US and Russia like two scorpions in a bottle – ex-White House adviser

The major global nuclear powers are building up their arsenals once again, sparking fears of a new nuclear arms race. How serious is the danger? We ask Matthew Bunn, former White House adviser on Science and Technology Policy and co-principal investigator from the Belfer Centre on Managing the Atom.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr Matthew Bunn, thank you very much for being with us.

Matthew Bunn:It’s a pleasure to be here.

SS: It’s great to have you on our programme. So let’s talk the New START treaty that’s going to expire in 2021. Trump on many occasions has said that it’s ‘one-sided’, ‘bad’ treaty. Do you feel like it’s that? And what would that mean for the global security?

MB: Unfortunately, I think, there is a real danger that the whole structure of the US -Russian negotiated restraint that has sort of regulated the nuclear arms competition for the last half century may collapse. We are in a situation right now where we do have the New START treaty in place, the two sides have just finished complying with all of its limits as of early February. There are inspections still taking place - it’s one of the only ways in which nuclear establishments of our two countries are still talking to each other and working together. But in its current format it expires in early 2021. Both countries are charging the other with violations of various other arms agreements. And given the very poor relations between our countries it would be very difficult to get the two-thirds approval needed under the US Constitution for a new treaty in the Senate until some of these issues were resolved, especially the charges of past violations. And so it’s quite possible that the treaty will just expire, not being replaced. So we need to be thinking about other non-treaty approaches where we can regulate this situation without creating the kind of danger that a completely unregulated competition would... 

SS: So from your response I gather that you pretty much feel like the treaty is done at this point and we need to find other ways to regulate? Or there’s still a chance?

MB: So the treaty even in itself includes an option for a five-year extension. Reportedly President Putin raised that idea with President Trump and President Trump wasn’t too interested. But that was very shortly after President Trump had come to office. He was thinking ‘oh, it’s an Obama treaty it must be bad’. I think, as the time gets closer and people like the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State begin explaining to the President the dangers involved in having no treaty in place, to me it makes a lot of sense to think about extending it for another five years.     

SS: But I mean, whatever is going on right now in terms of New START treaty, it brings this sort of cognitive dissonance because back in February Russia and the United States were still meeting the New START treaty requirements, reducing their strategic weapons. And then you have almost at the same time Americans modifying the Nuclear Posture Review, calling for expanding their nuclear arsenal followed by Putin’s speech about the new nuclear rockets. How does that go together?

MB: So, first of all, the American new Nuclear Posture Review, I think, does introduce changes, mostly it endorses what was already laid out in the Obama administration which is mostly just replacing aging weapons systems. So we have intercontinental ballistic missiles on land that were bought decades ago and would just be replaced - same numbers, just newer, shinier versions. We have submarines that are getting so old that eventually the metal on the submarines won’t be able to handle the changes in pressure going up and going down. So we need new submarines and so we just replace them with pretty similar submarines. The bombers are very old. The bombers we are using today in the US nuclear arsenal - there are pilots whose fathers flew exactly the same aircraft. Almost all of those bombers are at least as old as I am. So these are aging aircraft that we built in the 60s. They need to be replaced. What the NPR does is that it also suggests that maybe we should have some low-yield weapons that it wouldn’t be such a dramatic step to use. And the argument is that we need that for better deterrence in a conflict with Russia or with North Korea. I think, that may increase the nuclear danger by making it easier to make the decision to use nuclear weapons.

SS: That’s what I was going to say - do you think the word “tactical” can actually lull the politicians in Washington to think that it’s maybe ok or not that bad to use nukes?

MB: Well, to be fair both the United States and Russia have had tactical nuclear weapons for decades. And Russia has a much more larger stock of tactical nuclear weapons than the United States does...

SS: Yeah, but it’s just that right now the United States is talking about spending 1.2 trillion dollars over the 30 years to develop new tactical low-yield nukes ...

MB: Well, no. 1.2 trillion is for the whole thing and it’s mostly for the newer, shinier versions of the same old same old. What was remarkable in the Russian side is Putin’s speech with a level of presidential nuclear saber-rattling that we really haven’t seen… maybe ever in the nuclear age, but certainly not since Khrushchev - with these long videos of weapon after weapon after weapon. None of those with, perhaps, one exception, I would argue, pose any new fundamental threats to the strategic balance. Fundamentally, the United States and Russia have been for decades two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of destroying the other but only at the price of being destroyed itself. Putin said: “Well, these weapons would overcome the US missile defenses”. The US missile defenses were totally ineffective against Russian forces already, so then they’ll be more ineffective against Russian forces. So it really doesn’t change the fundamental picture of the strategic balance.

SS: Sorry, you were saying that Russia and the United States have been like these two scorpions and both can do great harm but it would mean that they are destroying themselves as well. That’s what James Mattis is saying that having low-yield nukes actually means that America wouldn’t have to choose between ‘surrender’ and ‘suicide’...

MB: So, in principle the idea of the low-yield nukes is to respond in kind to Russian early use of nuclear weapons. The United States perceives at least that Russia has been developing and practicing a doctrine of using a few nuclear weapons relatively early in a conflict to scare off NATO forces, to say to NATO, in essence: “We’re taking this very seriously, you’d better stop or things are going to get very bad”. And so the United States wanted to have some ability to respond in a similar way that wouldn’t, one hopes, escalate to higher levels. But my own belief is that the moment you cross the nuclear threshold you have enormous dangers of going to a large-scale nuclear war and potentially destroying much of the civilisation.

SS: So you don’t believe in this whole thing that this all is for the sake of deterrence? Do you believe that more nukes we have, more usable nukes we have more danger of an actual nuclear war there is? Is this what you’re saying?

MB: I believe that the people advocating it genuinely believe that it would be helpful for deterrence. I have my doubts. I think that it will make nuclear weapons somewhat easier for the President to decide to use and, therefore, potentially increase the risk that that choice will be made at some point in the future. But the thing I really worry about most is not that. The thing I worry about most is inadvertent escalation in a crisis. You know there’s some crisis somewhere in the world that involves US and Russia, one side does something, the other side does something that, it thinks, is roughly equal back but the other side sees it more, the cyber attacks going back and forth each way confusing everything and things just escalate and get out of control. We saw in the Cuban missile crisis how many mistakes, small things that the leaders didn’t intend at all happen in a moment of crisis - and that’s really what I worry about. So I think, getting back to military-to-military dialogues which haven’t really been happening, building up the confidence-building measures that can help tamp down events in a crisis would be very important as well as maintaining the structure of arms control.  

SS: The nuclear security cooperation has been halted since 2014 between Russia and the US…

MB: Correct, it’s something I’ve been working on to fix but so far unsuccessfully.

SS: But do you think it’s even possible to talk about reviving it at this point with everything that’s going on?

MB: Yes, I think, it’s possible because it’s really a very technical subject and technical people in both countries have a lot of respect for each other and know that the people on the other side have interesting ideas that they would benefit from sharing. I think, on the Russian side - and I think frankly that this is a correct view - they think that nuclear cooperation ought to be not just about security but should be, as Rosatom officials put it, comprehensive: it ought to include cooperation on future nuclear energy ideas, on nuclear safety, on nuclear science and on nuclear security. I think, we’ll never go back to the way nuclear cooperation was before. And we don’t have to because the way it was before was for the time when Russia was still recovering from the Soviet collapse and needed a lot of help. It was actually the US money going to build better security systems at sites and so on. That’s not really needed any more. What’s needed now is an exchange of best practices and ideas among the technical experts on both sides. I remain hopeful that we will be able to get that going again at least in modest ways. I think, it benefits both sides’ security and the world security. I think, it’s a danger to the world and to each of our countries that the world’s biggest nuclear establishments with the most nuclear experts are just not talking to each other.   

SS: Yeah, I mean, those are the two biggest guarantors. Who guarantee that sort of security if both sides are announcing an arms race?

MB: Well, the reality is nobody can guarantee another country’s nuclear security in a sense of security from nuclear material or nuclear weapon being stolen or something. Each country has to provide that itself. It’s not like there was ever cooperation where US guards are guarding Russian sites and Russian guards guarding US sites or anything like that. But we can do that national job better if we talk to each other. That’s what I’m saying.

SS: Professor, you’ve mentioned earlier during our talk that the Cuban missile crisis was a perfect example of how dangerous things can get from little mistakes. I would probably add to that, alongside mistakes there’s also the fact that there’s no respect, maybe, or curiosity to understand each other’s perception of the world which are quite different, I have to say. I mean, when Megyn Kelly was talking to Putin just recently and she was like “you know, you’re pretty much starting an arms race” and he was like “no, it’s George W. Bush who started it in 2002 when he withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and actually built a missile defence system”. So that’s the way he sees the world right that the Americans have something to respond in return. And then, you know, right now you have Russians, they are saying that... I know that Americans have 200 nuclear bombs that are stored in Europe ever since the WWII…

MB: There used to be a lot more actually.

SS: I know that the Americans are planning to upgrade them. So Russia’s Lavrov is saying: “Hey, we see this as a clear violation of non-proliferation principles”. Do you think these concerns are justified?

MB: It’s certainly correct from the Russian point of view that the US ripped up the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. I regretted that, I opposed it at that time. Actually, my first book was on why the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was still a good thing for the US security. Obviously, that book didn’t win the day.

SS: It wasn’t a bestseller?

MB: No, it wasn’t a bestseller. Honestly US defenses have at first approximation no capability against Russian nuclear forces. We have about fifty long-range interceptors...

SS: But that doesn’t really matter, you know that. It’s about the perception and the way the man says …

MB: It’s about the perception of what direction it may be going in the future because you have to plan your strategic forces long in the future...

SS: And is it really worth confrontation?

MB: As I say, we do need to regulate these things and we do need to understand each other’s perspectives, as you were saying. One of the crucial moments in the Cuban missile crisis came when there were two communications from the Soviet side almost at the same time: one of them was very threatening and angry and the other one - much more compromising. And fortunately for the world one of Kennedy staffers was the former ambassador to Moscow who knew Khrushchev very well and he sort of said to Kennedy: “Why won’t we just ignore the one we don’t like and  respond to the one we do like? And I think that if we offer this and that to Khrushchev that would be enough to convince him to back down”. And that turned out to be what caused the crisis to be resolved. So if there hadn’t been a person at that moment that the President was willing to listen to… He needed a President with good judgement and a close advisor with real empathy to the other side in the situation they were in... I’m not sure we have either of those things in either Washington or Moscow right now and that concerns me.

SS: What about the 200 nuclear bombs that are wanted to be upgraded in Europe? Do you see why Russia could be concerned about this?

MB: Well, of course, Russia and the Soviet Union before have always been concerned. It isn’t a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. My father was actually one of the key negotiators of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and he and the Soviet counterpart fought over the subject at a considerable length and ultimately agreed on a compromise that allowed the US nuclear weapons to remain in Europe. The reality is that the upgrade that is being done - I mean, they are just air-delivered bombs - there are going to be air-delivered bombs that will last longer basically, there are a few modest improvements. But it really makes absolutely no difference to the threat to Russia overall.

SS: So how can this issue be resolved? Once again, different worldviews, different perceptions, the recent back-and-forth nuclear developments between the US and Russia really mean that global non-proliferation - seeing how the biggest guarantors of it are about to expand nuclear arsenals… I still don’t understand where the authority to stop the spread of nukes will come from?

MB: Let me clarify. Neither Russia nor the United States at the moment is proposing to actually expand its nuclear arsenal. They are still limited by the New START in terms of the number of the deployed strategic nuclear weapons. Russia, we believe, has been expanding its tactical nuclear arsenal a bit, but not very substantially. So both sides, I think, will have arsenals of more or less the same size as their arsenals they have now. Both sides are still dismantling some of the older weapons that they hadn’t got around to dismantling yet in the past. The United States still has a couple of thousands in the queue waiting to be dismantled. So it’s not really a question of building up the numbers, it’s the question of changing types and capabilities. I think, we need to be spending more time sitting down together, talking to each other, actually engaging in real discussions of strategic stability and the different ways that Russia sees it and that the United States sees it, and specific things that we can agree to to address the concerns of each side. But I think, in order for that to happen - I give you an American perspective - Russia really needs to stop meddling in the US electoral process because that has succeeded in uniting the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States, essentially everyone except the President of the United States in an anti-Russian fury that I haven’t seen for many years in Washington.

SS: You know the Russian perspective on that - not even the government’s perspective, but every Russian will tell you: “You need to show me the proof”. I don’t believe in secret services, I don’t believe even in my own secret services, let alone the CIA. Why should I believe the American word over the Russian word? When CIA was telling me the WMD existed in Iraq it turned out to be bogus. So why not show me the proof that we actually meddled? That’s the Russian perspective.

MB: Well, there’s a lot of proof. Facebook has detailed hundreds of Russian-controlled accounts that were fostering increased polarisation, sort of hitting on issues that tried to divide Americans and tried to push people toward the Republicans. Twitter has revealed a lot of the same and then there is a lot of classified evidence. There’s really no dispute among any serious person in the US national security establishment that that had happened. And it’s continuing to happen. It’s ongoing in the United States right now.

SS: I’m just playing devil’s advocate here, but there’s another argument an average Russian will give you: Americans had meddled in so many elections all over the world. When we come after you with the same weapon why is it so annoying?

MB: That is a fact, and I think it would be a good idea for the United States and Russia to agree at a top level that neither of us is going to do this to each other.

SS: I just want to talk about North Korea shortly because it’s a really hot topic. With everything that’s going on right now this crisis has raised questions of Japan and South Korea actually getting their own nukes. At this point it’s obvious that the North has it and it’s probably never going to give it up. So with this current configuration does this mean that the region is just going to get more nukes? 

MB: So, the reality is that North Korea has had nuclear weapons for over a decade now and so far South Korea, Japan, Taiwan made, I think, the correct decision not to build nuclear weapons of their own. I think, North Korea’s programme creates additional dangers and more dangers as it proceeds further. But again, the things that I worry about most are not that Kim Jong Un or for that matter Donald Trump are going to wake up one day and say ‘oh, today is going to be a great day to use nuclear weapons’, but rather that there would be some crisis that would escalate in a series of back-and-forth exchanges to the point where nuclear weapons would end up getting used. You might imagine that in initial crisis the North Koreans might use some of their conventionally armed ballistic missiles to attack US air bases or something like that. And that might provoke the United States and South Koreans to think ‘well, they’re using their missiles, we’d better start destroying these missiles’. And the North Koreans will be faced with some ‘use them or lose them’ situation and might use nuclear weapons to try to scare us off. So the variety of really dangerous scenarios… I think, there too, there’s a real need to take the possibility of negotiations seriously to not attempt to get everything that you can possibly imagine out of the negotiations, but to take a realistic step-by-step approach starting with freezing testing, freezing further production of more nuclear weapons and so on, and to focus also on confidence-building measures, military-to-military exchanges and so on to try to reduce the danger of this inadvertent getting out of control in a crisis. 

SS: According to Gallup most of Americans think North Korea’s nuclear programme is the biggest threat to America right now, just the fact of having that. Do you agree with that?

MB: Well, we have a lot of threats to America right now. I think, many of them are internal to ourselves, that we are tearing ourselves apart politically. So, we in the United States have to figure out how to function as a democracy again which we’re not doing a regular job of right now. I do think it’s a serious danger from North Korea. It has reminded Americans that the nuclear danger didn’t go away when the Soviet Union went away. I think, Russians remembered that that was true throughout the intervening period but a lot of Americans sort of forgot about nuclear danger. And now that North Korea has nuclear weapons and increasingly missiles that can reach the United States Americans are sort of waking up and saying: “Wait, that nuclear danger could apply to me!” I mean, I’ve had people calling me from San-Francisco or Los Angeles saying: “Should I get my family and my kids out of town?” And there haven’t been Americans genuinely afraid about nuclear weapons like that for a while. They were in the 80s, but not for a while.

SS: Well, thanks a lot for this wonderful interview and this insight. I wish you all the best, professor.

MB: Thank you, and I hope, we’ll manage to find some way to a saner and more stable relationship between our countries.

SS: Me too. Thanks.