Last Saturday, December 15, at a press conference in Moscow, First Deputy Minister of Defense and Chief of the Russian General Staff General Yuri Baluyevsky, together with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak, expressed frustration over U.S. plans to build missile-defense bases in the Czech Republic and Poland. Baluyevsky outlined the possibility of a nuclear war because of the U.S. missile-defense (MD) deployment. At the same time, Baluyevsky and Kislyak strongly defended Moscow’s decision to abandon the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) arms control treaty because of persistent Western provocations and double-dealing (Itar-Tass, RIA-Novosti, December 15).
Addressing a gathering of Russia’s top brass in the Defense Ministry in November, President Vladimir Putin accused NATO of “flexing muscles” and “gathering military resources near our borders in violation of previous agreements” (see EDM, November 21). According to Putin, Russia abandoned the CFE on December 12 as “an adequate response measure.”
The general, in turn, accused the West of “turning the CFE into an instrument for political gain that does not have anything in common with European security or arms control.” Baluyevsky announced that Russia – no longer bound by CFE arms limitations – would now freely move troops and weapons, although he promised that there “will be no massive arms build up.” His promise is meaningless, however, since there is no recognized definition of “massive.” The over 130,000-strong concentration of troops and heavy weapons gathered to fight in Chechnya in 2000 was never officially called “massive.” The much bigger Soviet force that invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s was officially called a “limited contingent.”
Baluyevsky and Kislyak stated that Russia might return to the CFE regime if the West meets Moscow’s demands, but this does not seem plausible. There is no military build up of any NATO military forces on any Russian border, or anywhere else in Europe. The pretext Putin and other Russian officials are using to abandon CFE is a self-imposed delusion.
In addition, Baluyevsky and Kislyak accused Washington of double-dealing and retracting previous concessions to allay Russian fears about MD deployment in Europe. He downplayed the threat from Iran, Washington’s rationale for the new MD installations. The Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar disclosed on November 27 that a new long-range ballistic missile has been developed. The Ashura missile has been apparently tested on November 20 and is reported to have a range of 2,000 kilometers, enough to hit targets in Europe. Baluyevsky said he believes the Iranians are bluffing, that there was no test and that the Pentagon’s conformation of the Iranian report is erroneous. “We believe Iran does not pose any nuclear threat and the missile threat is exaggerated,” Baluyevsky said. The Defense Ministry insists U.S. plans for MD deployments in the Czech Republic and Poland are aimed at Russia, not Iran (Itar-Tass, RIA-Novosti, December 15).
Baluyevsky cautioned that the Russian early warning system might mistake a U.S. ground-based interceptor (GBI) launched from Poland to hit an incoming Iranian missile for a U.S. nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile, since the GBI and Minuteman-3 ICBM look alike. The Russians might “automatically” launch a nuclear counterstrike, beginning an all-out nuclear war. Baluyevsky recalled the test launch of a U.S. four-stage Black Brant 12 missile from a civilian research rocket range on the Norwegian island of Andoya January 25, 1995, which caused a nuclear alarm in Moscow (www.mil.ru).
According to some reports, Russia nearly went into nuclear war mode, and President Boris Yeltsin’s “nuclear briefcase” was activated to authorize a counterstrike. During the Cold War, other nuclear scares caused by false reports of pending U.S. missile attacks reportedly happened in Soviet Russia (AP, July 5, 1997; Stephen J. Cimbala, Russia and Armed Persuasion , Chapter 3).
In 1995 Baluyevsky was chief of staff of the Russian forces in Tbilisi, Georgia. I was in Moscow and a close friend of the man who occupied Baluyevsky’s present post, General Mikhail Kolesnikov. He told me at the time that there was no panic in the Defense Ministry and that the launch of a single missile could never trigger a nuclear counterstrike. Yeltsin was contacted primarily to test the nuclear briefcase “Cheget” system. Unlike the American nuclear “football,” the Russian counterpart does not contain missile launch codes per se, but is a secure conference communication system for the military to consult the president. By the time Yeltsin was reached on January 25, 1995, the alarm was already cancelled.
Kolesnikov told me that the Missile Attack Warning System (SPRN in Russian) had generated false alarms before, and no one took it too seriously. “The nuclear briefcase is a toy for politicians to play with,” he explained. “If nuclear war ever happens, it will never happen suddenly by mistake, but will be the end result of a long and profound military-political crisis. The military-political leaders of Russia will meet it in our designated positions, ready to confer and formulate attack directives to our nuclear forces,” Kolesnikov said.
The SPRN system can clearly and quickly distinguish a GBI interceptor in-flight from an ICBM. Baluyevsky’s nuclear-war-by-mistake narrative is a ludicrous, crude, and counterproductive piece of propaganda intended, apparently, to scare Poles, Czechs, and other Europeans. The Russian Defense Ministry surely could have devised something better than portraying its own military as nuclear-trigger-happy idiots.