russian roulette

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interview: general vladimir dvorkin

He recently retired from the Strategic Rocket Forces and is now the Director of the Fourth Central Research Institute in Moscow, which is responsible for strategic nuclear planning and policy. He is a top advisor to the Russian Minister of Defense, General Igor Sergeyev and acts as a liaison to the U.S. military and the Department of Defense.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia have been cooperating on the security of the Russian nuclear arsenal. Can you describe how this cooperation began?

In the part of this process that I was directly concerned with, this cooperation dealt with intensification of the negotiation process and the reduction of strategic arsenals. However, we had covered a long way together even before the Cold War was over. The foundation for reducing nuclear arsenals was laid in the past. Just remember the INF treaty, and SALT I, SALT II, START I and also the signing of the START II treaty. On the other hand, the new development is that after the Cold War was over, the level of trust towards each other became significantly higher. ... We realized that we must be partners pretty fast. ...

Earlier, you mentioned that the United States is not involved in the security of command and control of the Russian nuclear arsenal. And you then said, "unfortunately." Would you elaborate on what you meant by that?

This is a very sensitive topic in our relations because this is considered to be an area which is directly linked to the security of each party. general vladimir dvorkinIn addition, when we talk about nuclear weapons, a lot of the items ... are verifiable. However, as far as the command and control is concerned, the verification is not possible. There were attempts made to institute joint programs and there was a study of the reliability of control, in particular, the so-called negative control. Negative control is a kind of control that provides for the reliability of averting unauthorized launches of nuclear weapons. This was something that Americans were first and foremost interested in. Although I believe that some of the concerns that were expressed on numerous occasions by representatives of the United States were overstated.

Such as?

For example, the concern which states that the economic crisis in Russia can effect negatively the reliability of the control over nuclear weapons in Russia. [It] is true [that] the crisis is deep, and it certainly affects both the state of the technical systems and the morale of the officers. However, there is ... centralization of combat control which is built into the whole algorithm of control. That's why all kinds of difficulties, both technical and economic, affect first and foremost the people. But they do not affect at the same time the technical ... features of the fully automated control system. ... Since the system is fully automated and very centralized, that increases, on the other hand, the reliability of negative control. ...

I have deep respect  for the U.S.  And I think that gives me some kind of a moral right to say that sometimes, you overly focus on some problems that do not really have any grounding. The system is built in such a way and it's so automated; it has so many different stages and levels and links. All the way from the highest link, which is the control center of the General Staff, and all the way down to the launch pads. Nobody can tamper with it at any time. The degree of negative control is extremely high here. Usually the probability is assessed at 10 to the minus-15th or minus-16th degree. And this probability equals the probability of a meteor hitting the earth tomorrow which is going to split the earth in half.

This degree of reliability is very high both in the United States and in Russia. It took dozens of years to work on the system and perfect it. And therefore, no technical or economic difficulties can effect the operability of this system, from the point of view of decreased negative control. I'll reiterate that the only type of control that can actually be decreased is the positive control. And the concerns that you mentioned deal primarily with the misunderstanding or some kind of mistaken actions on the part of the president, who might have received wrong or incorrect information from the early warning systems.

Let's talk about the early warning systems. My understanding is that as the Soviet Union broke up, that the radars in its forward states were dismantled. How has the early warning system been affected by the loss of these radar stations in the outlying states of the former Soviet Union?

There were eight [ground-based] early warning stations in the Soviet Union, in Russia. And there was also a space-based system. Out of the eight stations, five were left outside of Russia. However, the only one, not some, but only one, radar station was destroyed. The only one that's not working now is the one in Latvia, in Skundia. As a result, a sector formed where, if we had not taken any additional measures, we would not have been able to observe the launches with a second echelon of systems; only with the first one. However, we took the following measures. We compensated partially for this empty, so to speak, sector, by other stations. That's the first thing. The second thing is that an attack from the West is probably least conceivable given the current situation. So we don't foresee any problems here.

When were these measures taken to fix the radar problem in Latvia? What year?

By September 1st, of the last year, the station in Skundia stopped working. And at the same time exactly, partial measures were taken to compensate for the loss of that sector. All the other stations are fully operational, such as the one in Ukraine, in Azerbaijan. We are planning to put into operation a station in Belarus, in Beronovich.

In 1995, the Norwegians launched a rocket which was mistaken for an incoming American nuclear missile by the Strategic Rocket Forces. How did that happen? Has there been an investigation by your institute or within the government, that you're aware of, of what happened in that situation?

There has been no investigation of this issue and we don't see why there should be. The launch of the missile was detected and that information was passed on to the president ... . But there was nothing, not even in the very nascent form, in terms of taking any kind of retaliating measures. ... To make a decision to make a retaliatory, a massive retaliatory strike, is very hard decision; even if you possess the complete information and true information concerning the fact that your country has been hit. It's totally impossible to make a decision based on information about one missile.

Our information was that it came within two minutes of the president having to make a decision in that particular instance. Does this not give you some cause for concern?

No, that is all in the land of fantasy. I will say it again. No president, no matter what president it is, will ever make a decision about launch-on-warning based on information about one rocket or missile or even ... two or three missiles. So, I think that all concerns in that regard are just wasted time. And I don't think that there is sufficient grounds for Americans to be concerned or worried about our control system.

I think you should be more concerned with the falling birth rates in Russia, than a decreasing control system. Because that does not lead to the improvement of our economic state and also to the improvement of the military might and security. The United States does need a strong, big power that is economically strong ... . I have deep respect for the Americans and for the United States and I think that gives me some kind of a moral right to say that sometimes you overly focus on some problems that do not really have any ground. Russia is not [a] country. Russia is [a] continent, and without Russia, to provide global strategic stability [would be] impossible. And Russia could potentially become a very powerful center of stability in its half of the world. We don't have any ideological contradictions and we don't have any major economic claims against each other, so I think that we should become the centers of a stability in our respective continents and we should jointly provide for global stability, and I hope that eventually that will happen.

We have an interview with Alexander Pikayev who says that the Russians still have a launch-on-warning policy today. Is this is accurate?

Well, I would not single out Russia in that respect because both in the United States and Russia, there are early warning systems and the purpose of those systems is to use a long-term warning [system] as a deterrent. Both yours and our missiles, especially ground-based missiles, are always maintained under a very high degree of alert. Several dozen seconds are necessary in order to launch the missiles. And that is also the deterrence factor, even though it causes concern among many. And I think that given the new conditions, this deterrence factor could be eliminated. ...

There has been a bone of contention here on our side about the fact that even though President Clinton and President Yeltsin signed an agreement to detarget their weapons, how long it would take to retarget them in a worst case scenario?

The time that is required to retarget ... is a very short time, so it is very comparable to the time that is necessary to provide for the technical readiness of the rockets. It is more of a political measure of confidence that has been realized and nobody doubts that it has been implemented.

One of the things that I don't think that most Americans understand that I have realized in my research is how separate the commands are in Russia, that the warheads are separate from the actual missiles and there are authorization and enabling codes. Can you describe the steps that would have to be taken before something like an accidental launch can happen?

Well, I don't think it is correct to say that the warheads are separated from the missiles. Nuclear warheads are on the missiles and at any time, they can be launched at the targets. This is something that was done during the time of the Cold War and it has not been changed by anybody. The situation is such that we are really hostages of the programs and the technology and the machinery that was done earlier. The situation is such that in effect, the tail of the dog is telling its head where to go. That is why measures should absolutely be taken, and are being taken ..., to move away from the model that formed over the years. It makes no sense to deter each other from any kind of attack, not only from a nuclear attack, but from any kind of massive attack. But unfortunately, the nuclear deterrence doctrine has really not been changed yet and that is, I'm talking about a change that would be supported by technical means. It appears to be a very hard thing to do, not only because of the inertia of thinking, but also due to a number of other factors. Just imagine, is it really possible for only the United States and Russia to de-alert its forces altogether while France, China and Britain will maintain their forces for alert? In other words, it is a very long process and it probably should be a multi-lateral process at that.

We understand from Bruce Blair that you have floated the idea of de-alerting to some U.S. leaders. Can you describe your proposal and how it would work?

While the essence of the proposal is that there are a number of technical measures which would prevent, once in place, a fast launch of nuclear missiles. And unlike the de-targeting regime, these measures are transparent and verifiable. ... For example, one of them is that the gas generator can be separated from the cover of the silo. You can also remove on-board batteries. These are verifiable measures, and the missile would not fly anywhere until those on-board sources of power batteries are replaced. But, in my opinion, these measures could have been undertaken only with regard to a portion of the missiles, not all the missiles, due to the reasons that I already mentioned ... that we cannot fully dealert all of our forces while other countries will maintain their forces on alert.

The very fact that you want to prevent a fast launch of missiles tells me you do have some concerns about a fast launch.

Well, as an expert, I do not have any concerns about that. However, from a political point of view, I support this measure because I see it as a confidence building measure. Only because we cannot freeze our nuclear relations, and we cannot limit them only to a very slow, gradual reduction of strategic weapons. Which is, of course, what the START agreement would have begun to lead us towards.

What is the status of START now in Russia?

Well, there were big hopes in December of last year [that] the State Duma would ratify START II. Everything was ready for that to happen. However, the strikes delivered by the United States and Britain on Iraq moved this issue some time into the future. Now, we are trying to prove to our deputies that that should in no way be in the way of ratification of START II, [but] vice versa, the strikes should speed up the ratification, but it is a very hard thing to do.

Can you describe for us the fight you face in trying to persuade the deputies that this is a good idea in light of the current political situation?

We have had this debate for almost six years in Russia. We are trying to convince the deputies that this treaty is in the interest of Russia because it would provide for a nuclear balance between Russia and the United States at a lower, acceptable level which would be economically advantageous to Russia. And that balance is necessary, not in order to deter United States from attack, but in order deter any kind of new confrontation or a new arms race. However, without this treaty, the START II treaty, this balance will not be achieved. Furthermore, we should start thinking about START III, and the president has already negotiated that. That is why the usual set of arguments that are put forward by those who are opposed to START II agreement are really groundless and they have nothing whatsoever in common with the positive results that this treaty is going to bring or is supposed to bring about. ...

What are the arguments that the opposition is putting forth against START?

Well, you really cannot say that in a few words. I actually have a paper that deals with these arguments in detail. There are about eight to 10 major arguments such as, for example, the opponents say that this treaty is going to cause a collapse of the structure of the nuclear forces of Russia. The opponents also say that the United States is going to have a much great[er] ... ability to increase and build up its nuclear forces compared to Russia. So, I go through these arguments in much detail and I prove that they are groundless as something that can be used against the ratification, but you know that the Parliament is a Parliament. There is not much you can do. But, now we probably say of course that we do have democracy. But, I can tell you that if we still had the totalitarian regime, we would have ratified this treaty ahead of you. ...

A lot of the people in the United States intelligence community actually have less concern with the strategic arsenal than with the non-strategic arsenal. There are concerns about fissile materials and tactical nuclear weapons that, because of the economic crisis now, may be at some danger of walking away from where they should be. How concerned are you about that problem?

Well, I don't really deal directly with the fissile materials monitoring, but I know that there is a lot of work that's being done jointly by your Department of Energy and our Ministry of Atomic Energy. I know that the reliability and security of storage of all nuclear warheads, both strategic and non-strategic, is as strong as it used to be; it has not been affected by the crisis. It's quite a different story that there are a lot [more] crazy terrorists, or incidents like that nowadays, than there used to be. However, no terrorists or extremists are capable of making an active nuclear explosion, anywhere, either on their territory or on another territory. ...

President Yeltsin's former Science Advisor, Alexei Yablokov, testified to the American Congress regarding the so-called suitcase bombs; the small, atomic demolition devices. Can you confirm the existence of these weapons?

I don't really know anything about these devices. I know that some small devices of this type existed both in the United States and in Russia, but why they should be needed in a suitcase format, that's something really for terrorists. I don't think they can really fulfill any kind of deterrence function. ... But even if they did exist, this kind of mobile nuclear bombs or devices, this is something that would have to be reproduced on a regular basis, made again. Any kind of nuclear device or bomb has a shelf life. And once the service life has run out, then the charges on these devices become more dangerous. They become more dangerous for the people that are actually in possession of them.

You're referring to the tritium; the half-life of some of the materials?

Not only, there are a lot of other factors that lead to the decreased efficiency of devices like that ... . But I don't know anything about the system and I don't really see why it would make sense. But the most important answer would be that I don't know this field. ...

General Lebed, when he came and testified before the Congress, evidently said that at one point he had known about them, evidently. And he had tried to account for all of them and couldn't find some of them. Then when a team tried to inquire about it later, he said that he was under investigation for revealing state secrets for even having talked about it. Do you know anything about that end of the story at all?

Well, I've heard about this incident. I can tell you that Lebed is probably the least informed person as far as this topic is concerned. I considered him a big specialist, really, an expert in the military folklore. That's really where it stops.

He says that he was charged with actually making an accounting of these things. Was he not a general, highly placed enough to know?

Well, theoretically, he could have dealt with these issues only when he was the Secretary of the Security Council. That was a very short period of time, and he had quite a few other problems to deal with. But he could not be qualified to even deal with this issue, in principle, because that's outside of his expertise.

How has the economic crisis affected the military in Russia?

It has affected the military just as much as it affected the entire population of Russia; it's really been very hard for everybody. ... The living standards of officers are very low now, and you know that they don't receive wages for months and months at a time. Even though now, the government of Primakov is trying to eliminate the debts to the military and to the officers, and they receive wages now on a regular basis. But still, the wages are very low and they don't provide for a normal living standard that would be expected for officers. The situation is also the hardest with the housing. Let's take my institute, for instance. Every third or fourth person does not have housing. ... Also, there are a lot of obsolete machinery and there is not enough funds to upgrade it; really, everything that is being done is being done by the officers themselves, through their own efforts.

General Sergeyev, in September, had told the officers to take personal responsibility for seeing to the needs of their troops. What did he mean by that?

Well, Marshall Sergeyev meant that all officers should increase their responsibility for everybody under their control, everybody who is subordinated to them. And Marshall Sergeyev was really the first person in the Ministry of Defense that started to implement real reform. He initiated, first of all, the reduction of the manag[ment]. apparatus. There were fewer heads now, but their responsibilities were increased. And that's what he was referring to when he said that.

My reading, through, it is that things have [come] to the point now where officers actually have to try to figure out, on their own, how their troops are going to be fed and housed. That this is not something that the Ministry of Defense can handle overall. Am I mistaken in that judgment?

No, this is incorrect. Now there are centralized standards in place of providing for the needs of the military personnel; soldiers actually are provided for better than the officers. The officers are putting up with that and you should really see our officers to fully understand their patience, given the situation at hand.

Have the Strategic Rocket Forces been given higher priority in receiving pay than other troops?

No; everybody is in the same boat. The only difference is that when the funds are being allocated among the different forces, be it Strategic Forces or other forces; the officers in the Strategic Forces, those that are on combat duty at command posts, they have priority in getting funds. But that's a really very small advantage, and the length of time that separates the receipt of wages by these, or the salaries, by these officers as compared to others, is very small. Maybe a week, two weeks, tops.

What's your sense of how morale is being affected by that state of affairs?

Of course it affects the morale. It really is amazing, and all of us who live in Russia are really amazed, even sometimes amazed at ourselves as to how long we are ready to wait and to suffer and to persevere in this situation. There must be something in the genetic code that makes us be patient. ...

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