Russian-American relations: an interview with analyst Alexei Arbatov

America can see that Russia is a far more democratic country than the Soviet Union was, but America still doesn’t regard Russia as a democracy in the full sense of the term. So in the long term, as Gates mentioned, the United States and many other countries see Russia as rather unpredictable.

In early February, almost simultaneously, two international human rights organizations made some rather unflattering comments on democracy in Russia. The latest Freedom House report, “Freedom in the World 2007,” ranked Russia alongside Cuba, Libya, and North Korea. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists compared the freedom of speech situation in Russia to the situation in Libya.

Since US Defense Secretary Robert Gates called on the United States to prepare for war with Russia, there has been talk of a deliberate wave of anti-Moscow criticism – practically the start of a Cold War. Is there a conspiracy? No, says Alexei Arbatov, head of the International Security Center (IMEMO, Russian Academy of Sciences) and Research Council member at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Question: Do you think what US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said was a slip of the tongue or a statement of principle?

Alexei Arbatov: I think it was a slip of the tongue. He didn’t want to cause a political furor. But it was a Freudian slip, reflecting America’s actual underlying grievances and apprehensions, which usually aren’t expressed in official rhetoric – because the United States has found itself in a difficult situation with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, so it has absolutely no interest in complicating relations with Russia as well. Gates is newly-appointed and hasn’t had time to absorb the standards of political correctness. In short, he simply blurted it out.

Question: Was he trying to produce some strong arguments for the need to increase US defense spending?

Alexei Arbatov: That’s the explanation. But Rumsfeld was also pushing for a substantial funding increase, and he didn’t bring up such a sensitive issue.

Question: All right, so Gates simply misspoke, but this coincided with other developments – for example, Freedom House’s ambivalent evaluation of democracy in Russia. Does this indicate a trend of attitudes to Russia being revised?

Alexei Arbatov: This isn’t a trend, since whenever anyone blurts something out, it’s always possible to find some sort of polls, reports, or articles to back up a claim that “this isn’t a coincidence, it’s profoundly significant and evidence of a malicious plot.” Actually, this was entirely coincidental. At the same time, our international image and popularity really are deteriorating – that is a fact.

America can see that Russia is a far more democratic country than the Soviet Union was, but America still doesn’t regard Russia as a democracy in the full sense of the term. So in the long term, as Gates mentioned, the United States and many other countries see Russia as a rather unpredictable country. Besides, there are also many differences of opinion among Russian citizens on the question of what Russia should be or will be in five or ten years’ time.

Question: Some Western media claim that Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov’s recent statements might have provoked the harsh remarks from the Americans. Our plans to increase missile numbers, our unpredictability, and so on.

Alexei Arbatov: Our defense budget and our military preparations have little influence on American policies. From the 1990s until now, all specialists – senior officials and military commanders in both countries – have tacitly understood that a substantial part of the Russian and US Armed Forces are still intended for a hypothetical conflict with each other. This primarily applies to the nuclear forces. But since there was a spirit of partnership and cooperation, they preferred not to speak of this in public. Now it’s surfacing. And in Russia it’s been mentioned repeatedly already.

For example, Vladimir Putin and Sergei Ivanov keep saying that we are maintaining our nuclear arsenals at the proper level. And although the United States isn’t directly named as a target, it’s obvious that Topol-M ICBMs, new submarines like the Yuri Dolgoruky, and Bulava naval missiles aren’t intended to fight terrorists or some sort of “threshold countries.”

Question: And this, along with reports that Poland and the Czech Republic will host elements of the US missile defense system, has led to talk of an arms race.

Alexei Arbatov: The missile defense elements in the Czech Republic and Poland won’t pose any threat of intercepting our strategic missiles. They will be directed against Iranian missiles, which are increasingly long-range – already capable of reaching Europe, and perhaps capable of reaching the United States some day.

“Arms race” isn’t a professional strategic term – it’s more of a media term. It refers to the intensive nuclear arms build-up between the 1950s and 1980s. Well, neither the United States nor Russia are doing anything remotely like that, and they don’t intend to do so in the foreseeable future.

There was a time when the Soviet Union deployed 300-400 missiles a year, and every month would see the launch of a new nuclear submarine armed with strategic missiles. There have been similar periods in the United States. Now that’s an arms race. But what are we seeing now? Ivanov’s talking of six new strategic missiles being deployed this year, and perhaps a few more next year. This is nothing like an arms race! And the same goes for the Americans: they are continuing moderate modernization of their forces, while also gradually reducing them, as Russia’s forces are being reduced.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t still have powerful nuclear arsenals aimed against each other, although for a long while it wasn’t the done thing to mention this at the official level. Complications have arisen in US-Russian political relations, due to a number of international problems, and the US Defense Secretary went and blurted something out. He said it to Congress, and probably didn’t expect it to be widely reported, but there was a media leak.

Question: Even if we’re not talking of an arms race, the topic is certainly being hyped up. Some of the top brass in Russia have already started calling for a revision of our military doctrine.

Alexei Arbatov: It’s just that they have spent a long time in a situation where certain things weren’t mentioned publicly, but now they have an opportunity to make a big fuss: look, we’re innocent little lambs, we never knew how we were being deceived.

Of course, the Americans themselves are providing a lot of pretexts for this. They haven’t ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. They withdrew from the ABM Treaty. All on the pretext that the Cold War is over, so there would seem to be no point in working on treaties or negotiating about arms limitation.

All the same, many people in our country immediately decided to score some political points from this. What need is there to revise our doctrine? It already covers the need to maintain our nuclear deterrence arsenals, the possibility of delivering a first strike, the importance of systems capable of penetrating any American missile defenses, and preparations to fight local, regional, and global wars. Russia has made repeated and transparent hints at the identity of its chief hypothetical opponent.

Question: Could these moves be only first steps – a test?

Alexei Arbatov: They could, of course, surround us with missile defense systems, but this would take many years and would, of course, cause serious conflicts within NATO. After all, most NATO members are European states that want to buy our oil and gas. Why should they want a missile defense system if it’s directed against Russia and complicates relations with Russia? Interceptor missiles won’t bring in any oil or gas, while threats are more likely to provoke Russia into cutting energy supplies. In any case, large-scale missile defense deployment would take many years, and in that time we could take all the necessary military political measures in response.

Question: US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov met in Seville recently, and plan to meet again in the near future. The exchange of harsh comments between America and Russia: where might it lead?

Alexei Arbatov: It will end with the elections, both there and here. And after the elections, the new presidents and lawmakers will think about how to start “gathering stones together.”