and all of them spoke in very interesting and similar ways about priorities in handling the crisis. Their first priority was education. Those who teach must be taught much better, and those whom they teach must be taught better as well. That was their first priority. The second priority was ecology. The third was technology. And only the fourth was security. I repeated this everywhere, wherever I could. And I said that we have ruined our education just by introducing the Unified State Exam, thanks to which even humanities students at Moscow State University now make dozens of mistakes.
— In explaining our official position on Ukraine by the need to counter American expansion, one important argument is the Americans' European missile defense system. Has something changed in this respect because of the Ukrainian crisis?
— The situation in Ukraine has not affected European missile defense programs or the global missile defense programs in any way. That's not the point. An analysis of all the studies carried out on the subject both by us and in the United States makes it possible to draw an objective conclusion: No missile defense system is capable of defending a country from a massive strike. A massive attack is not even thousands, but hundreds of missiles. A defense with a high probability of success can be mounted only against a single launch or a small group launch, three to five missiles. For this reason, I repeat as often as I can that European missile defense and global missile defense can in no way undermine our nuclear deterrence capability. Therefore, arguments about European missile defense and about missile defense in general exist only in the political sphere.
— So that's just propagandist nonsense?
— Something like that. But all political, diplomatic games must still be based on some kind of material foundation. They cannot go against the laws of physics, mathematics, and mechanics. And in that respect, we got carried away in our game a long time ago.
— How do you assess the Iran agreement?
— That is undoubtedly a success. I think that Iran was very close to developing a nuclear weapon. The construction of a nuclear warhead—its mechanical design—can be carried out in isolation from all nuclear facilities. It can be assigned to any design office, any institution. And without any control. And I'm almost certain that they have already developed all this and the only thing they were missing was weapons-grade uranium.
One can produce weapons-grade uranium, at least for one warhead, relatively quickly. And all the timelines that were set—several months, a year—were all realistic. Moreover, I'm not convinced that they have no weapons-grade uranium at all; they could have easily bought it or stolen it from somewhere. Why else are they afraid to disclose this fact?
No one has ever announced the possession of a nuclear bomb before testing it. Not Russia, not Great Britain, not France, not China, not India, not Pakistan—no one has ever done this. And the Iranians realize that as soon as there is reliable evidence that they have nuclear weapons, Israel won't be able to tolerate it and will carry out a strike against their whole nuclear infrastructure. And because Iran will respond in some way, at least with their combat-ready mobile missiles, the Americans, of course, will intervene. Various possible scenarios of such a war have been studied for a long time; it's a war that won't only be limited to the destruction of nuclear infrastructure facilities.
— Yes, the risks are enormous.
— The Iranian leadership understands quite clearly the risk of what will happen once it gets out that they have nuclear weapons.
— Going back to our main topic, I'd like to say this: I think that the greatest consequence of the Ukrainian crisis has been the damage to the trust between Russia and the West.
— I'm not linguist and cannot offer an interpretation of the word "trust." I believe that it is a crucial component, but I can assess it only abstractly, as something that influences all areas.
— So where there are vital strategic interests connected with the nuclear balance, the mechanism of trust seems to have been preserved—because it's closely connected with mutual control and transparency, which have also been preserved. But in other areas the mechanisms of control and transparency have been lost, which would therefore mean that there's no trust there, correct?
— That's exactly right. In the area of general purpose forces and nonstrategic nuclear weapons, there's no transparency, which means that it's impossible to make predictions about the situation and its prospects. There's only information from national monitoring agencies, above all those connected with space. Call it what you like—trust, distrust. For me, the terms "control," "transparency," "verification"—all of them refer to certain specific actions, documents, and commitments. But I'm not against the word "trust." It's a good word.
— What can be done now to get out of this dead end that we're pushing ourselves into? For example, the endless, politicized debates about European missile defense?
— For me, cooperation on European missile defense is a very important point. It's what would make it possible to move away from "mutual deterrence," a concept which has long become absurd because countries that cooperate on missile defense are in effect already allies. Cooperation is far more important to us than the repulsion of any explicit or implicit threats. And by the way, I recently came back from the United States, where there's a joint program going on between the National Academy and the Russian Academy of Sciences on cooperation on missile defense. We are showing what such cooperation could bring in terms of increasing the effectiveness of missile defense on both sides. And we're looking at the possibility of using a unified space system by 2020.
— Well, for that to happen, the situation would have to get defused.
— Nonetheless, we're working on this issue. We have to prepare the soil, lay the groundwork on all the issues, because otherwise all continuity and experience will be lost. We cannot lose what we prepared in the areas of strategic arms reduction, control over tactical nuclear weapons, and missile defense. We have preliminary studies and concrete proposals about what should be done in these circumstances. We can't abandon this endeavor; after all, the current crisis will come to an end at some point.
— The important thing is that the psychosis that we talked about doesn't scorch the last remaining pockets of reason.
— I approve of you placing this sentence at the end of our conversation.
This interview originally appeared in Russian in Novaya Gazeta.