IT AIN'T OVER TILL IT'S OVER: U.S.-Russia Relations after the Cold War

Friday, May 29, 1998

Is our strategic weapons policy in line with Ronald Reagan's proclamation that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought"? Michael McFaul, Peter and Helen Bing Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, and Brian Hall, Contributor, New York Times Magazine pose the question: Is the Cold War really over?

Recorded on Friday, May 29, 1998

ROBINSON Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, "Is the Cold War Really Over?"

One symbol, the seal of the President of the United States. Throughout our history the presidency has, of course, been the most powerful office in our country. But during the Cold War, it was also the most powerful office on earth.

Another symbol, the red telephone, the direct link from the Kremlin to the Oval Office to be used during the Cold War in case of a nuclear emergency. Today, of course, in both the United States and Russia nuclear forces are being built down and as for Russia posing a threat to us, well, the Russian economy is in a shambles and the Russian military is flat, busted, broke. So the Cold War is nothing but a memory. Right?

According to our two guests, not exactly. Brian Hall is a contributor to the New York Times magazine and Michael McFaul is a Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Both believe that a weak Russia is at least potentially a dangerous Russia. And Hall in particular argues that the collapse of its conventional military is forcing Russia to rely on its nuclear weapons putting us right back on a hair trigger. So as I said, our show today is the Cold War really over?

(Red phone rings) That has to be a wrong number.


I'm an American. Our nuclear capabilities are getting better and better. The Russians' is getting worse and worse. My impulse is to raise a little American flag and wave it.

HALL Since nuclear weapons are different from any other kind of weapon and that from the very, very beginning there was this problem of figuring out how can these be usable and there isn't a good answer to that question. They aren't really usable for a whole bunch of reasons. And so we eventually settled on the idea that the utility resides in their deterrent capability. But if that really is the utility of nuclear weapons is deterrence, then you really don't want a big imbalance. Having more doesn't help you because the other guy getting weaker only stops becoming a threat when he becomes so weak he has no weapons at all. And that certainly is not going to happen in Russia for quite some time.

ROBINSON So the Russians see their weapons deteriorating. They see ours getting better and better and better. And they grow more and more skittish.

HALL Yeah.

ROBINSON The chance is greater and greater that they are going to use theirs before they become completely useless.

HALL Yeah, I mean that would be the argument but....

ROBINSON And you buy that?

McFAUL No, no I don't . The Cold War was about arms racing and nuclear arms racing and mutual assured destruction for sure. But it was also about enemies and an ideological struggle and the notion that the Soviet Union was our enemy and the Soviet Union looked at the United States as our enemy. That is no longer the case. Neither side, frankly, sees the other side as an enemy that needs to be deterred. And therefore, an imbalance of power in such circumstances are not as important as long as some sort of strategic partnership is kept in place. I mean, think about it. We have a big imbalance of power between the United States and Canada. Yet nobody is worried that we are going to go to war with Canada because of the relationship between the regimes. And that is really, I think, the key to the post Cold War order. We don't know what the future of the Russian regime is. It could turn back to a nastier situation and if the domestic politics change in Russia, then we're in the scenario and then it's very dangerous.

HALL I completely agree that as far as any kind of intentional thing now, nothing is going to happen. But if we do have a reversion where do we want to be in a strategic arms balance with Russia if there is a reversion?

ROBINSON Let me come to that. But you've raised the question of intentions. Military expansion seems to be continuing in Russia. How come? Why don't they just pack it all in and turn their energies to economic growth?

McFAUL Well, first of all, I don't take serious the notion that Russia is building up in terms of its military capabilities. Most of that stuff is on paper. If you look at what they're really doing, but you know, this is in disarray. Look at what happened in Chechnya. The Russian military went in thinking this was going to take them a matter of hours to resolve this crisis, as they called it, and two years later they left a defeated force after 100,000 people died. So the notion that this military is somehow threatening the United States in a direct way I think is ludicrous. I'm actually more concerned about the destruction and the falling apart of the Russian state and accidents, nuclear mishaps, those kinds of things, I think, are much more threatening in terms of the immediate one ...

ROBINSON Mike thinks a Russian nuclear accident is more of a threat than a Russian nuclear attack. Is that right?


The Russian military falling apart and the specter of nuclear accidents. Is that a serious danger?

HALL Accidental launch perhaps so far is not that big of a threat because the Soviet Union always had a much more centralized control over their forces than we ever did anyway. They were much more worried than we were about rogue elements within their own military so they had very good central control. They could shut down a launch from the center at any point in the process.

ROBINSON And that chain of command is still in existence?

HALL That probably still works pretty well. Again, no one is sure.

McFAUL But to the best of our knowledge we think it's still there.

ROBINSON Reassuring me immensely.

HALL But a problem that is, I think, personally, is a little bit more worrisome is that they are losing their ability and it never was very good in the first place to have a really good idea of where the missiles are coming from.

ROBINSON Coming from. Inbound.

HALL Yeah, they don't have anything like this satellite system that we do. And their satellite system is eroding for figuring out where rockets come from. Their radar installations, two-thirds of their more modern radar installations, aren't working anymore. And so, you know this incident that's often mentioned in 1995.

ROBINSON Tell me about that.

HALL It was a US research rocket. It went off the coast of Norway to study the Aurora Borealis. That's also where our subs patrol. And from there you can hit Moscow in about fifteen minutes with a ballistic missile. And we had told, or whoever the governing authority was for this missile had told the Russians that we were going to do this. Obviously, it would be stupid not to.


HALL But you know, the message never somehow worked its way through. And so this thing went up and everybody at this strategic rocket forces said what's that and they did the whole thing. They got their ...

ROBINSON As far as they were concerned they had 15 minutes to decide whether we had launched an attack on Moscow.

HALL Yeah, absolutely. And with only 15 minutes to go with a system that's not very adequate in the first place and is getting worse and worse, the actual decision time is in the 5 to 8 minute range and you know so Yeltsin had the thing open. It was the first time they actually activated this little local thing there.

ROBINSON So the button was on his desk.

HALL Yeah ... they had about two minutes to go, you know, and then they saw that it wasn't coming toward Russia.

McFAUL Can I just interrupt? Twenty years ago a similar kind of crisis might have lead to a really serious kind of outcome but nobody in Russia took seriously that there was a nuclear attack on their country because of the political situation had changed in US/Russia.

ROBINSON It was just such a weird event.

McFAUL I mean, could you imagine?

HALL To continue from this as we were talking about before. Imagine if we do revert if relations get worse. There what I make basically is that we have this opportunity which really can be looked at as a window of opportunity to try to step back mainly through dealerting schemes, getting these things off the hair trigger alert, so that if things get worse we aren't confronted with this.

ROBINSON With only minutes to decide in each situation.

HALL Because our policy is very explicitly driven. In the 1994 nuclear posture review a big element of that is that the Clinton administration did. A big element of that is that Russia might revert. And how do we approach that possible reversion?

ROBINSON Russia might revert. Could Russia revert to its Communist past becoming an enemy of ours once again? There are those in Russia who advocate just that.


ROBINSON Alexander Lebed, former general, is now considered a front runner to succeed Boris Yeltsin. So far as I can tell, he would be by American standards, borderline looney. The reading I've done on him suggests that he sees the United States as an opponent, not an ally, but an opponent of Russia. That he wants to reintegrate the former Soviet satellites into the Russian motherland. This sounds like a very nervous-making guy. And he is the front runner for the President. So, aren't Americans right to retain thousands of nuclear weapons and to be extremely cautious about the notion that Russia might revert quite quickly into a nasty regime?

McFAUL Two points first on Lebed and then your question about what should the response be. First of all, we don't know what he'd be like as a President of Russia. The fact that he's an unknown scares me as well. I've seen the guy perform several times and...

ROBINSON He's an unknown. You'd put it as neutrally as that. He's not... I mean I've seen quotations that his utterances sound a little bit wild.

McFAUL Well, he's said things as extreme as NATO expansion is the equivalent of World War III. And he's also said NATO expansion doesn't matter a hoot in Russia. Unlike most other people in Russia. In many ways, he's much more sees NATO as not a big deal in Russia today. Speaking in New York he talks about that we want foreign investment from America and we can't do it without you. Speaking on Kresnyov where he just became governor, he talks about exploitation from the West. So he's all over the board. Not alike a lot of politicians throughout the world, by the way. Depending on what audience they're speaking to. But, so, the first thing is don't hit the panic button because Lebed is a front runner in the electoral race. In my opinion, it is much more important that they have the election and they institutionalize the democratic process and it's less important who is the next President of Russia.

Secondly, why is Lebed a candidate in Russia? It's because of the failure of liberalism in Russia. Right? This integration, let's be like the West, let's be market oriented and democratic oriented. Liberalism is a bad word in Russia today and so those that are opponents of the regime, those that say I am going to offer an alternative, protest what is happening today are rising up as a consequence of that. So, it's in many ways the failure to make this integration move that we're now facing.

ROBINSON And that's in part our fault?

McFAUL I think so.

ROBINSON Are you worried about Lebed?

HALL Well, as far as Lebed goes, I completely agree with what Michael is saying is that it's too early, early to really spend too much time planning for something like that. I mean the Presidential election is completely wide open and I agree. As long as it's held. I mean, that's the most important thing. Some of the things Yeltsin does make me more nervous than what Lebed does because of his, what seems to be, this playing around with the idea whether he's going to go for a third term.

McFAUL Here's the scenario. He's not going to win the third round. He's not going to win. And then what do they do. Do they hand over power to someone like Lebed. Or do they say, "Oh, this democratic game was okay but we're in crisis and we're going to hold the reins." That to me is more scarey than any other scenario because the regime is too weak to pull it off and that's when you get into the scarey coup d'etat, nut balls coming into the Kremlin.

ROBINSON Mike and Brian just talked about what makes them nervous. Let's talk about what makes Moscow nervous.


The Administration backed and the Senate recently approved, including Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in NATO thereby moving the borders of NATO, the alliance formed after the Second World War to defend against the Soviet Union from the midpoint of Europe east several hundred miles. And that's what you think was a mistake.

HALL The big, big question is, "What is NATO for? What is it they're for?" Is it useful still because it is a multinational military organization that has at least a little bit of experience operationally. Which it does, it's the only one that exists. And is that good? Well, okay, it could be good but if that really is the reason that adding three new members right now just under cuts that utility.

ROBINSON It was formed after the Second World War unambiguously to defend Western Europe against the Soviet Union. Does anybody doubt that Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic wanted in to defend themselves against the possible notion of a resurgent Russia? That's what's going on.

HALL Yeah.

ROBINSON And the Russians find that insulting or do they find it dangerous. There is a distinction.

HALL Well, in both these cases you can't really say the Russians find and what the voices there. You hear the whole chorus of various sides, but you definitely hear substantial political voice in the three new countries and make it quite clear that they want to get into NATO because it protects them from Russia. And then you hear a substantial part, certainly not everyone. Everyone is all over the map on this. But I think everyone agrees that there is a significant current in Russia that feels very much like the expansion of NATO is a threatening move.

ROBINSON You grant that?

McFAUL Yeah, of course.

ROBINSON And so expanding NATO was a mistake?

McFAUL No. It's a no brainer that if a military alliance expands towards your borders, you are going to be against it. Only a fool would say, "Oh, its a great thing for me." Right? That to me is an obvious thing. It's not surprising that everybody, including the liberals in Russia, are against NATO expansion.

Here's the problem. However, with this argument about to expand or not expand. Let me just back up. I think the way the decision was made, when it was made, all that stuff, was a dumb decision, done in the wrong context for the wrong reasons. That's history, though. The problem is you can't ... NATO... the status quo was also on top of it. You can't say let's not expand NATO. Because these nations are becoming liberal capitalist regimes. What is the ethical, moral argument to say you should be in, you should be out. So that you have two options then. You either dissolve NATO...

ROBINSON Why not? Why not dissolve NATO. The Soviet Union dissolved. The Cold War is over. We won. Dissolve the military alliance. Would you have done that?

HALL If I were king of the world?


HALL Well, I think you can make very good arguments for it. I mean the one counter argument...

ROBINSON Are you talking like an advisor to the king of the world. Not the king of the world. Would you have done it? Would you have done it?

HALL Yeah, I think I probably would have.

ROBINSON With some reservations.

HALL Yeah, I think I would have. The one good counter argument is that in the post Cold War world, if we want to encourage military force that's a cooperation among nations, NATO is a good, or at least the only even remotely workable venue for that right now. And so there's the reluctance to loose. [ROBINSON It's a nice clubhouse, why tear it down?] If we're limited to police keeping... But not precisely for the reasons Michael brought up, it might have been a good idea. It's not that ...

ROBINSON You would have done it?

McFAUL No, I wouldn't have.

ROBINSON What is NATO good for now?

McFAUL For a couple of reasons. One, NATO is transforming its agenda. It's not an anti Russia regime. It can be a cooperative security arrangement so I wouldn't want to use that institution to do that. Second, the other institutions that bind Europe, frankly, are weak, are having a hard time holding together. And they frankly just were not ready to reach out to the East. NATO destruction was one option. We didn't get to the second one. What about expanding NATO all the way to Russia which I think now has to be the agenda.

HALL Right.

McFAUL If you say.

ROBINSON Up to and including Russia?

McFAUL Of course.

ROBINSON Making it a mini United Nations on the Eurasian continent?

HALL I completely agree with this. The only sensible thing to do is to bring Russia in as soon as possible. Make them feel...

ROBINSON What is NATO for?

McFAUL Look at what NATO countries can do if you are in NATO. I mean there hasn't been many tests and you know but you look at like Greece and Turkey, for instance. The fact that they were NATO members helped to avoid a war just two years ago.

HALL Had they not been neighbors there would have been war.

ROBINSON Between the two of them?

McFAUL Yeah, there would have been open war. There would have been an India, Pakistan going on there.

ROBINSON Now let's talk about what the United States should do. How do we respond to Russian threats without pushing Russia too far?


What should be our nuclear disposition toward Russia? Brian?

HALL We could dramatically reduce our nuclear weapons, stock pile, and positioning tomorrow. And strategically, there would be no down side. There would be no danger. Even people at strategic command admit that ...

ROBINSON Our generals.

HALL Our generals at strategic command admit that we could cut a thousand warheads tomorrow and it would make no strategic differences to our position. We could even...

ROBINSON Why don't we?

McFAUL Because the Russians haven't signed START II Treaty.

HALL Exactly. And now we get in the whole issue of why they haven't signed START II.

ROBINSON Very briefly START II would do what?

HALL START II reduces the deployed strategic war heads on each side to about 3,500 which is about two thirds below what it was previously and more than half below what it happens to be right now.

McFAUL And START III which people have been discussing would go to 1,500 on each side. And here, I think, I mean here we do agree that we do have this historic moment to get to that number. The Russians want to get to that number. Our administration wants to get to that number. The problem is there is not the political will, I actually think, especially in this country, to make it happen. We're not taking advantage of the fact that we have this guy, Boris Yeltsin, in the Kremlin. Because tomorrow we may have somebody else so we should get there now but we don't have....

ROBINSON What's happening in India and Pakistan, does that throw off the nuclear calculation? It's not just us and Russia anymore?

HALL Right.

ROBINSON Are the Russians more nervous?

HALL I think three things. I'm sure people are going to argue it both ways. One thing, the only salutary thing I can think about is that it brings nuclear weapons back into some kind of general discussion. One of the reasons nothing has been happening is that this administration, the Clinton administration, on foreign policy generally doesn't do anything unless it feels that there's domestic interest. And that's a broad statement. But to a great extent that's true. And, nuclear weapons have been totally off the radar. Ever since the end of the Cold War, it's been this irony that it's been often pointed out that precisely at the point where we could actually get rid of them, we lost the political will to do that. The two issues of the greater instability today is the one with Russia. But the other one is proliferation. And that if the Cold War, to a certain extent, kept somewhat of a lid on nuclear proliferation the way it kept the lid on a lot of regional conflicts because of the big down side of more confrontational behavior, which both Super Powers could then keep a lid on. Now that that's over, regional conflicts and the desire for prestige become a problem. And people have been saying if we don't do something serious, our commitment, as the only Super Power, as the country that really can do something because we can afford to do it, if we don't do something serious about our nuclear weapons, our reliance on nuclear weapons, we don't have any leverage.

ROBINSON So what's happening in India and Pakistan is an additional argument for us to build down.

HALL I think absolutely.

ROBINSON You'd agree with that?

McFAUL Well, yes and no. I actually don't think they are related. I think the posturing...

ROBINSON India and Pakistan is a separate issue.

McFAUL They make this claim but I actually think domestic politics in both countries is what's driving this. And even if we are at 1,500 they would only be appeased if we were at 0. That's untenable so I think one has to disaggregate the two, but I definitely agree with the more general point that what has happened in India and Pakistan now brings nuclear weapons back onto the agenda.

ROBINSON One way to undermine the Russian threat, diplomacy. Can it work?


What do you do to integrate Russia into the community of western nations?

McFAUL Well, we are doing many things already. So I want to make that clear that the fact that the Asian flu, the economic problems in Asia is affecting Russia, is evidence that Russia is integrating into the world capitalist system. So that is happening. What is not happening is a strategy of engagement I would say.

ROBINSON What does engagement mean?

McFAUL Go in there. Meet Boris Yeltsin and getting START II signed.

ROBINSON You just want the President to get on Air Force One and fly over there?

McFAUL When President Clinton is on and concentrating and looking in the eyes of Boris Yeltsin, lots of things happen positively in the relationship.

When he is not talking to him, things drift. We almost go on our own different sides. A possible war in Iraq. We're not coordinating on India Pakistan. There's a lot of things that we just drop the ball on.

HALL But when Boris Yeltsin says that we could do with 1,000 war heads, instead of the 2,500 we are talking about for START III.

ROBINSON Which he said.

HALL And the US doesn't say anything in response. Now are we trying to undercut Boris Yeltsin? Why would we do that? But it seems to a certain extent we are.

ROBINSON You're both saying that there is a lack not only of imagination but merely of attention span on the part of the present American administration? Correct? You lay a lot of the blame here at Bill Clinton's feet.

HALL Yeah, you can't expect...

ROBINSON You do too?

McFAUL Well, the executive is in a really reactive mode right now.

ROBINSON Last question, you are now the President with about two more years left to run in your administration. What is the one thing that you should do as President to improve relations with Russia?

HALL You could do an unequivocal declaration of no first use nuclear weapons which we are unwilling to do and I see very little practical down sides to doing it. I know there are arguments for it but I don't see the real utility compared to the advantage of it. And two, either just say directly, you know, what are we doing with this START II problem? Let's start talking about START III. Or let's answer directly to Yeltsin. All right, how about 1,500 right now, let's start continuous negotiations.

ROBINSON And so you would say

HALL And unilateral dealerting moves which are easily reversed by...

ROBINSON By dealerting you mean if I am President I push a button and 30 seconds later a missile goes off and to dealert the missile means I push a button and it takes a couple of hours.

HALL Or I call on the phone and say, "Let's get these minutemen missiles back up and it takes 2 days, 3 days.

ROBINSON To take our nuclear forces off the hair trigger.

HALL You know, the thing is we could take all of our land forces off the hair trigger tomorrow and we would have 1,600 nuclear warheads at sea invulnerable, the submarines are not findable. They can be fired off in 15 minutes. They can reach Moscow in 15 minutes and...

ROBINSON I sleep better knowing these things.

HALL And being invulnerable they don't create this whole problem, of gee, we've got to fire it fast because they'll be destroyed if we don't fire them.

ROBINSON Okay. Mike?

McFAUL Two things I would do. One make sure that there is not an economic melt down in Russia.

ROBINSON By doing what, pumping money in?

McFAUL Well, being ready to pump in money should there be a run on the currency, a devaluation.

ROBINSON Bail these boys out if they need it.

McFAUL Make sure that this thing doesn't melt down. It's too important to our security to not have chaos and revolution in Russia. And two, to do all that we can to communicate to Mr. Yeltsin and everybody in Russia that we think that the hand over of political power in Russia needs to happen through a Democratic process. And that there will be real cost of doing it another way. If we can do those two things in the short run, that will help us to insure that Russia comes in in the long run.

ROBINSON Mike McFaul, Brian Hall. Thank you very much.

(Talking on the red phone) You want me to pick up the kids? I pick up the laundry, you pick up... Listen, I'll call you... No, I will... I'll call you back. But... (Hangs up)

Michael McFaul says that it's vital for the United States to support Democratic processes in Russia and Brian Hall wants both the United States and Russia to sign a no first use of nuclear weapons treaty. But both agree that even now years after the Cold War ended, relations between the United States and Russia remain tricky.

I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.

More from Uncommon Knowledge