Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 24

By Andrei A. Piontkovsky


As is well known, beginning in the early 1960s, strategic stability between the USSR and the United States was based on a balance of terror–on the ability of either side to inflict unacceptable damage to its adversary in a retaliatory strike, even under the most unfavorable circumstances.

The ABM Treaty signed in 1972 was a clear signal that both the United States and the USSR had accepted this doctrine. Strategically this treaty meant that the participants deliberately opened their territories for a retaliatory strike. Strategic stability was explicitly interpreted as both states possessing mutual assured destruction capability (MAD-stability).

The nuclear balance of terror and corresponding interpretation of stability arose in an atmosphere of acute geopolitical and ideological conflict between the two powers, global confrontation between their conventional armed forces and the real threat of war between them. It is therefore important to understand that the traditional conception of MAD-stability is historically limited and that an absolutely new political environment requires new conceptual approaches.

By the logic of the MAD-stability concept, there is no strategic stability between pairs of states such as the United States and Canada, or France and Great Britain. But it wouldn’t occur to anyone to see such relationships as strategically unstable. Thus the concept of strategic stability based on the MAD-doctrine is not universal. It was, rather, born and put into practice as a result of the specific political circumstances of Cold War.

If the logic of cutting strategic forces is continued, it is likely to place Russia and the United States on the threshold of abandoning the idea of stability based on mutual assured destruction and moving toward one of stability ensured by other means, both political and technological.

MAD-stability was based on both sides being vulnerable to unacceptable damage. With radical reductions in nuclear arms and an atmosphere of political confidence, a new and polar concept of stability–Mutual Assured Protection (MAP)–is becoming possible.


Does a joint withdrawal from the MAD-stability concept and switching to a new concept of stability conform with Russia’s national interests?

This question contains both a perspective and a concrete historical aspect. The concerns of Russian opponents of the global defense system (GDS) contemplated by Presidents Yeltsin and Bush in 1992 are natural in the context of the current political debates in Russia. They were expressed, for example, by Dr. Aleksei Arbatov in “Nezavisimaya gazeta” titled “Joint GDS–will it contribute to anybody’s security?” Arbatov believes that due to the GDS project “the Russian-American relationship will be radically changed. It will hardly be possible to talk about equal partnership and about maintaining the stability of mutual deterrence, reciprocal reduction of potentials, etc. One is reminded that there are no such items on the U.S.-Great Britain, U.S.-Japan or U.S.-Germany agendas. But these countries at least have impressive economic cards…. It will be necessary to forget about any independent role for the new Russia for a long time.”

Arbatov raises a question: Will Russia remain a world power if it and the United States lose the ability to destroy each other? Or, in what way other than its terrifying destructive capability can Russia equal the United States? In what way besides its potential to destroy the world can Russia be a significant actor in world politics?

This is a fundamental issue, and must be discussed openly and frankly. It should not be substituted with another–the “inevitable one-sided disarmament of Russia” argument which on Arbatov wrote. This problem is more than a purely national security matter and bears an axiomatic character.

As for national security, the term “deterrence” presupposes some particular threat to deter (in the case of MAD-deterrence–the threat of a full-scale nuclear attack). If there is another way to remove this threat, there is no need to consider a contingency as exotic as mutual suicide. MAD-deterrence cannot be used for meaningful political objectives.

But wouldn’t Russia, by joining the United States in abandoning the MAD concept, lose something more? Wouldn’t it be excluded from its only achievable sphere of equality? Wouldn’t it lose its only distinction as a world superpower? I believe that politics based on the above assumptions simply reinforce a kind of collective inferiority complex. It is true that a potential kamikaze will always have to be reckoned with. But is that the only role which Russia aspires to in the world community of the 21st century?


A key practical question arises here: Is public opinion–or, rather, the strategic community which forms it–ready for such a change?

In my view, the answer, unfortunately, is “no.” This is understandable. The pace of change in geopolitics around Russia has been so rapid in recent years that reflecting it in conceptual categories is impossible. Without a clearly defined concept of national security acceptable to both the intellectual elite and the public, the notion of the importance of nuclear weapons as an essential national security tool for Russia acts as a psychologically stabilizing factor. For decades, the MAD-concept was the main theoretical tool for defining both the composition of nuclear forces and treaties on their limitation. Abandoning this concept would be too revolutionary at a time when Russia’s strategic community wants time to interpret the existing revolutionary changes.

In the United States, too, most experts are disinclined to abandon the MAD-concept, at least in the near future. Thus the theoretical concept–created at the peak of Cold War to codfiy a relationship of ultimate hostility and suspicion, of preserving peace by threat of mutual suicide–has outlived the Cold War itself. Without doubt it will survive, and will persist not just in history textbooks, but in its most direct material implementation, given that even after the START II Treaty is implemented, MAD-conditions will remain. As for deeper reductions in nuclear weapons, they will remain impossible into the next century for purely technical reasons.

The MAD-concept, however, requires Russia and the United States to refrain from defensive actions against the potential threat of irrational and irresponsible nuclear terrorists. Aren’t nuclear strategists, in their continuing focus on threats of the past which are already fading, ignoring the real and ever-growing threats of the present?

In fact, the United States has long been concerned about defending itself against nuclear-missile terrorism and possible nuclear blackmail by nuclear-threshold countries. European NATO-member states, above all France, have also recently become seriously concerned about this problem. As an answer to this threat, “MEADS”–a nonstrategic antimissile defense system–is being planned for deployment in Europe.

In this situation Russian strategic thought confronts the necessity of answering a number of important practical questions.

As noted, the theoretical problem of changing the strategic stability paradigm from MAD- to MAP-stability can be discussed in an unhurried manner over the next seven to ten years, given that the strategic forces systems in both countries will continue according to the MAD-stability doctrine.

Meanwhile, two questions demand immediate answers. First, should Russia view defense against terrorist nuclear missile attacks as a national security task? Second, what should Russia’s attitude be toward efforts by other powers to deploy limited antiballistic missile systems?

For a considerable segment of our strategic community, the answer to the first question is “no,” because it considers the threat of terrorist nuclear missile attacks far-fetched. On the second, the anxiety of the United States and its allies about potential terrorist nuclear missile attacks is sometimes viewed as masking their real intention–to create a strategic antimissile shield to render Russia’s nuclear-missile potential impotent.

I do not share this view. It is true, conceptually and mathematically, that the deployment of ABM systems of any efficiency reduces the area of MAD-stability. It is important, however, that under the START II Treaty each side will preserve a retaliatory-strike potential of more than 1000 warheads. If a defense system to counter this were created–one which would exceed all antiterrorist needs–it would not qualitatively change the nature of the Russian-U.S. strategic relationship. A 900-warhead retaliatory strike potential for both sides would remain inside the MAD-area–meaning a more-than-sufficient capability to inflict “unacceptable damage.”


Thus everything depends on the relationship between the scales of the global or regional defense system and the level of preserved offensive means. It is quite possible in principle to deploy an ABM system capable of solving the antiterrorist problems while not undermining the MAD-stability paradigm.

Avoiding mutual suspiciousness about the real purpose of these systems is possible only if, first, negotiations are held which yield agreement on joint deployment, and, second, there is complete transparency regarding the specifications and capabilities of these systems.

The threat of nuclear-missile terrorism is serious. It is the reality of this threat, and not some hidden agenda, which compels the United States and the European NATO-member countries to develop missile defenses. If additional proof of their motives is required, it is necessary only to analyze closely the positions of France and Great Britain. It is well known that both these states, and China, opposed both the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and the GDS program. Their reaction was natural and expected. Russia and the United States, with their huge–even after planned reductions–nuclear arsenals, are capable of creating a system of defense against limited threats which would affect neither their mutual deterrence potentials nor those deterring other nuclear states. At the same time, the more modest potentials of Great Britain, France and China–which each considers important elements in national security–can be endangered at a relatively early stage of defense-systems deployment. This is why the reaction of these countries to any discussions on ABM defense was always negative. Yet their present active participation in the development of plans for an ABM defense of the southern sector of the European continent indicates a serious shift in their perception.

Likewise, Russia should not neglect the reality of a nuclear terrorism threat. Russia’s assessments should start from objective circumstances, not from ideological and methodological standards and cliches of past debates. As for suspicions that the “real intention” of the United States is to deprive Russia of second strike potential, it should be noted that this task cannot be achieved and–what is often forgotten–such a task is [START ITALICS] against the national security interests of the United States.[END ITALICS]

MAD-stability is based on the notion that both sides are confident in their second strike potential, and thus have no incentive for striking first. If, due to the mutual relationship of defensive and offensive means, one side (for example, Russia) fosters doubts about the reliability of its second strike potential, it may be tempted to launch a first strike in a critical situation.

Thus, the apparent advantage of the more powerful side (for example, the United States) in reality creates a serious threat to its own national security. In mathematical terms it is expressed by a reduction of the FFSI (First Strike Stability Index) from one to a critically small value–in “geometrical” terms, by the passage of the Russia-U.S. system of strategic forces from the area of stability to the area of risk. Serious American strategists were always aware of this. It was the reason why the SDI program never went further than Ronald Reagan’s declarations.

In light of this reasoning, the answer to the second question–what attitude Russia should have toward efforts by others to deploy limited antiballistic missile systems–is quite apparent. The plans of the United States and its allies for nonstrategic ABM systems should be seen not a conspiracy against Russia, but as an attempt to resolve their real national security problems.

Thus a confrontation with the West on this issue is unproductive. A policy aimed at consultations and constructive cooperation in creating nonstrategic ABM systems is much more promising and would answer Russia’s national security concerns. First, such an approach would permit turning a potential source of aggravation into an area of cooperation. Second, joint development of ABM systems would put these under joint control and alleviate fears that such systems would threaten MAD-stability. Third, the menace of nuclear terrorism is present in the spectrum of threats to Russian national security. Last, participation in joint nonstrategic ABM projects could provide serious commercial possibilities for our military-industrial complex which, as is widely conceded, possesses unique developments in this field.

Another question, however, arises: Wouldn’t the deployment of nonstrategic ABM systems demand a revision of the 1972 ABM Treaty, contrary to the traditional Soviet–and, later–the Russian position on this issue?

It should be noted, first, that the ABM Treaty was a dramatic deviation from the traditional Soviet position. Up to 1972, Soviet propaganda and official statements portrayed opposition to the deployment of ABM systems as an insidious American plot to deprive the USSR of the ability to defend itself from a nuclear-missile attack. Indeed, the minutes of the 1967 talks between Soviet Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin and President Lyndon B. Johnson would show that Kosygin used the same arguments in support of ABM defenses and against a treaty banning such systems which President Ronald Reagan would use almost twenty years later during his 1986 Reykjavik meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev. Thus the two sides, at the top, totally reversed their positions.

Fortunately, the positions of the sides coincided in 1972, and they concluded an historical treaty which met the interests of their national security and strengthened strategic stability. Together with the system of treaties on offensive armaments, the ABM Treaty became a practical realization of the MAD-stability concept developed by American strategic thought and accepted by the United States in the process of the talks.


I have cited this story not to criticize but to underscore the idea that the ABM Treaty was only a tool for realizing a certain idea of strategic stability created by Russians and Americans in 1972. At that time, the two countries decided to leave their territories and populations open to a possible nuclear attack simply to convince each other in the inevitability of retaliation.

At the start of the 21st century, with a different spectrum of threats and character of relationship between them, they may decide that modifying this tool better answers their national security interests. Such interests demand viewing all established concepts and notions not as sacred texts, but as useful tools needing occasional refinement and new interpretation.

Andrei Piontkovsky heads the Center for Strategic Studies, a Moscow-based think-tank.