Prevention vs Punishment
No. 1 2002 December
Vladimir Dvorkin

Head of Research, Center for Strategic Nuclear Forces, Major General (Ret.).

What is to be done with countries “suspected” by the world community of being potential developers of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)? Should a wait-and-see attitude be adopted, letting political and economic sanctions do the job (even if such sanctions have already proved ineffective), or should a “preventive treatment” be applied by means of preventive strikes? In seeking an answer to this question, which in recent years has become an object of growing concern for politicians throughout the world, one must take into account the new situation that has taken shape in the wake of the emergence on the international stage of transnational terrorist organizations.

It is evident that the growing number of countries that possess weapons of mass destruction and effective delivery vehicles, increases the risk of their unauthorized (accidental) or even large-scale use in regional conflicts. As distinct from the traditional members of the nuclear club, the newcomers have no experience in developing and applying concepts of nuclear deterrence, nor did they participate in the process of developing systems of control and sanctions for the use of nuclear arms.

Nuclear arms and missiles which find or may find themselves in the hands of new owners have a very low margin of safety. To be sure, these countries are not conducting a sufficient number of field tests – in particular regarding the control and guidance systems; a consequence of this may well be substantial deviations in missile flight trajectories and the hitting of unintended targets on foreign territories.

This danger will increase manifold if transnational terrorist organizations backed by totalitarian regimes obtain weapons of mass destruction. These organizations, moreover, become sustainable structures only thanks to support from the so-called problem states which play host to centers, laboratories and camps for equipping and training fighters, manufacturing weapons of mass destruction and providing medical and recuperation facilities for terrorists. Usually, Iran and Iraq are referred to in this context as “suspect” countries.

In Iran, a missile armament program has been in the process of implementation since the early 1980s. Currently, the main emphasis there is on setting up an infrastructure to produce medium-range ballistic missiles. The aim is to build up a most powerful missile capability by 2010-2015. It is an aim that is facilitated also by Iran’s cooperation with China and North Korea. The capacity of the assembly line that turns out the Shahab-3 missiles (range up to 1,000 km) may reach 100 rockets a year.

In Iran, the IAEA inspectors did not find nuclear weapons or basic components for their manufacture (this, however, does not exclude their development in the foreseeable future, or the development of chemical weapons). The possession of atomic energy facilities is objectively conducive to nuclear arms development by Iran – from the viewpoint of both access to materials and technology and the building of its own intellectual capacity.

Apart from confronting Israel and containing the U.S. threat, Iran has regional stimuli, such as confrontation with a real nuclear power (Pakistan) and with potential nuclear rivals (Iraq and Saudi Arabia). It is not out of the question that if the struggle against Islamic extremism in the Caucasus and Central Asia is stepped up, ideology may overwhelm geopolitics in Iran, thus turning Russia into a target for Iranian nuclear missiles and an object of political and military confrontation.

If international control becomes any weaker, Iraq is capable of developing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction quite quickly. It could also restore its missile potential by reanimating frozen programs, such as the Tammuz-1 missile (flying range up to 2,000 km) or a perspective ballistic missile of similar range but with a bigger warhead load. By 2015, apart from fixed launchers, Iraq may be able to add to its armory from 10 to 20 mobile launchers. The purchase of North Korea’s No-dong-2 and Taep’o-dong-1 missiles is not excluded either.

It is hard to venture to use nuclear arms even for the most odious dictator – if only for fear of a devastating retaliatory strike. Yet, if international forces undertake vigorous actions to topple the ruling regime, the cornered ruler is liable to do anything. This is why the time factor becomes vitally important – is it really worth waiting until the dictator actually takes hold of a weapon of mass destruction?

The question is especially relevant given the fact that regimes supporting international terrorist organizations offer them an opportunity to prepare for actions on any scale and, as long as they wish, resort to any ways and means of gaining an influence and using any type of weapons of mass destruction. This is why defense capabilities will always lag behind offensive potential.

A nuclear terrorist act is possible anywhere today. Nuclear-charged weapons carriers on railway, air, water and land transport vehicles, as well as nuclear production and utilization facilities, are all potential targets for terrorists. Another group of such targets includes fixed and mobile installations designed to produce, store, process and utilize nuclear fuel, including plutonium, uranium, deuterium, tritium, among others. In their sights also would be ore mining and dressing facilities, reactors, radiation sources, chemically hazardous installations with thousands of tons of chloride, ammonia and acids of all kinds, oil refineries and fuel depots. To trigger off a catastrophe equal in scale to the catastrophic use of WMD it is sufficient only to disrupt a vital technological process or engineer some kind of explosion at such a facility. And there is no longer ground to doubt that terrorist organizations are also ready to use their own weapons, including “dirty” nuclear bombs, chemical, bacteriological and other such weapons.

The array of methods for countering this threat is similar to the choice of actions that can be taken against problem states – ranging from relatively passive and slack holding or blocking operations to preventive military intervention.

For Russia, the choice is especially hard primarily owing to its internal difficulties. A part of the Russian elite believes that in the current tough situation (economic difficulties, demographic problems, corruption, the unsettled Chechen conflict, and so on) Moscow should not be overconcerned by problems of regional instability, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles, or international megaterrorism. Within the belt of instability, Russia has no overt foes among the problem countries that possess or seek to possess WMD (including guided missiles) and back terrorism. Terrorists in Russia are largely home-bred. This is why, some reason, it is quite possible to refrain from any vigorous activity and wait instead until the country’s economy is restored, meanwhile doing all possible to foster the implementation of international nonproliferation treaties and agreements and support the fight against international terrorism politically.

Another part of the Russian elite holds that there is no alternative to a policy of military-political and economic integration with the West if the country is to be restored, and that Russia should extend cooperation with the West in settling all security problems, including an uncompromising campaign against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles. Above all, this pertains to the problem countries with totalitarian regimes that are, or are potentially capable of assisting international terrorism.

The first scenario looks attractive. But the trouble is that the emergence of unpredictable catastrophic situations (for example, those that may ensue following any attempt to settle a regional conflict by force) cannot be excluded, even in the foreseeable future. It is hard to disagree with the U.S. warning that the situation that has developed following the end of the Cold War is as unpredictable as ever. The wait-and-see policy is tantamount to establishing a most-favored-nation regime for terrorist organizations and inviting them to commit new catastrophic terror acts. Only preventive actions by the international community can minimize that threat.

Objections against this stand stem primarily from fears aroused by an increasing U.S. global domination. Recent developments, especially in economic policies, indicate that the sole world leader is upholding its own interests in a tough manner and no one can say with certainty that it is about to reckon even with the interests of its traditional allies, to say nothing of those of its newly acquired ones. All this hinders the process of withering away of deeply rooted anti-American feelings that exist among a considerable segment of Russian society. It is hard to convince that constituency, for example, that the U.S. is securing its foothold in Central Asia with any aim other than encroaching on Russia’s interests. Equally, it is hard to convince them that U.S. policies in all spheres are strictly pro-American and egocentric, rather than anti-Russian or anti-European. In Russian society, the suspicious attitude towards the West, the U.S. and NATO will continue to prevail for a while yet, although it may wane as the economic and social situation in the country improves.

Another objection stems from Russia’s interest in maintaining economic ties with America’s most obvious foes – Iran (atomic energy and arms deals) and Iraq (long-term contracts worth dozens of billions of dollars). Generally, the opponents of the pro-Western course hold that Russia, occupying as it does a special position in-between the underdeveloped and increasingly radical regions, and the world of the prosperous nations, should try to balance between them, reaping whatever benefit from that balancing act. One should not forget, however, that by wishing to please everyone, one often ends up in being of no use to anyone.

What is to be done, then? Should Russia continue sitting on two chairs or should it stop confining itself to political declarations and respond to new global challenges by real military-political integration and closer allied relations with the West?

It should be noted here that alliance with the U.S. does not mean following obediently in the wake of U.S. policies – look at contradictions over a wide range of problems that frequently arise between leading NATO countries. In itself, the West is not homogeneous, and this offers an opportunity to choose a model of allied relationship while simultaneously rigorously upholding one’s national interests. But an independent policy requires long-term strategic planning, rather than sporadic dashing about in the attempt to reap some temporary benefits. There is a need for a long-term policy based on the military-political and economic integration of Russia and the West, and this means moving away from the entrenched thinking that eventually we will be cheated. Such a policy may include programs of cooperation in various fields, such as joint development and use of strategic and non-strategic ABM systems, outer space information systems and other projects. Such programs would be conducive to confidence building and serve as a guarantee against any rolling back to confrontation. But, even if there is political will and the relevant decisions are taken, the implementation of these kinds of programs will require overcoming bureaucratic inertia and resistance both in Russia and America.

But is a long-term anti-terrorist strategy possible in principle, given the fact that the U.S., Europe and Russia differ markedly on the question of problem regimes? Indeed, is the strategy needed at all? Who knows, maybe nothing similar to the September 11th tragedy will ever happen again?

Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar justifiably deem it necessary to set up a multilevel global coalition against catastrophic terrorism. It is better to overestimate the danger than underestimate it. One cannot but agree with Senator Lugar: however monstrous the September 11th tragedy may be, the resultant devastation and panic will look insignificant compared to what might be caused by a weapon of mass destruction. According to Senators Nunn and Lugar, a program of joint action by a global coalition should be geared to resolving a wide range of problems in order to prevent terrorists from getting hold of WMD. This involves tighter non-proliferation regimes, improved systems of control over the storage and transportation of nuclear, biological and chemical materials, preventing the brain drain and establishing and observing world-class nuclear safety standards.

Obviously, setting up a global coalition is a protracted and complex process – if, of course, it is not accelerated by international terrorism. The U.S. and Russia could be the nucleus of such a coalition for they have the biggest experience in developing weapons of mass destruction, their delivery vehicles and defenses against them, as well as relevant systems of control and communication. Both countries have suffered greatly from terrorism. For these reasons Russia and the U.S. could well become centers of stability on their continents, and rally around them most of the democratic countries.

It is high time to admit that by relying merely on defense measures it is impossible to eliminate the threat of using mass destruction weapons by totalitarian regimes – especially those adhering to radical Islam – and put an end to transnational terrorism. No country, however rich it may be, can be guaranteed against all known methods of attack, to say nothing of those that are harder to predict. This is why the most effective strategies are preventive actions against problem countries; and these include disarming them, provided that sufficient and relatively reliable information points to their possession of WMD and to their backing of international terrorists.

What is needed is not only a reaction to the irreparable damage caused by terrorist acts, but also concerted preventive actions aimed at forced disarmament, a change of ruling regimes and ex-territorial neutralization of the terrorist strongholds. It is impossible to win a total victory over terrorism, but reducing the level of its threat to an “acceptable” minimum, which would exclude any large-scale catastrophes, is a most pressing task of the international community. To achieve it, international terrorism should primarily be deprived of the support extended to it by totalitarian or failing regimes.

The system of international law, including the UN Charter, is not fully fit to address this problem because that system was formed decades ago; today it does not correspond to new global challenges and needs to be adjusted – a task involving lengthy work and international terrorists will hardly wait until it is completed. They must be rebuffed decisively today. A forceful counteraction need not necessarily involve a large-scale military operation against individual totalitarian regimes. For example, prior to the UN Security Council discussion on Iraq, thirty U.S. authoritative independent analysts suggested that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction could be liquidated by way of “coercive inspections.” They suggested that inspections should be accompanied by international air-mobile combat units in any chosen region at any facility and at any time with no time limit. When found, prohibited facilities are to be disassembled or destroyed. Such coercive inspections could be backed up by modern high-tech instrumental reconnaissance and an international force deployed near the Iraqi border.

The suggested measures can well be applied to the inspection of the training bases and strongholds of international terrorist organizations – and not only in Iraq. It should be noted that international consensus is needed to achieve the goals of the “preventive treatment.” However imperfect the legal foundation of the world order may be, maximum efforts should be made to ensure that preventive strikes are carried out on the basis of UN Security Council resolutions and a coordinated position of a broad international coalition. Unilateral moves may result in developments that will be far away from the set goals – deep cracks may appear in the united anti-terrorist coalition and this will play primarily into the terrorists’ hands.

The experience of the anti-Taliban campaign shows that the U.S. can hardly do without Russia in carrying through counter-terrorist operations. To be sure, no other country near the belt of instability possesses such a huge political and military-technological potential. Essentially, Moscow has ample grounds to become Washington’s full-fledged ally in the uncompromising struggle against new threats. Sitting in a trench trying to adjust oneself to rapid changes in relations with undemocratic regimes has no perspective. All the more so as there are solid grounds to expect that, following a change of ruling regimes in problem countries, Russia will establish more stable and no less beneficial relations with them.