The following anecdote illustrates the way in which Russian authorities respond to criticism of their nuclear policy.
In January of 2012, Vladimir Putin -- then Russia's prime minister and now its president -- became very angry during a meeting with the editors-in-chief of many of the country's top media outlets. Complaining to Alexei Venediktov of the radio station Ekho Moskvy about the "utter nonsense" that he had recently heard on the station from two defense analysts -- Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute for Strategic Assessments, and me -- Putin claimed that the analysts were promoting the interests of a foreign power, implying the United States.
Putin was particularly angry over Konovalov's suggestion that the location of US missile defense installations should not concern Russia's political and military leadership because the installations pose little, if any, threat to the country's nuclear deterrence capabilities. In fact, Putin said that if the United States deployed radar installations for a missile defense system in Georgia, Russia might aim some of its missiles at Tbilisi. But Washington has no plans to deploy radar facilities in Georgia. True, four Republican senators in the United States proposed this idea last year, but it was little more than a propaganda stunt, and few in Washington took the proposal seriously. Putin sincerely believes that he is an expert in the field of nuclear weapons, but his stance on missile defense indicates otherwise.
Hysterics and bogeymen. Because nuclear weapons are so fundamental to Russian's foreign policy, journalists who cover and question nuclear weapon policy can face accusations that their work is unpatriotic. Since Putin first came to power, a concerted effort has been made in Russian diplomacy to bring issues of nuclear strategy to the forefront. From the Kremlin's viewpoint, Russia can only demonstrate that it should be considered a superpower by emphasizing its nuclear potential. Therefore, in every way possible, it has tried to leverage the huge nuclear arsenal that it inherited from the Soviet Union for greater influence in international affairs. In fact, in discussions with Western and above all American counterparts, Moscow seems to want to discuss little besides nuclear issues. Putin has labored doggedly to raise nuclear warhead counts to the top of the international agenda in order to obscure other issues where Russia is weak -- such as the country's level of economic development, which doesn't align with Putin's superpower ambitions. He believes that the United States is the root cause of all his problems, and he uses every opportunity to remind Washington that one country in the world remains capable of destroying the United States.
In recent years, Moscow has often expressed its dissatisfaction with Western policies by resorting to the clichés of the Cold War. For instance, the Kremlin is unhappy with Georgia's desire to join NATO, and with the possibility that Ukraine might join as well. Therefore, it claims that the West will inevitably build military bases in those countries if they join NATO, and that these bases will be equipped with missiles aimed at Russia. Moscow dislikes it when the United States and countries in Western Europe express their displeasure with Russia's suppression of civil liberties -- and responds by going into hysterics about NATO building up a military superiority.
Much of this was demonstrated in a speech Putin gave in Munich in 2007, in which he said that peace based on fear of mutual destruction "was reliable enough," but that "today it seems that the peace is not so reliable." He put Cold War issues like the balance of conventional arms and missile defense in Europe back on the negotiating table, while repeatedly accusing the United States, as well as other NATO countries, of attempting to achieve military superiority over Russia.
The idea that nuclear weapons are the state's main asset precludes discussion of serious issues such as whether Russia needs to maintain nuclear parity with the United States. Nor is there much legitimate debate in Russia on the most pressing nuclear issue of the moment -- the US missile defense system. Russia insists that the United States through missile defense is undermining strategic stability and threatening Moscow's nuclear deterrent. But nobody in Russia is interested in having a serious discussion on the subject, and missile defense has become a perfect bogeyman that the Kremlin can use for political purposes in the same way that it has used NATO expansion.
In reality, Putin is deathly afraid of threats from the West. But it isn't nuclear war that he fears, but rather an Orange Revolution in Russia. The Kremlin is paranoid about such a "color revolution." Concerns over US missile defense plans are phony -- Russian leaders understand that these plans pose no threat to Russia's deterrence capabilities -- but they are prepared to battle the "orange plague" wherever it appears in the world. The United States executed regime change in Iraq, and helped do so in Libya. Now it wants the same in Syria -- and, according to the Kremlin, the United States is planning a regime change for Russia.
Hints, allusions, and treason. Under such circumstances, casting doubt on the government's nuclear policy calls into question the country's entire foreign policy. This affects journalists, and also nongovernmental organizations. Several Russian research organizations employ highly qualified experts on nuclear issues. These include the Center for International Security, which is headed by international-relations scholar Alexei Arbatov; the Institute for US and Canadian Studies, headed by Sergei Rogov; and the Carnegie Moscow Center. Outstanding experts such as retired Generals Vladimir Dvorkin and Viktor Esin are affiliated with these organizations, but the expert community prefers not to engage in direct discussions with the Kremlin on nuclear issues. It prefers instead to speak in allusions, and to make hints so thin that the government can safely ignore them. Analysts may suggest ways to continue the process of disarmament -- but government officials say that Moscow is not interested in any disarmament.
Now authorities have at their disposal a new, highly effective tool to stop any discussion about nuclear weapons. Russia recently enacted a treason law that could criminalize anyone who associates with organizations whose activities are perceived as threatening Russia's security. Security is a concept that can be interpreted very widely, of course, and the new law provides an excellent opportunity to silence anyone -- including journalists -- disagreeing with official views.