US Misses Putin’s Nuclear Message


AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. In a speech last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that upgrades to his country’s nuclear arsenal would render US missile defenses, “useless.” Putin showed video footage to preview new hardware, including an intercontinental ballistic missile and drone submarines. Putin said that Russia has no plans to be an aggressor but will respond to any attack.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Translator): Any use of nuclear weapons against Russia and its allies, small or medium or any strength will be perceived as a nuclear attack on our country. The response will be immediate and with all due consequences.

AARON MATÉ: In his comments, Putin also cited the recent US Nuclear Posture Review, which lowers the threshold for nuclear use, calls for expanding the US arsenal and names Russia as a key target. He also faulted the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. Putin said that move has eroded the global arms control efforts, which he called for reviving. At The White House, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Russia is in fact violating its treaty obligations.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Russia has been developing destabilizing weapons systems for over a decade in direct violations of its treaty obligations. President Trump understands the threats facing America and our allies in this century and is determined to protect our homeland and preserve peace through strength. US defense capabilities are and will remain second to none and now, because of the new defense budget of $700 billion, our military will be far stronger than ever. As the President’s Nuclear Posture Review made clear, America is moving forward to modernize our nuclear arsenal and ensure our capabilities are unmatched.

AARON MATÉ: So, in the aftermath of Putin’s speech and Trump’s recent Nuclear Posture Review, what does the future hold between these two nuclear armed powers? Well, joining me is Theodore Postol, Professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy at MIT.

Welcome, Professor Postol. There’s been a lot of discussion about Putin’s speech last week. Many saw it as a dangerous sign to the world to nuclear security. What is your takeaway from his comments?

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I wonder who the many, I mean, what you’re referring to, but the press coverage was really terrible on this speech. It really didn’t get at any of the fundamental underlying issues that must be addressed by both Russia and the United States. Basically, what he said, and incidentally I should say, that he laid out a factual historical statement prior to talking about these new weapons. There is nothing that is even mildly spin with regard to those facts. Those facts are absolutely solid and nobody who knows their history could dispute any of the statements he made about the facts. So, his interpretation, we can talk about. But basically, what Putin said is that the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002. He pointed out that in 2000, two years before that, United States was already talking about withdrawing from the Treaty and that the Russians were arguing against the wisdom of doing that, very strongly, that none of the things that the Russians said influenced the United States and we withdrew from the treaty in 2002. He then points out that the Russians continued to try to get some kind of discussion on missile defense going with the United States. I was actually a firsthand witness to some of this because I have been involved in analysis of missile defense systems for quite a few years. And he correctly and accurately stated that every proposal that Russia had, every one of them, and he emphasized that and I emphasize that, was just simply dismissed by the United States.

So, his position is simple. He says the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty. It is working on missile defense systems. These missile defense systems have the appearance of a role of being used to defend against a Russian attack after an American nuclear attack on Russia that would be aimed at destroying the bulk of its nuclear retaliatory forces, and he doesn’t think that’s a good thing. He thinks it’s very dangerous and he doesn’t believe the United States could successfully do it. But he intends to make it clearer and clearer through the development of new weapon systems that it will not in any way, either theoretically or otherwise, be possible for the United States to get away with this kind of scenario.

Now, it may not be that the United States, whatever that means, the United States is interested in this kind of a scenario but there are certainly people in the US government and elsewhere who seem to think that this kind of a scenario is a possibility that we ought to be planning for. And Putin is worried about that, and he’s made it clear that “Don’t try. I don’t want any trouble, but don’t try it because we will respond.” and that’s basically his message.

AARON MATÉ: But surely he must have known that a speech like this, where he’s previewing a new arsenal, would then prompt those in the US who favor expanding the nuclear arsenal here to use that to expand it even more. So, if that’s the case, why then showcase this brand new arsenal?

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, first of all, he said something in this speech, not in just a sentence but elaborated on it, and something he said before. What he said was basically, “No matter how much I explain that there is a problem here and I try, or we, the Russians, to try to talk to the Americans, it’s basically never, there’s no response. The Americans don’t seem to understand anything we say to them. They don’t acknowledge what we say to them, and they don’t respond to what we say to them. So, we have no choice but to do what we need to do to discourage the Americans from thinking they can get away with certain kinds of things.” He was very clear about that, and then-

AARON MATÉ: All right, Professor-

THEODORE POSTOL: So-

AARON MATÉ: All right. Listen, on that front, let me ask you then. I think it would be helpful to explain the significance of the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002. That’s a decades-old treaty established in the early ’70s, based on the concept of mutually assured destruction, in which the US and Russia can only place missile defense systems in one region. Russia had it near its capital. The US had it around North Dakota. The Bush administration withdrew from that. Why was that so concerning to Russia, and so concerning that Putin felt compelled to mention it in his speech?

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I think he used language that actually the Americans have used to describe the ABM Treaty as the cornerstone of stability, of nuclear stability. The reason the ABM Treaty was originally put into place in 1972 was because both sides, Russia and the United States, were trying to limit the spiraling upward growth in the numbers of nuclear weapons in both their arsenals. Both sides agreed that this was a bad thing, that it was going to lead to instability, increase the chances of an accident that could lead to nuclear war and just generally be a tremendous cost and danger to both parties.

They agreed that they wanted to limit the number and even reduce the number of nuclear weapons on both sides, but the ballistic missile defense activities of both sides were also a concern of each side. The reason is is that if I build a missile defense, even if it’s not very capable, you will always have some uncertainty in your mind about how well it might work and you will tend, because so much is at stake when you talk about nuclear deterrents, you get overwhelmingly strong forces to increase the size of your nuclear force to offset the fear that this defense might work better than you might otherwise believe. And each side has this reaction. Each side looks at the other and has this tremendously powerful incentive or concern that leads internal forces in each country to lobby strongly for increasing the size of their nuclear arsenals.

So, both sides said, “Well, these defenses really don’t offer enough protection to save either of us from the mortal consequences of a nuclear war, so let’s just limit them. We take that out of the equation so that if I reduce the size of my nuclear force, I’m not worried that the United States could take advantage of it or vice versa because there’s no defenses to deal with.” What Putin is saying is that, “Well, we, the Russians, are talking about, we’ve been agreeing to reduce our nuclear weapons along with the United States,” and the United States has been building up these fantastically large elements of ballistic missile defenses, of missile defenses. This creates a potential imbalance.

I should say that in an earlier statement that was quite impressive, I thought, in the summer, it may have been this last summer. I can’t be sure if it was last summer or the summer before. There was an economic conference in St. Petersburg and Putin sat down with some journalists and gave a not very well publicized interview. In that interview, he actually said he doesn’t believe the American missile defenses can work, which is quite, it shows a large, high level of understanding of their limitations and he explained why.

But then he said, and I think he was correct also, that we don’t know where this could lead, we don’t know what kinds of beliefs people could incorrectly have that could lead them to take actions that might cause an action-reaction cycle that leads to the use of nuclear weapons. And we have seen that. I mean, we have President Trump talking about ballistic missile defenses that almost everybody I know, including some pretty conservative Republicans, do not have any confidence can even defend against a small number of North Korean ICBMs.

Yet, these systems raise questions that cause the Russians to be concerned about what might happen in the future. So, the Russian reaction has simply been to say, “Okay. If you think, even though incorrectly, that these missile defenses have some capability, I’m going to show you some weapon systems that, no matter what you think, no matter how ill-informed you are about your own missile defense systems, you will be able to understand your missile defense systems can do nothing about them.” That’s the way I see the Putin’s strategy at this time.

AARON MATÉ: Right. Let me say, in comments that were not reported at all, because so much of the attention here, as you discussed earlier, was focused on this new arsenal, but Putin also said, he talked about Russia’s willingness to return to arms control talks, and I’ll quote him. He said “There is no need to create more threats to the world. Instead, let us sit down at the negotiating table and devise together a new and relevant system of international security and sustainable development for human civilization.”

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I believe him. I mean, disregarding issues of his domestic politics and his behavior with regard to his own election, disregarding that, I think he, everything he has done and said in the past, including things that resulted in Russian actions that we didn’t like, were things that he had warned about and then followed up on when we didn’t heed the warning. So, I take him as a man of his word, whether I like it or not, with regard to these issues.

AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. This is part two of my conversation with Theodore Postol, Professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy at MIT. We’re talking about Russian president Vladimir Putin’s recent speech where he announced upgrades to his country’s nuclear arsenal, calling it a response to the US withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2002, as well as the recent Nuclear Posture Review issued by President Trump. I want to go to one more clip from his speech where he’s reacting to Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review which lowered the threshold for nuclear use by the US, and this is what Putin said.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Translator): Several points of the renewed US nuclear strategy which lower the threshold of using nuclear weapons provokes great concern. You can reassure anyone in any way behind the scenes, but if we read what is written and what is written is that it can be launched in response to an attack with conventional weapons or even a cyber threat.

AARON MATÉ: So, that’s President Putin speaking last week. Professor Postol, so he’s talking there about this lowered threshold under Trump’s review which called for the authorizing the use of nuclear weapons even in response to a non-nuclear, non-military attack like a cyber attack, like if vital US infrastructure is hacked and damaged, the Trump review would authorize nuclear weapons in response to that. As we wrap, Professor Postol, your thoughts on this move by the Trump administration, and overall, where you think this nuclear competition is going under Trump in the aftermath now of Putin’s speech.

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I think this competition has been in place, in fact, as Putin said it, certainly since 2004. He actually signals 2004 as a time where there was a decision made in Russia that you couldn’t talk to the Americans and were just going to have to go ahead and build some weapons to make it clear to them that there’s no possible advantage they can gain from missile defenses. He made that pretty clear in his speech. And the issue of using low yield nuclear warheads in conventional military situations or in response to a cyber attack, first of all, I don’t know how you would know where the cyber attack came from. I think when you look carefully at the issues associated with cyber attacks, it’s so easy to conceal the true perpetrator, the identity of the true perpetrator. It would be a remarkable, remarkably reckless thing to do, to respond in any military way to a cyber attack without absolutely having the information that clearly showed you knew who did it.

And against anybody who’s even modestly competent, even some of these hackers who really are not very competent people, you can hide your address, your location from anybody you’re attacking. So, it’s kind of a crazy, thoughtless and dangerous kind of statement to be making that you’re going to use nuclear weapons or any kind of military force in response to a cyber attack unless you claim also that you have the means to determine unambiguously who was responsible for the attack.

So, it shows a kind of reckless attitude on the part of the Department of Defense people and ignorance, or ignorance, or recklessness and ignorance among the people who wrote the Nuclear Policy Review, and I’m afraid that that is evident in a whole bunch of things they say. The idea that a low-yield nuclear weapon would be seen as different from a higher-yield nuclear weapon shows a complete lack of understanding of how information promulgates in the world.

We did not even know when the World Trade towers were attacked who did the attack. I was in Washington when that attack occurred. We, at one point, did not know if there were tens of aircraft across the country or more that were going to engage in similar attacks. We had to ground the whole air travel across the nation.

This is, when something like this happens, you don’t really know what’s going on. It takes time to collect the information. You’d need to have sensors, you’d need to have the ability to evaluate the information from these sensors and that information doesn’t exist if you don’t have those abilities.

So, the fact that you could pick up a telephone and talk to somebody on the other side of the world does not mean you know who’s on the other end of the telephone and what’s really happening there. And all of this is embedded in this incredibly dangerous and uninformed position put out in this Nuclear Posture Review. It’s just hard to believe that any competent soldiers were involved, at least from my point of view. I know many competent soldiers and I think any of them would tell you immediately you never know exactly what’s going on and sometimes not ever. It’s a crazy policy.

AARON MATÉ: You know, compounding the dangers, I have to mention this. You put out a paper last year with some colleagues in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, talking about how because of the modernization program of the nuclear arsenal undertaken by President Obama, the US has increased the killing power of its nuclear weapons by a factor of three or more. Right?

THEODORE POSTOL: Right. I mean, in fact I, who have during my career, have reviewed actually real nuclear war planning because I was at the Pentagon working for Chief of Naval Operations. When I look at the situation we have today with the American nuclear arsenal, I don’t know how we’re going to use all these weapons because the number of what you might call targets, Russian ICBMs and command centers, has been reduced substantially because of arms reductions. So, the number of missiles we would shoot at is much smaller. And it turns out that these weapons that we’re modernizing are much more numerous than any of the targets we might have shot at earlier in an attempt to disarm Russia.

And because we have so many weapons that are now capable of attacking the Russian forces that were not capable earlier, we now have weapons freed up for other missions. I can’t find targets for them. I’m sure people do find targets for them, but the point is that the effective firepower of our arsenal relative to the threat we’re now facing is very, very, very large, even by these crazy, nuclear war fighting standards, which I think are crazy, that are applied in a lot of the military planning today.

AARON MATÉ: So, we have targets that don’t exist and a couple that with what you were talking about earlier, which is missile defense systems which don’t even really work.

THEODORE POSTOL: Yeah, and it’s a very dangerous situation when you have people on all sides either misunderstanding or not caring what the facts are. This comment from the White House, “We have no missile defenses that work. It’s a joke.” Now, Putin seems to understand that. So, he’s not afraid that we have a working missile defense. He’s afraid we might think we have a working missile defense because our political leadership is so out of touch with the realities of our own military capabilities and limitations.

AARON MATÉ: Okay, one last question. One thing that is commonly cited, I believe it’s even cited in the Nuclear Posture Review that was recently released by the Trump administration, is that Russia has pulled out of the INF, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. I believe that happened after the US, under Bush pulled out of the ABM. But if you could address that, what about that charge against Russia, that they’re …

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I think that’s a very unfortunate thing the Russians did. However, their argument for doing that is not ridiculous. What they have said is, “Look, you have these ballistic missile launch sites that you’re putting in. You have one in Poland and one in Romania.” Now, these ballistic missile launch sites, they’re defensive, supposedly ballistic missile defense systems, they are derived, they’re land based but they’re derived from a sea-launched system. They’re called vertical box launchers. A typical destroyer or a cruiser, a modern cruiser or destroyer has them.

They look like kind of square coffins and inside the square coffin is a missile. And that missile can be a surface-to-air missile or a ballistic missile defense missile or a cruise missile, a missile that’s designed to fly like an airplane and carry a nuclear weapon. And those launchers are designed from the beginning to be compatible with launching any type, any kind of these types of missiles. And those launchers have been put in the ground in Romania and in Poland for supposedly for ballistic missile defense interceptors. But they can carry nuclear armed cruise missiles, sea launched cruise missiles that would be launched from these ground locations.

And the Russians had been complaining about this for years, for quite awhile. And the United States doesn’t want to talk to them about it. So, the reaction was “Okay, this is a violation of the INF treaty. You’re putting a missile of long range into Europe that can attack Russia, and so we’re going to withdraw from the INF. We’re not going to follow all the terms of the INF.”

Now, I happen to disagree with that Russian decision. I think their argument is sound. Let me be clear, their argument has merit. But I think it would be better just to ignore the situation for now and just try to not allow things to escalate beyond what they’ve already done. But I want to underscore the Russian argument is not bogus and people ought to be thinking about it and addressing it.

AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Theodore Postol, Professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy at MIT. Thank you.

THEODORE POSTOL: Thank you.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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