Strategic Havoc
No. 1 2010 January/March
Sergei A. Karaganov

Professor Emeritus
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Academic Supervisor;
Council on Foreign and Defense Policy
Honorary Chairman of the Presidium


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Last year was quite eventful in military-strategic terms. Russia and the United States remained locked in tough-going talks over strategic arms reductions. The odds are they may soon deliver a treaty. Then there will follow a no easy period of ratification in the United States. The Republicans in the Senate will do their utmost to strip Barack Obama of this sign of success in the sphere of disarmament that the U.S. president had declared a priority. The more so since, as everybody knows, Russia has not made any major concessions – in contrast to the previous rounds of strategic arms cuts.

Nor has there been any “resetting” of Russian-U.S. relations – something a future treaty, if the official version is to be believed, was expected to help bring about. The chances of such resetting at some future date look very slim. Even in case the treaty is signed and successfully ratified, one can hope for nothing more but a further drift of Russian-American relations to normal, for a slightly warmer “Cold Peace.”

That the degree of distrust remains high was seen in Russia’s response to yet another noteworthy development of the past months on the military-strategic front.


First, the United States ditched the Bush Administration’s plans for placing a radar in the Czech Republic and a dozen or so interceptor missiles in Poland, which, in theory, might have been used against Russia’s strategic forces. Those plans had invited a shower of criticism from Moscow, although similar missiles that have been deployed in Alaska have proven their inability to intercept anything more serious than targets flying along a path well-known beforehand. It looks like they were a sheer waste of money, the previous Administration’s sacrifice to its own fanatical obsession with the idea of having an anti-missile umbrella overhead.

Pragmatic Obama and his very pragmatic Defense Secretary Robert Gates stopped toying with this scheme – not because they wished to make something nice for Moscow, or to “reset” relations with it. They just decided against pouring more money down the drain.

Pretty soon the U.S. Administration came up with its plans for creating and putting in place by 2015 some new interceptor missiles. As follows from what has been written and said about them so far, they will surely be designed to intercept not strategic but intermediate-range missiles. Hypothetically Iran may have these missiles some day, and the future interceptor missiles will be expected to down the still hypothetical Iranian weapons.

The interceptors may be stationed in Romania and Bulgaria. The weak and dependent leaders of these two countries have already declared with enthusiasm that the future weapon systems will be highly welcome. But they can have no idea of what exactly they are saying YES to.

Moreover, the Americans have declared that this new regional missile defense system of the future will be complemented with the Aegis ship-based BMD.

The news the American are planning to have a new missile defense system deployed in two countries in Southeastern Europe has raised many eyebrows in Russia. No official in Moscow had received any advance notice, contrary to the original promise not to take any unexpected moves.

In the semi-official expert circles some began to speculate that a future new system would be far more dangerous to Russia than the original one, designated for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic. Such fears were voiced even though the new plans are still nothing but sheets of paper, and the chances they will materialize look vague. Moreover, we do not have any intermediate-range missiles for these interceptor missiles to intercept. As for similar interceptors that have been operational in Japan for sometime already, they have never caused any fears in Russia in the past. Yet the Americans continue to be suspected of crafty designs.

I believe that a large segment of the expert community will get still more suspicious when it has leafed through the open version of the missile defense overview that the U.S. Department of Defense made public in February. True, it declares the intention to drop plans for some, most ineffective of the missile defense systems that have been researched into. Vague hints are made at the possibility of cooperation with Russia on missile defense issues. But the very same report contains some statements so inadequate and so openly aggressive that just reading them leaves one gaping for breath. For instance, the overview maintains that the missile threat has been growing quantitatively and qualitatively, and that this trend will persist. This is said at a time when the Russian missile potential has undergone tremendous reductions over the past decades. And one cannot but throw up hands in bewilderment at the news that the list of missile threats to the United States mentions other countries’ efforts to better the protection of their own missiles from a pre-emptive strike. At a certain point, Russia’s Security Council Secretary came under plenty of fire for just raising the question if it might be a sensible idea to consider a defense concept envisaging the possibility of a pre-emptive attack. The very same Americans who were quick to join their voices to that chorus of criticism now say in a very matter-of-fact way that the possibility of a pre-emptive strike is part and parcel of their own policy.

I will not bother the reader with further technical details or tell more scare stories about weirdly-sounding statements one can hear from the Pentagon, especially as the overview and the declared plans are not worth a lot, at least for now. The way I see it, both are intended to woo that part of the U.S. political elite that got furious over the Obama Administration’s decision to call off the deployment of strategic missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic; also they are expected to intimidate the North Koreans and, what is still more important, the Iranians, who have come close to acquiring nuclear capability and been testing – rather unsuccessfully – their own intermediate-range missiles. (It remains unclear, though, how a missile defense system can deter Iran. If some regime in that country or terrorists ever lay hands on nuclear arms and have an idea of using them in an aggressive scheme, say, for intimidation, missiles will hardly be their delivery vehicle of choice. It will be far easier for them to try to deliver the nuclear charge to the selected destination on board some ship.)


The strange things about the latest military and strategic innovations are many, indeed. Here are some more.

To sugar the pill Poland had to swallow when it heard the humiliating news a missile defense system will not be deployed in its territory after all (and that happened after so many years spent on persuading Warsaw to agree to display solidarity with Big Brother America), that country was promised several air and missile defense systems of the older generation – the Patriots. The Poles said they wanted to have them for protection (a very ineffective means of protection that one would be) from the Iskander missiles Russia had promised to bring to its westernmost exclave region of Kaliningrad in retaliation for deployment of a strategic missile defense in Poland. Gone are the missile defense plans. There will be no Iskanders in Kaliningrad, either. But the Patriots will be delivered anyway. What for is anyone’s guess.

The farther in, the deeper. In early February, the foreign ministers of Poland and Sweden – Radoslaw Sikorski and Carl Bildt – co-authored an article in which they urged Russia to withdraw tactical nuclear arms from regions neighboring the European Union, including the Kaliningrad Region – where there are none of them.

Nuclear warheads might have been used to arm the Iskander missiles, but there will be no Iskanders in the region now. Also, the two foreign ministers suggested entering into negotiations with the aim of either eliminating tactical nuclear arms altogether, or removing them from Europe. In their scheme of things for Russia it might be a good idea to take those arms to some place in Asia – to “improve” relations with the great neighbor in the East – China. Even before the publication of this article a call for eliminating all nuclear arms from Europe, including the remaining two hundred U.S. nuclear bombs still present in four European countries and Turkey, came from Germany’s new ruling coalition of the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats. The latter party is an arch foe of nuclear power as such. Also, it is pressing for a reduction of the German presence in Afghanistan. To prevent this from happening, as well as to rule out early closure of the still operating nuclear power plants (this would be a very unbeneficial development for Germany, should it take place) Chancellor Angela Merkel – in a bid to please her coalition partners – came out in support of the demand for removing the remaining nuclear arms from Europe.

In response, Western strategic planners voiced concerns over the risk of a further military-strategic rift between Europe and the United States, and also about the possibility the “new Europeans” – in case U.S. nuclear support starts wearing thin – will demand reinforcement of the conventional forces and their redeployment closer to Russia’s borders. This is a quite logical supposition to make, if one proceeds from the twisted logic the entire strategic debate keeps following.

On the excuse of ruling out such scenarios calls have been made for entering into negotiations with Russia right away on the reduction and eventual elimination of tactical nuclear warheads. The advocates of such proposals are saying that the United States has far less such warheads than Russia. According to different estimates the United States has 1,200, including 500 combat-ready pieces, and two hundred of these in Europe. Russia, as follows from unofficial sources (no official statistics are available by tradition), has 5,400 warheads, including 2,000 combat ready ones, most of them in Europe.

The net effect of such “disarmament talks” is easy to guess. First, there will surface a “tactical nuclear gap” (surprise! surprise!) in Russia’s favor. Then there will follow a shower of criticism. Russia will be accused of outdated mentality – in the best case, or of aggressiveness – in the worst. There have been some charges of the sort already. And also calls for unilateral cuts to equal levels, to zero, or by proportionate shares, say, by half. Russia would be expected to rid itself of a thousand warheads, and the Americans, of one hundred. If so, the Americans will still have a hundred warheads in Europe they will never need for any military purpose anyway. As for Russia, a large share of the warheads in question would be very vital – as a politically realistic deterrent of extra-European threats, and as a psychological compensation for NATO’s superiority in conventional forces in Europe. The more so, since NATO has already shown one and all at least once how it may go about the business of handling someone unarmed and defenseless. It did so when it bombed Yugoslavia. And then the United States and some of its allies invaded Iraq, thus proving that without a proper deterrent even the most good-natured and friendly defensive alliances of democracies may degrade into aggressive ones.

If formal strategic arms reduction talks ever get underway, another Pandora’s Box will be unlocked and ever more threats, though not necessarily very real ones, will emerge from it. And they will certainly make the already intricate situation still worse, and many more specters of the past will start roaming around.

As a matter of fact, quite a few of such specters are roaming Europe already. They show up here and there and everywhere in the guise of agile and well-groomed retired old-timers, nostalgic about the days of their political youth. Some of them may suddenly discover a Russian threat in the Arctic and urge the emergence of an Arctic NATO. Others may spot it in the energy sphere and promptly call for an Energy NATO. They may turn a blind eye to such obvious things as Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia, but at the same time they accuse Russia of aggression and annexation. And they demand a come-back of military deterrence that was much in use in the good old days when they were young, especially as the NATO is in feverish search of a new official doctrine. The alliance’s expansion tactic that filled the vacuum for the past fifteen years has run against Russia’s firm military NO, and the attempts to give the alliance the job of the global policeman have suffered an obvious setback in Afghanistan.

In fairness, one has to admit that we, too, have our own old-timers, not so well-groomed ones, though. Here, too, they can raise support from a large share of the younger generation, scared of its own incompetence, non-competiveness and of a rapprochement with the West. Or, the other way round, eager to go ahead with unbridled piracy, in defiance of the code of conduct everybody there is expected to follow.


These mosaic pieces are not the only ones that make the general picture look so complex and intricate. An influential segment of the Russian expert community shares the idea of a resumption of talks over a reduction of conventional forces in Europe. This is precisely what their Western counterparts have been calling for all the way. These calls are issued in spite of the fact that in the past such talks merely fanned mutual fears and brought to the forefront a very artificial and as harmful idea of a balance (equality) of forces in Europe and the sub-regions. That idea contradicted any military, political or historical logic, but at the same time it created and reproduced the fear of a military threat. If such talks ever get underway again, yet another Pandora’s Box will be opened up. In Russia, many will start yelling about NATO’s multiple supremacy in conventional forces and demanding an end to the military reform, which is already re-orienting the armed forces from confrontation with NATO in Europe to providing flexible responses to any types of threats. They ignore the fact that NATO has proven its inability to wage large-scale military operations, that it has suffered a political loss in the war in Iraq, that it is fighting a losing battle in Afghanistan, and that it is threatening Russia only with the very instance of its expansion, which has already led to the military conflict in South Ossetia.

The tiny neighboring states like Georgia or the Baltic countries would be pointing to “huge Russian supremacy” over them and demanding counter-measures. As a result, the already observed trend of European politics towards re-militarization will receive a powerful boost.

The latest edition of Russia’s military doctrine that came out in early February added to the general strategic confusion. I truly respect the experts who contributed to formulating the doctrine, and the President, who put his signature to it, but it cannot but produce a very strange impression.

Not because the nuclear part is ostensibly aggressive. In fact, it sounds even milder than the previous version. The reason is its vagueness and, in some places, literally unintelligible contradictions. Still worse, it is in stark contrast with the real reform that is underway in the Armed Forces, i.e. there is a glaring discrepancy between the official theory (doctrine) and official day-to-day practices.


And now the last but very telling detail to this incomplete and somewhat eclectic picture of strategic fantasies and havoc of the past few months I have been trying to piece together.

Nearly three years ago four outstanding theorists and practitioners of U.S. foreign policy, two former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shutlz, former Chairman of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn, and former Secretary of Defense William Perry, published an article with a call for setting a specific goal of ridding the world of nuclear arms and for launching a massive campaign in support of Nuclear Zero.

That invitation aroused caustic sneers: “Those Americans are calling for Nuclear Zero only because they want to make the world absolutely vulnerable to their supremacy in conventional forces.” My own response to the call was that of respect. I know those people and I am certain that their train of thought could not be so primitive. For the sake of trying to rid the world and their successors taking the high posts they had occupied once themselves of the tormenting moral dilemma – that of threatening to kill millions in order to prevent war, and being determined to act on their threats, should a war be started, and for the sake of stopping the world’s slide into nuclear arms proliferation, those intellectuals and politicians in their autumn years dared put their reputation at risk. Throughout their lifetime each of them worked for the cause of nuclear deterrence, and, consequently, for the U.S. nuclear potential. Now they have called for an end to reliance on nuclear deterrence, because it is immoral and unreliable.

The movement for complete nuclear disarmament was set in motion. I must confess that yours truly, when approached by some very respected colleagues of mine, agreed to sign the call for Nuclear Zero. Although I am still certain that nuclear arms saved the world from a third world war when the Cold War was raging. They keep saving us today, although not so reliably as before, when the world, with its kaleidoscopic changes in the lineup of forces, dwindling controllability of international affairs and confusion of the public mind is probably in a situation as bad as the one that existed in August 1914, on the eve of World War I. I am saying again – I do believe that the human race, whose faith in God is waning and whose belief in Hell is gone, very much needs nuclear deterrence as a modern equivalent of the Sword of Damocles that will not let it plunge the world into an inferno again. (World history offers quite a few examples of how resourceful we, humans, can be in this respect.) Although I do agree that nuclear arms are inhumanly immoral.

U.S. President Barack Obama proclaimed movement towards Nuclear Zero, towards a nuclear weapons free world, as the official goal of U.S. policy. Many other leaders could not but offer their backing, for otherwise they would run the risk of being looked at as immoral reactionaries. Russia’s president and prime minister welcomed the call, of course.

Three years after that first article, in January 2010, the very same quartet of authors published another essay. On the face of it, they looked committed to the Nuclear Zero rhetoric, as before, but at the same time they called for greater spending on the reliability and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear potential and on updating its infrastructures.

I have had no chance yet of having a word with any of the highly respected senior colleagues. But I can point to two reasons why they issued this new call. Firstly, it is their concern over the under-financing of the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the past few years and its lower effectiveness. And, secondly, the awareness of the fact that the Genie is out of the bottle and on the loose and that nobody is in the mood of repudiating nuclear arms. After the two political defeats – in Iran and Afghanistan – U.S. non-nuclear supremacy can no longer convince, let alone scare anyone. The United States will have to preserve, if not increase, its reliance on nuclear containment. Or deterrence, if one is to resort to the political vocabulary of yesteryear.

Shortly after the publication of the quartet’s latest article there followed a declaration by U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden to the effect that spending on support for and upgrading of the U.S. nuclear potential is to go up. Biden’s standard role in the current administration is that of “the herald of bad news.”

In general, one cannot but have the impression that all this flirtation with Nuclear Zero is almost over. So any debate over this catchphrase will look twice as hypocritical.

* * *

What sort of conclusions can I offer to the reader on the basis of this incredibly diverse and controversial mosaic I have tried to put together?

First, the world-class strategic players, including the main one – the United States – are getting ever more confused and dismayed as they lose the old bearings only to find no new ones. For this reason it would be very wrong to see a threat behind any move, often taken on impulse – a threat of the sort many of us seem to have suspected behind the rather far-fetched plans for creating and deploying U.S. regional missile defense systems in countries like Romania and Bulgaria.

Second, the old-time Cold War stereotypes have not disappeared; on the contrary, they live on and tend to grow stronger. This is so largely because in the post-Cold War period its legacy failed to be eradicated.

The Cold War is still on. Europe is split. And the seeds of that poisonous legacy are beginning to germinate. That legacy almost caused a farce-like replay of the Cold War in the autumn of 2008. Tensions have been played down, of course, but a fundamental improvement of the situation is nowhere in sight.

Third, efforts to clear Europe of the Cold War legacy must be redoubled. This goal can be achieved by a new European security treaty, a package of treaties, or Russia’s admission to NATO and fundamental transformation of that organization.

Fourth, time has been wasted, and the proliferation of nuclear arms has begun. India, Pakistan and North Korea have gone nuclear and got away with it. Still earlier there was Israel. And unprovoked attacks against Yugoslavia and Iraq prompt any country in its right mind, whenever it finds itself in a precarious geopolitical situation and at the same time has sufficient financial resources, to try to acquire nuclear arms. The question is how to control and restrict this process.

Fifth, there exists a major risk the very same tools that were once used to effectively start and maintain the Cold War will be employed with the aim to bring it to an end. A variety of so-called ‘disarmament talks’ is an example.

One should steer clear of the resumption of any talks over a reduction of conventional forces and armaments in Europe and the beginning of talks on tactical nuclear arms. If those forces are to be reduced, then the best way of doing that will be through unilateral steps and other confidence-building measures. The Pandora’s Boxes of disarmament must stay tightly sealed.

Sixth, at a time when the military-political situation in the world is getting ever less predictable, the reform of general purpose conventional forces should be accelerated, their quality improved, their mobility and flexibility increased and their readiness to respond to any threats ensured. And, what is most important, conditions should be created for improving the human resources of the Armed Forces. And what we should certainly avoid is backtracking, increasing the duration of conscription, curtailing the reform politically and psychologically and thereby burying the hope for having an effective general purpose force. In the meantime, there have been calls for extending the term of conscription again by some senior officials and experts.

Seventh, Russia will be forced to increasingly rely on nuclear arms in its military-political strategy to prevent major conflicts, to deter proliferators and conventional arms buildups in pursuit of supremacy, to curb the arms race in the sphere of missile defense in order to make it senseless, and lastly, to preserve its political status in a situation when the country’s economic positions will get weaker due to the failure of attempts to upgrade society and the economy over the past few years. To this end, Russia will have to carry out a fundamental modernization of its nuclear potential and reduce, if possible, the tactical component of this potential.

And eighth, opportunities must be explored for maintaining security through joint efforts, first and foremost, with the United States, and even by creating a military-political alliance with it. True, the American side, even the super-progressive (by U.S. standards) Obama Administration has shown no real signs of readiness for joint efforts. But it is worth trying. And it is worth seeking concerted action with China – a third major, and so far mostly tacit, player in the world military-political scene. Regrettably, the military-political scene seems to be regaining much of its previous importance for the international agenda.