russian roulette

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interview: general william odom (ret.)

He is a senior analyst at the Hudson Insitute in Washington where he is an expert on the Russian military.  His most recent book is The Collapse of the Soviet Military.  He spent his military career in the U.S. Army and headed the National Security Agency under President Ronald Reagan.

What is your assessment of what's happened to the Russian military since 1991?

It's continued to deteriorate. It's continued to deteriorate because the leadership in the Defense Ministry does not want to face up to the requirements of reform ... . general william odomThe essence of reform, which they oppose, is to reduce the manpower levels dramatically, like 80 or 90%, and virtually to begin over, and to go through a period of fundamental rebuilding. The maladies in the Soviet military, which I think most Americans are aware of through press reporting--such as hazing of new soldiers by the senior soldiers, malnutrition, suicides, homosexual rape, beating of soldiers with shovels so that they're hospitalized, inner ethnic strife within the military, the exploitation of soldiers as slave labor by senior officers for their own personal benefit, the corruption and these sorts of things--all of those maladies came from structural, organizational features of the Soviet military. I don't think those can be removed without almost totally disestablishing the old system. ...

Is this situation the same throughout the military? Or is it better or worse in different areas?

It's clearly worse in the ground forces. But it has become equally bad in the more technical forces, such as the air forces and the navy, because the funds are not there to support these big weapon systems which those forces use. So I think it's fair to say that the situation is reasonably generalized. ...

Given that situation, does that create concern in your mind about the Strategic Nuclear Force or the entire nuclear arsenal that the Russians have, 30,000 plus warheads and the fissile material?

Well, if you're talking about just the nuclear forces and nuclear weapons part of it--and of course you'd have to include the nuclear power packages in the submarines--sure, that creates concerns. One hears all the time about the possibility of the fissile material being sold, of the scientists who build these weapons going abroad to [help] other countries build these weapons. All that's out there in the public domain, and there's a great deal of hand wringing about it.

Military officers from different countries, when they meet each other, tend to become mutual admiration societies, at the expense of realities.  To say that you now trust Russian military command and control  because some Russian general told you from the bottom of his heart that's the case, strikes me as most unrealistic. In reality, I don't think that many of the policies we've attempted to apply to deal with it are going to have any serious effect. We, by and large, have taken an approach of job owning and giving the Russians money. Even handling their own money and their own budgets, they can't get the money from the Defense Ministry to the firms to purchase equipment. They send money out to pay for food in the fleet in the Far East, and the officers steal it and the soldiers starve. Now, if that's the administrative reality, why do we think that giving them large amounts of money to do certain things with their nuclear weapons will lead to them doing those things? And I think, if you probably interviewed people who've had a lot of hands-on experience in that regard, you'd find stories that tend to ... confirm my suspicions about what happens to the money and how much result you really get for that kind of an effort.

You've talked to people with that hands-on experience?

My knowledge of that is, by and large, rumor and second hand, but the stories I've heard suggest that indeed the top level officials in the military and in the Ministry of Energy, which handles nuclear power plants and the production of fissile materials and this sort of business, are more interested in stealing the money than they are solving the problem. And again and again, Americans are tending to be frustrated, because they go in and offer what seems to be a program that will help fiscally the people involved, including the minister or whoever his deputy is that's handling this, but they don't want to take that package, even though it may be in their own best interest. They are greedy about it. They want to take it all and rip it off.

But again, this is purely impressionistic rumor. I can't confirm that from first-hand observation. But it certainly squares with everything I discovered in my research on the dissolution of the Soviet military, its collapse from 1985 through 1992. I would be terribly surprised if it were otherwise. I mean, I think any bureaucracy which has its traditional sources of income and resources cut off will begin to behave in very bizarre and self-serving ways. ...

Senator Lugar maintains that it is in Americans' national security interest to give them money to help them stabilize this situation. Do you disagree?

If the ends that Senator Lugar seeks can be achieved in this manner, clearly that's right ... . The question I'm raising is whether those means can achieve those ends. I think he's more optimistic about it than I am. I'm not prepared to say that they'll have no effect whatsoever. I would cite one great achievement of Nunn-Lugar monies, and that was resources which allowed the Secretary of Defense to negotiate between Ukraine and Russia and the other nuclear powers, Kazakhstan and Belarus, to withdraw their strategic nuclear weapons back into Russia. I think that was a considerable achievement. But that's quite different from getting the submarines cleaned up in the Barents [Sea] and in the Far East, their power packages. It's quite different from going out and checking these several thousands of tactical nuclear weapons--I'm not sure even the Russians know where they all are--and tracking all that down.

Then there's another question which I've always been disturbed by. If you de-militarize the weapon and take the fissile material out, that is more attractive to countries abroad which want to build nuclear weapons than to get the weapon itself. They don't have the technical means to explode or maintain a Russian nuclear weapon. What they want is the fissile material from that weapon, to put it in a design they created, which they know how to maintain, and which they know how to explode. So one can, in principle, argue that demilitarizing these weapons and creating stockpiles of plutonium actually increases the probabilities of proliferation rather than causes them to decline, or prevents proliferation. ...

Bruce Blair, among others, has suggested that not only the morale but the hardware itself, the command and control system for strategic arsenals, has become dilapidated; that there's been no way to modernize; and as a result, there is an increased chance of an accidental launch. Do you agree?

I don't know how one would verify these propositions that because deterioration takes place in command and control system, that there's a greater chance. It could be that deterioration means it's almost virtually impossible to launch, because the systems don't work. Lack of maintenance of nuclear weapons for a few months means that a number of them, a large or increasing number, will not explode if launched. So I think a strong argument can be made that neglect is reducing the threat. The idea that we should go out there and spend money and try to improve their command and control system strikes me as the height of misguided endeavors.

I don't think he's arguing that we should spend money to improve the command and control system. I believe he's arguing that we should therefore dealert the entire force, on their side and our side.

Well, I've no objection to dealerting the forces.

If the right preconditions exist?

The preconditions are there now. I don't see why we have the forces alert. I've never been a big enthusiast for our whole approach of being able to launch on warning or launch in a very short amount of time. Firing off 1,000 or 500 or 2,000 nuclear warheads on a few minutes' consideration has always struck me as an absurd way to go to war. I don't know how one chooses political war aims to support that approach. Now, because of deterrence theory and arms control notions of stability, etc., we've talked ourselves into this kind of Rube Goldberg world where we've surrendered political choice to these nutty para-mechanistic ideas and technology. Therefore I think it would make a lot of sense to completely de-alert. And if you're going to use nuclear weapons, use them thoughtfully for purposes that make sense.

What purpose do you think the American attempts to de-militarize the Russian military are now serving?

... I don't have much confidence that these are going to reach even 10% or 15% of their alleged goals. I think it's just one of the realities of the world we're going to have to learn to live with. There are things we could do if we were really worried about it. ... We could build a ballistic missile defense. We could shore up civil defense. We could do a number of things of those sorts. Those are not popular. Those are real things where we could see the product, the consequences of our expenditures. I think we feel much more comfortable in squandering the money on some of these programs in Russia to make ourselves psychologically better off, although objectively perhaps in the same shape. ...

I also think the Russians are not loony. I think they're reasonably rational people. It's not clear to me what they would get by firing the weapons at us. I think, if they can get us to give them money because we're frightened of it, they will encourage us to think they might do it. ...

The real nuclear threats, I don't think are going to come from Russia. They're going to come from other countries. And I'm not sure that, even if Russia cooperates 100% with us, that we would do more than slow down the proliferation to a number of other states. We've already seen proliferation. We started it with Britain, then France. Then we benignly let the Israelis do it. The Pakistanis and the Indians have recently done it. The Chinese have nuclear weapons. To think that this kind of technology is not going to spread is to fly in the face of the historical record that technology inexorably diffuses.

If you had soldiers facing the kinds of conditions that you know that Russian soldiers are facing today, what would you recommend up the chain of command?

It's interesting that you ask me this question. I asked a former chief of the general staff of the Soviet armed forces how he could look himself in the mirror each morning in light of what was happening to Russian soldiers in Chechnya, and of the large number of non-combat deaths that were occurring in Russian forces all over Russia. And--

Explain what you mean by "non-combat deaths."

Non-combat deaths are suicides; they're deaths from beatings; they're deaths from murders; they're deaths from overdosing of drugs. They're all sorts of deaths that occur out there, because discipline's poor. ... All these habits [are] generally grouped under one Russian word for it, sort of "grandfatherism" or diedovshina. That's the syndrome of life in the barracks that has come to embrace these really terrible aspects of life. I said, "How can you look yourself in the face with those realities out there?" Well, he wouldn't confront that question at all.

I would find it difficult, as a general, to face that situation. I would call for the de-mobilization of forces of soldiers whom I could not take care of and provide proper training and living circumstances for, and health and wellbeing. If you can't do that, then I think it's wholly irresponsible to bring them on active duty.

Yet every year the conscription system goes forward, although there are strong voices in Russia calling for an end to conscription. It goes forward. ... More and more, they have to recruit soldiers off collective farms, recently out of prison, this that and the other, because the better off are able to escape through buying their way out or other bureaucratic ways of escape. So this burden is falling more and more on the lower level economic layers of the society. And the generals just don't want to give up this big manpower base which keeps them in a lifestyle they've become accustomed to.

In September, Marshall Sergeyev gave a speech in which he directed the officer corps to take personal responsibility for the troops in his command. Were you aware of this statement?

Yes, I'm aware of this statement. ... I think the state of administrative capacity and the deterioration of [administrative] capacity makes it such that issuing an order won't cause much to change. My own view is, the way you'll have to change it is to disestablish that institution and start over, and only expand it at a rate which you can provide the resources for, and insure standards of behavior and a new military culture that does deserve the respect of the Russian people. ...

The argument is made that the personal relationships with the Russian military, the trust engendered between the militaries is what will save us in the end, more than all these technical things.

Military officers from different countries, when they meet each other, tend to sort of fall in love, become mutual admiration societies, at the expense of realities. To say that you now trust the Russian military command and control system because some Russian general told you from the bottom of his heart that's the case, strikes me as most unrealistic. Will that same general trust his own subordinate commands without going and checking and seeing the hands-on situation, not once but repeatedly? That situation is never stable. Any commander knows that if he doesn't inspect regularly, he's going to be misled because [of] the strong bureaucratic incentives to report the good news and not report the bad news. Therefore it seems to me to be dubious if not ludicrous to put your trust in the capacities of Russian generals to deliver on this.

Now, having studied fairly carefully the August crisis of 1991, when the military was asked to do some things like go down and close down the White House in Moscow, where Yeltsin was, as President of the Russian republic, standing up against the emergency committee which was trying to impose a repressive regime in the Soviet Union, the generals didn't trust each other. One of the reasons the military couldn't act was, no general trusted the other. They were all double-dealing each other. ...

I think one who knows the climate very well inside the milieu in the Russian military ranks could be very cautious about believing that these generals can deliver on that. Let's suppose they mean it. Even if they mean it, I don't see administratively how they could deliver it. Therefore I don't find ... this assertion very credible. ...

Let me just say one more thing. Any time there's any political stress, where generals have become good friends, they quickly forget friendship and seek interests. Would you want to trust your interest being protected purely by subjective friendship relationships with a large nuclear power that it sometimes might not be friendly towards you? I think that would be a very imprudent policy. ...

You talked about being in favor of de-alerting, standing down the nuclear force. And I also heard you say, if we were serious, we would build a missile defense system. Are you in favor of both things?

Both.

Can you square that for me?

Yes. It's easy. I'm just a simple old ground soldier, and I want lots of defense and lots of offense. [If] I get the enemy to unload his artillery pieces, it doesn't mean that I'm going to stop digging foxholes and putting overhead shelter over them, in the event he reloads his artillery. And he may not be the only military out there in the field. There may be one that I don't see over on the flank. ... The problem of nuclear weapons is not one just from Russia. It's one from China. It's one from India. It's one from Pakistan. There will be more countries with nuclear weapons. ... I just believe in offense and defense both, and I want as much of both as I can get. ...

You talk about Russia collapsing, fragmentation. It almost sounds like there are several Russian governments.

There are. [That's] one of the problems. ... One of the problems in dealing [with] Russia is, we use that in the singular. Well, which [Russia] are we talking about? Are we talking about the leaders in the Duma? Are we talking about regional leaders? Are we talking about people in the White House? Are we talking about, is Yeltsin awake? Are we [dealing with him] only when he's awake, or are we talking about when he's asleep? Or when he's ill? Russia is not unlike many states in the world which we don't consider so important. It's a weak state. It's very fragmented. And it's not likely to get out of that predicament any time soon. ...

So where does that leave the military?

One of the int[eresting] things to me is the capacity of the Russian military to put off reform. But there is a limit to how far they can put it off. By putting it off, they are forcing their own deterioration. In other words, there is an objective reform process going on. ... The competition for funds within the present structure has allowed the government to take money away from the military. [If] the military won't reform, they don't want to cut the manpower levels, they just don't give them the money. Lots of bad things happen, but the forces deteriorate and they get smaller and they get poorer. I've decided that the political context is such that the only way reform will finally come about in the Russian military is that the deterioration goes beyond the point to which these old generals can stand up there and resist it. Clearly, they're not going to do it in a rational top-down way.


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