fbpx

Robert Gates, Missile Defense, and the Russian Nuclear Weapon Leak

robertgates103108.jpgDefense Secretary Robert Gates made some pretty interesting comments a couple days ago during a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With regard to the proposed anti-ballistic missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, Secretary Gates commented that Russia’s military appeared to understand and accept that the system would not be aimed at deterring from Russia, but politically, the leadership decided to make issue of it. He also said the argument that 10 interceptors could put the Russian arsenal in jeopardy “is laughable on its face.” Coincidentally, today Russia denied that it has been slowing cutting down oil exports to the Czech Republic as punishment for hosting the missile system.

But it was what Gates said about Russia leaking nuclear materials during the 1990s that angered the Foreign Ministry. He said, “I have fairly high confidence that no strategic or modern tactical nuclear weapons have leaked. What worries me are the tens of thousands of old nuclear mines, nuclear artillery shells and so on, because the reality is the Russians themselves probably don’t have any idea how many of those they have or, potentially, where they are.“The has prompted a testy response from Russian military officials denying any leaks of nuclear materials. “Such allegations are entirely groundless,” read the statement. “Despite all the difficulties that our country faced in the early 1990s, Russia maintained very high standards of ensuring the safety and physical protection of its nuclear arsenals.“Excerpts from Gates below.From the Carnegie transcript of Robert Gates:

[Responding to question on proposed missile defense sites]I will tell you that I think we have gone a long way toward providing the necessary assurances, to Russia, that this system is not aimed at them but is aimed at a very limited threat coming from Iran. And we have made a number of proposals to them, to provide them that reassurance, including having their representatives at both the sites, in the Czech Republic and in Poland, if those governments agree to it, having technical monitoring of what is going on, at both of those sites, having a common data-sharing center in Moscow.We have – I’ve proposed to President Putin, now Prime Minister Putin, that we would not operationalize the sites until the Iranians had tested a missile that could reach most of Western Europe, not to mention a good part of Russia.We have offered transparency in a variety of ways. And to tell you the truth, the Russian military has shown some interest in this. But I think that for political reasons, the Russians have chosen to make an issue of it.The notion – first of all, the geometry that is involved makes it impossible for these missiles, these missile defense interceptors to be used against Russian missiles to start with. But second, the notion that the Russian arsenal is any way put in jeopardy, by 10 interceptors, I think, is laughable on its face.We’ve – I’ve also talked to them very directly about, well, is your worry breakout? That someday we would change the configuration of these sites and expand them, in a way that might put your deterrent at some risk? I have said, we can reach agreements on that, and because you’ll be there, you’ll know if we’re going to start to do anything.So I think we’ve leaned forward pretty far and been quite open with them about what we intend to do. So I think that this is part of an overall NATO missile defense which all of the NATO leaders endorsed in Bucharest last April. I think the Russians know perfectly well this isn’t aimed against them.Yes?Q: (Off mike) – CSIS. Mr. Secretary, in the context of the Nunn-Lugar legislation, both senators have said that it would be an absolute miracle if there hadn’t been leakage of nuclear materials from Russia since the end of the Cold War. How much do we know about nuclear leakage?SEC. GATES: Well, I think the problem here is – is not what we know but what we don’t know. I think that we can – I know this question was still coming up even when I was still director of CIA back in the early ’90s, and particularly as Russia went through that particularly chaotic period from ’89 to ’93 or ’94. I’m pretty – I have fairly high confidence that no strategic or modern tactical nuclear weapons have leaked. What worries me are the tens of thousands of old nuclear mines, nuclear artillery shells and so on, because the reality is the Russians themselves probably don’t have any idea how many of those they have or, potentially, where they are.And I don’t know how much has changed now. I know that under Nunn-Lugar, we have helped them a lot in terms of improving the security of their storage facilities, but there were times during the 1990s when these facilities were no better guarded than an ordinary warehouse and by a guard who was barely being paid at all.So I think that of the weapons where the Russians know where they are and know what they are, I have pretty high confidence they’re under control. What happened maybe during an earlier, more chaotic period or what has happened to some of these older weapons, I think that there are some uncertainties.