Pavel Podvig (Russian nuclear arsenal), 2010

Pavel Podvig Interview Mar 26, 2010 Geneva/Toronto by phone
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
By videoconferencing technology, Podvig had addressed the Zero Nuclear Weapons Forum that I had organized in Toronto City Council Chamber in November 2009. He’s a scholar at Stanford University but now carries on his research from Geneva, where he recently moved to join his wife, who already had an important job there. I am reading his 2004 book, “Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces,” though it is too technical for me to read straight through.

MS: I should ask if I may quote you.

PP: Yes, absolutely….
If you don’t work on improving the basic relationship, there is no way you can negotiate reductions. If you go to this cold war bean-counting approach, there will be mistrust.

MS: The troubling aspect is that I am in touch with pro-democracy activists in Russia. … I understand Mr Gorbachev has a new book out and he is becoming more critical of the current regime on democracy and human rights issues. The people I talk to who are really engaged are troubled because they see Obama’s support as weak. He is a bind in terms of trying to improve relations with the regime. I don’t know how to resolve that.

PP: I agree that there are lots of reasons to be critical of the current leadership in Russia. I am critical of them myself. What is happening in Russia is not healthy. I think the only real way to get anywhere on that front is to engage Russia into a larger international framework. That also applies to the nuclear framework. The reality is that every country … nuclear weapons for their security. It is just difficult to get this message across because there are interests in maintaining this _____ relationship. So I think it is a matter of engaging Russia in making sure that the society in Russia in general does not see this confrontation with the West as a something that is conceivable or possible. And I think that that unless we go in that direction, unless we build relationships that do not include this confrontational element, there is no way that we could negotiate the nuclear forces down to zero or to any reasonably small number. That’s my thinking. But I don’t think there is a contradiction there with democracy because the kind of thing that I’m talking about, they will not happen unless Russia is more open and democratic.

MS: Yes, that’s where we are stuck. If I were Obama I’m not sure how much I would open my mouth criticizing what I take to be violations in Russia. I understand why the pro-democracy activists are concerned and feel abandoned but I don’t know how to help them without poking at the government in ways that could have bad results.

PP: Well, it has been frustrating to me to see the direction that Russia has gone in the last ten or fifteen years. But at the same time I do see that there are limits. As much as i want the international community to push Russia on certain things, the reality is that the problem is more fundamental. Russian citizens have to learn and they have to build that from the inside. That’s the only way.

MS: Right. I’ve been interested in and not thrilled by this Surkov/McFaul commission on civil society. They are responsible for co-chairing a commission that was invented when Obama and Medvedev got together in Moscow. The idea is to promote civil society. The people I know such as Alexeyeeva say that is the best way to foster democracy in Russia. But they put in rules to make it difficult for NGOs to receive money from abroad. So I’m not clear what this new commission could do but I have one idea that I am trying to reach McFaul with. …. (explains plan)

PP: I think it’s one possibility. My experience is that this kind of thing works best if you already have some kind of joint interest on both sides. That could work. But fundamentally you are right, the way to go is to expand contacts and expand a dialogue. Again, I think certain things have been done in that direction. There are stuent exchanges and things like that. I know at Stanford they have this educational initiative. They do it for education but they do something along the lines you describe – a link that allows students to work together on the internet.

MS:: Through video conferencing?

PP Yes, something like that. And travel as well. They take Americans to Russia and the other way around. Fundamentally it is the most reliable way of getting together.

MS: I talked to Vladimir Petrovsky who said Russia should be in NATO and the EU. I think there shouldn’t even be a NATO. Anyway if they are going to have NATO I think Russia ought to be part of it. But the prospect of either one looks very remote at present.

PP: I agree it is remote. It would be difficult for Russia to fit in and certainly Russia is too big and unruly to be absorbed. But as much as it would be good for Russia to be part of a formal EU structures, there are other ways of doing that without being formally part of NATO or EU.

MS: Really. Expand on that.

PP For example, Russia has been a member of this arrangement in Europe in which Russia is part of the European Court on Human Rights. Depending on how you look at this, it may be small but it is important that Russia is there. I would argue that the positive influence of the European Court could be more prominent but there is a positive impact. And if you go to the military arrangements, then without being formally in NATO, which is a problem, that doesn’t mean that Russia cannot be part of some cooperative mechanism. For example there was this Partnership for Peace idea. Or you could think of joint peacekeeping missions. Then again you have the military interact, you have the bureaucracies interact, you create the foundation for understanding.

MS: I thought the partnership for Peace was just kind of a consolation prize.

PP: Yeah, but still it was real. It was a consolation prize but there was still a real mechanism for the military to explore together if they wanted to. It’s unfortunate that that mechanism was lost.

MS: What happened to that? You speak in the past tense — is it really dead?

PP It is largely dead. I don’t remember whether it is formally dismantled but the cooperation there just died down, especially during the Bush years. If you don’t invest on keeping them going they die down.

MS: You mentioned having Russia involved in peacekeeping with other countries. Have they ever done that?

PP Yeah, there was a joint peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslavia, and at some point they were jointly together in Kosovo after 1999 campaign by NATO. For political reasons they withdrew. This works on both sides. Russia wanted a larger role and NATO was not willing to give Russia that kind of responsibility. But Russia was probably not ready to assume that responsibility.

MS: They were on the other side. My Russian friends are really still very sore.

PP: Right, but you could work this thing so that the military on the ground, if you have Russia and the NATO military work together on keeping peace, all these differences and political views, people would have found a way of dealing with them.

MS: You say there was briefly something like that and then it stopped. What went wrong?

PP: It stopped — you’ve taken me far from my area. As i understand it, you remember the Kosovo campaign. There was the Russian peacekeepers who made a dash to the Pristina airport and there was a problem. Russia wanted a separate sector for its peacekeepers, and NATO wouldn’t go for that. There are many reasons not to have separate sectors for anything but I believe the fault was on both sides. Neither NATO nor the US wanted to build reasonably good relationships with Russia.

MS: Can you think of another case in which a joint peacekeeping operation would have been a good idea? My imagination never went in that direction. but it sounds like a good idea.

PP No, it’s far from my area. It would have been possible but it’s a tricky thing to make it work.

MS: Let’s go back to nuclears weapons, especially this current START thing. I see it as a baby step. I was sorry that the US didn’t concede that they would officially tie the ABM deployment issue to the treaty. Why wouldn’t Obama do so? Maybe there is political pressure so he couldn’t pull it off in the US.

PP Yeah, you’re rights. Missile defense is a very political issue. It is clear that it is impossible to have any limits of US missile defence. I don’t fault Obama for not going there because I think it is more important to have the treaty that we have. It has the potential of being an important treaty. Here I would disagree that it is a baby step. If you look at the numbers, it might be. The numbers are not impressive, but that is exactly — people should not be thinking about numbers. Numbers are not relevant. Whether it is 1500 or 5,000 or 500, which some people would argue that that would have been a good thing. The reality is that that is way too much so there is no real difference among those numbers anyway. The numbers are not important. What’s important is that there is a mechanism for getting nuclear arsenals under control and having a legal framework for reducing that number and bringing in others like China. Looked at from that point, then this treaty has potential. I haven’t seen the text but from what I have heard, it may be a very important development. I hope it will be.

MS: How will it affect matters when they have that nuclear summit in Washington?

PP Well the treaty itself, maybe not much, but then it depends on what they agree. The nuclear summit has a potential, and may be a small step, but is potentially an important step toward actualy getting rid of the material and bringing transparency and accountability into that area. The new START treaty has no direct link other than if you are thinking of reducing numbers of weapons, then at some point you would have to consider the material, the security, the dismantling of weapons and so on. It’s good that the nuclear summit may have some kind of mechanism for doing that. If they start something that would put them on that track, that would be good. I don’t expect them to make any breakthroughs, but I do think that if they start some kind of institutional framework, that would be a good step.

MS: Do you think the US will ratify the CTBT?

PP: That’s tricky. It depends on politics more than anything else. We all are hostage to this kind of US political process. If the Republicans decide to make it an issue they will. There are very good arguments for ratification and in any reasonable setting these people would come to a conclusion that the treaty should be ratified, but that does not take into account the internal politics of the US.

MS: These four guys – Shultz, Perry, etc — their most recent statement was in favor of spending money on fixing nuclear weapons. I couldn’t understand that unless it is a political manoeuvre — that they want to pay off the pro-nuclear politicians by giving them some money.

PP It is a payoff issue, I think. Certain people are nervous about going non-nuclear, so it’s inevitable that there will be some kind of adjustment process. I think that if it would take a few million dollars to buy this whole nuclear complex, and if that is the price of going toward nuclear disarmament, then that is a price worth paying.

MS; Then you read it the way I do? That it wasn’t that there was a need to spend money on nuclear weapons but that this is a way of buying support or compliance?

PP I don’t know exactly what they thought. But it’s pretty mainstream thinking the US, that you go to zero but as long as you’re not there yet, you’d better keep your arsenal safe. That’s okay. This whole enterprise is dying anyway. They will be spending money but that doesn’t mean that they could keep this whole nuclear complex in a Cold War shape. Nobody would be interested in going there and working there. So it is a matter of an orderly transition, orderly dismantlement.

MS: Oh so you are optimistic?

PP Yeah, absolutely, I think that is the way it goes. Nuclear weapons are dying. But they are still dangerous! There’s no occasion for complacency. We have to keep them secure but in the long term, there is no question about that. It’s over.

MS: Hmm. I never heard anybody say that. Today’s Globe and Mail has an op ed piece by Chretien, Axworthy, Joe Clark, and Ed Broadbent. They have a paper emulating the statement of the guys in the US, Britain, and Germany, etc. I tried to organize something like that couple of years ago, starting with Kim Campbell, but somebody else took over and ran it in the ground. I guess it is timed to push the Canadian government in that direction. There is no one from the current conservative government talking that way. Harper is worse than George W. Bush, but it is good to see the energy push in that direction.

PP; Yes, it’s very good to see this kind of thing. That’s how you change perspectives and perceptions. It will take a while but people are starting to get used to the idea that nuclear weapons are not necessarily a vital thing for security.

MS: My impression is that Russia is better than the US on that score — that 90 percent of the reactionaries who want nuclear weapons are in the US. Am I being ridiculous?

PP: Well, (laughs) I would put it roughly equally. In Russia they are not like reactionaries, it’s more like people really haven’t thought about it or don’t know what they are talking about. But in Russia there is a strong sentiment, quite a few people believe that nuclear weapons are what makes Russia strong. They are of course wrong, but that’s what they believe.

MS These are people with government positions?

PP. Some of them are but it is more like a general notion that our country should be strong militarily and unless you have nuclear weapons you are not taken seriously. If you look at the tradition about how military systems operate, there is a certain degree of truth to that, that nuclear weapons do give you a certain cachet. It’s a complex issue but at the same time, if things develop in the right way, if there is a strong___, Russia would join the process of getting rid of nuclear weapons. It won’t be very easy and Russia will certainly not lead, but Russia will eventually be on board.

MS: I’ve just been in touch with Jeremy Stone and he pointed that he has two books on his web site. He told me two stories. That’s part of why I’m thinking of Russia – one was “truncate the sword”

PP: Yeah, yeah.

MS And Stepashin went for it but when they introduced it to Clinton he said, “No, Al Gore is running for president and he won’t want any trouble.” So it was the US who put it down. The other thing is what he called Mothballing. You would go to 1,000 warheads and keep the ABM Treaty but relax enough to permit testing. Apparently that caught on among the Russians too but again, I guess it was Bush who negated it.

PP: It’s a more complicated story. It’s hard to explain. It’s a long story. The US did offer modification of the ABM Treaty. There was a formal proposal, and Russia rejected and then, you are right, when Bush came to office he wasn’t interested at all in any treaty. But it’s mostly politics.

MS: If I tell this story from Stone’s point of view, which is the only source I have about it.

PP. He is over simplifying things a bit.

MS How would I complexify it. Where would I get another angle?

PP. Laughs. That hasn’t been written yet, I’m afraid. We could talk about it at some point. Not today, I haver to go. It’s a difficult story.

MS. I ask about Gen. Mikhailov. Do you know who he is?

PP. No. I could look.

MS Well, if you know how. The other thing is the story of Nikita Maslennikov, who had been in e Germany who said that Honecker would have crushed the demonstration in Leipzig but the Russian troops were around and they had trucks break down on the highway. I can’t verify that.

PP. No, I never heard it. I’d be cautious about trusting a Russian account. A good book that was published lately. Kotkin, On Civil Society. He looks into the events.

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books