Category Archives: Russia

Ty Cobb on a Russian Brokered Agreement with Syria

Why Not Give Russia the Lead?


By Tyrus W. Cobb


Moscow tabled, and the US accepted, a proposal that if the United States were to postpone a planned military strike against Syria, Russia would help broker an agreement in which the Assad regime would place its chemical weapon stocks under UN supervision. The end goal would be the total destruction of the Syrian chemical weapon stockpiles.

Everyone knows the agreement contains a number of challenges that seem daunting. Indeed, even the task of identifying, let alone securing, Syrian chemical weapons in the middle of a war zone appears unreasonable. At some point Syria may even insist on conditions that could collapse the agreement or fail to provide a complete accounting of its weapons.

The punditocracy decried the agreement! Gads, we hear, it gave Moscow a new lead role to play in global politics, perhaps at the detriment of the U.S. Really, tell me how giving Moscow a positive role to play is a bad thing?

We heard that the agreement signed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lacked definitive steps that needed to be accomplished? Au contraire, my friends, it includes a number of concrete actions that need to be taken by Syria.

And guess what? That seems to be happening, and at lightning speed! The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution that included legally binding demands, specifically that the Syrian government agree to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile and that independent inspectors be given unrestricted access. The Lavrov-Kerry accord required that, first, an inventory of Syrian chemical weapons be undertaken, and then, that the Syrian stockpile be placed under international control.

The agreement appears to on track for implementation. Just this week a team of 20 international disarmament experts arrived in Syria, the advance element of the group that is charged with impounding, dismantling, removing or destroying Syria’s CW arsenal. Another team of 20 is slated to arrive shortly to begin dismantling the equipment used to assemble these weapons. This has never happened before, let alone in a war zone.

And this is a black eye for the U.S.? Someone please tell me why.

Moscow takes center stage—and why is this bad?

I am amazed at the speed of events that have occurred since the signing of the Lavrov-Kerry pact, and the responsibility Russia has assumed in the process.  As the Washington Post’s David Ignatius has written, “Russia has been drawn into the process of collecting and destroying Syrian chemical weapons”.

We would be well advised to encourage the continuation of this process, including the elevation of the Kremlin to a key role in the implementation.

The question that arises, of course, is can we trust Moscow to serve as an honest broker and assist in securing an agreement that catalogs and ultimately destroys Assad’s chemical weapons?

Of course no one wants to put full faith and trust in the hands of the Kremlin. In following President Reagan’s dictum, “Trust but Verify”, we will want to verify the implementation of the mandated steps rather than rely on “trust”. With an emphasis on verification.

President Obama’s off-hand characterization recently of Russian President Vladimir Putin as the “angry kid who sits in the back of the classroom throwing spitballs” is most apt. Russia has not been constructive in diffusing international disputes, it has threatened its neighbors, and has exaggerated the intent behind US deployments of a missile defense system.

But maybe part of the reason Moscow has acted so petulant is that it really hasn’t been given any opportunity to play a more positive role. Now it has–Russia has accepted a key role in the process of collecting and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.

No one should be so naïve to think that Moscow has suddenly become an impartial player in the Syrian crisis, or that the Assad regime has warmly welcomed this international intrusion. However, both Moscow and Damascus believe that the threat of a devastating American military strike remains real, which may or may not be the case. But they seem to believe that President Obama will, in fact, order a punitive strike, if chemical weapons are employed again. I certainly hope that he would. And no going to Congress—just do it!

Further, it reflects the conclusion by the Assad regime that from a military standpoint, the employment of chemical weapons really does not alter the course of the tactical struggle. They have minimal military significance.  But they do invoke the passionate ire of the international community when employed! Do they really have any tactical utility? Are they worth keeping? Probably not.

So, critics, tell me what Plan B is

The agreement gave the US some badly needed breathing space after a politically damaging series of shifts by the White House.

President Obama retreated from his initial inclination to immediately attack Syria for crossing the infamous “red line”, employing chemical weapons on its own populace. Then, overriding his closest advisors, the President decided to seek more backing for the strikes from Congress, our allies, and perhaps even the United Nations. None of these alternatives panned out.

Despite initial strong support for a strike, France, Germany, and the UK all retreated in the face of wide-spread parliamentary and public opposition. Backing from the Sunni Arab nations proved equally ephemeral, quickly dissipating from a call for action to reservations over any western military intervention. Finally, any hopes of securing UN backing in the face of likely Russian and Chinese opposition was abandoned.

More importantly, domestic US public opinion swayed decisively to the side of non-intervention. Most Americans—and those in Congress– just want the issue to go away

Without a realistic alternative, the U.S. should support implementation of the agreement

In reality, here is where we are. First, President Obama has little support from any constituency for a strike on Syria. Second, President Assad still maintains control over considerable stocks of chemical weapons. Further, his hold on power seems only to have been strengthened over the past year, thanks to the intervention of the Iranian Quds Force and by Hezbollah. Third, the rebel coalition itself is wracked by serious internal fractionalization and is losing ground. More worrisome is that it is increasingly dominated by elements associated with Al-Qaeda and other radical Sunni groups.

In the end, the Russian brokered agreement that is intended to remove chemical weapons from Syria may fail. The Assad regime may remain in power despite US efforts to see him removed. But the prospects for a transition to a representative democracy in Syria does not seem promising, certainly no more so than it was in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Egypt.

So I ask again, if you “don’t trust Russia” and believe that the agreement only buys time and space for Assad, then what is your preferred alternative?

I doubt you have one.

In this light, I recommend that we give support to the Russian brokered agreement and see where it leads. If the demilitarization of Syrian chemical weapons succeeds against the obvious odds, then that would have the added value not only of securing this horrific arsenal, but would have the added benefit of bringing Russia into playing a more positive role on the world stage.


Dr. Tyrus W. Cobb served as Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan for National Security Affairs, and as Director of Soviet, European and Canadian Affairs on the NSC.



Russia’s granting of temporary asylum to National Security Agency leaker/whistle-blower Edward Snowden has embarrassed the Obama administration and thrown U.S.-Russian relations into turmoil. The President must now decide if he will attend the G-20 economic summit meeting in St. Petersburg in September and if he will continue on to Moscow to have a mini-summit with President Putin.

Moscow’s decision to grant asylum to Snowden probably mean that the Moscow meetings are off, but it is likely that Obama will attend the G-20 summit. Given that there are many important issues to discuss in the Russian-American relationship, a bilateral session between Putin and Obama might take place.

(Note: Subsequent to our drafting this piece, President Obama announced this morning that he would attend the G-20 Summit, but cancelled the Moscow meeting)

As it should. We have major frictions in our relationship beyond Snowden that must be addressed. The U.S. is frustrated over Moscow’s support for the Assad regime in Syria, increasing violations of human rights in Russia, a ban on adoptions by American families, joint China-Russia military operations, and apparent Kremlin support for anti-Americanism in the state influenced media.

Still, we should not overplay these issues. With respect to Snowden, the question has to be asked: “If a defector from the signals intelligence branch of the FSB (formerly the KGB) with deep knowledge of the Soviet intelligence system who portrays himself as a person of conscience, asks for asylum here, would we refuse his request and send him packing back to Moscow?”

I hope not! Further, I think Snowden has already realized that he has defected from a system, however imperfect, that permits open discussion on the security issues he fretted about. As Jack Matlock, our last Ambassador to the Soviet Union, writes, Snowden now finds himself in a situation where his EVERY move will be monitored and every communication censored.

Jack sent me his comments, parts of which are worth repeating here:

“Snowden in Russia

So the Russian government has finally—and predictably—granted Edward Snowden “temporary asylum” for a year. Does that worry you? It shouldn’t—unless you are a Russian.

Imagine: he did not want to live in a country that eavesdrops on his conversations. So he leaves one that has pretty effective mechanisms to prevent that happening, at least by government officials, and goes to two that are notorious for invasions of privacy, to put it mildly, particularly by government officials. And now, if anything is certain, it is that his every step and every breath will be monitored by somebody.

I was a consular officer at the American embassy in Moscow in the early 1960s and I noted that almost every American “defector” to the Soviet Union—even some who had spied for them—clamored to go home after a year or two. In one notable case, that of Lee Harvey Oswald, it is unfortunate that we let him return. But he had broken no law. Snowden has, and when he comes back, he will be held to account.

OK, it’s not as if present-day Russia is comparable to the Soviet Union. Snowden will find more amenities there than Oswald did in Minsk in 1960. But the sort of freedom an emotional anarchist like Snowden is looking for? Get real! If he wants to escape from snooping (to which he was apparently never subjected in the United States), he has gone to the wrong place.

Should President Obama cancel his planned visit to Moscow in September? Absolutely not!…. It would have been utterly unrealistic to expect Snowden’s extradition without an extradition treaty that would require the U.S. to extradite genuine asylum seekers—a concession the United States should not make. But, with a better U.S.-Russian relationship, we might have persuaded President Putin to prevent his travel to Moscow in the first place.

As it is, we have a lot of important business to transact with Russia and we should not let aberrant incidents like the Snowden matter get in the way.

  • Jack Matlock


Two other experts, and former colleagues, also sent me an opinion piece which is worth repeating (in part) here. Ambassador Bill Courtney and Dr. Mike Haltzell advise taking a tough approach with Putin and Russia, not so much over Snowden, but in response to more important developments in the former Soviet Union—a trend back toward authoritarianism, Putin’s “stoking of “xenophobic nationalism”, and a potential for domestic unrest. The authors do not advocate encouraging civic dissonance or protests, but they do call for fairly significant—and tougher–changes in our policy toward Moscow. Read on.

Preparing for a Less Stable Russia

By William Courtney and Michael Haltzel

The Huffington Post, August 6, 2013

The Snowden affair has thrown Russia into the limelight, but longer-term issues deserve more attention — the country’s swerve toward authoritarian rule and diminishing political stability. The West should distance itself from President Vladimir Putin, support democrats, and prepare for a more unpredictable Russia.

Expanding abuse of the judicial system to sideline opponents shows a flailing Kremlin, desperate to stem discontent. On July 18, a Russian court sentenced Putin’s main adversary, anti-corruption activist and liberal nationalist Alexei Navalny, to five years in a labor camp on trumped-up charges. Thousands quickly took to the streets, and in an about face Navalny was freed on bail pending an appeal, enabling him to resume campaigning for mayor of Moscow in a September election. Navalny’s labeling of Putin’s United Russia party as one of “crooks and thieves” has gone viral in Russia.

The Kremlin’s next target seems to be the elected, popular mayor of Yaroslavl, Yevgeny Urlashov. The only opposition big-city mayor, on July 5 he was jailed on dubious extortion and bribery charges pending trial.

On July 16, three thousand people rallied in his support. Legal manipulation is not new for Putin. In May 2005 a court convicted Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a rich oligarch who had backed the opposition, of embezzlement and money laundering. Putin tolerates other oligarchs who have amassed wealth through shady dealings but have not challenged him. Khodorkovsky, although widely considered to have been framed, languishes in a Siberian prison.

A rigged parliamentary election in December 2011 spawned large street protests, the first since the Soviet collapse in 1991. Putin blamed the outpouring on a “signal” from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A raft of new laws aims to stifle independent civil society and intimidate Russians from dealing with foreigners. In June, Russia’s only independent election monitoring group, Golos, was suspended from operating for six months.

Last December the Magnitsky Act became U.S. law. It denies visas and U.S. banking access for Russian officials implicated in the agonizing prison death of whistleblower lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. In a heartless response, the Kremlin ended adoption by Americans of Russian children, many with special needs.

Russia may appear to be politically stable. In May the independent Levada polling center found that 63 percent of Russians continue to approve of Putin’s performance. As well, the opposition lacks unity, and many Russians are preoccupied with their private lives.

Yet, the intermittent public protests are a sign of unease. The economy has slowed, needed structural reforms are wanting, and corruption and wasteful state enterprises sap confidence. In June, the central bank chief said that capital flight abroad remained rampant. In July more than 50 distinguished law professors and other legal experts warned in an unusual open letter that constitutional protections had become an “empty declaration.”

Another recent poll found that 35 percent of respondents saw the influx of people of “other ethnicities” as a “very real” threat, more so even than terrorism. Seeking to exploit these sentiments, Putin is stoking xenophobic nationalism. This tactic risks alienating non-Russians, who comprise one-fifth of the population, as well as some educated Russian elites.

Putin’s crackdown is pushing the limits of Russia’s social contract. Opposition could increase from at least two directions. In 1991 protests by disillusioned educated and urbanized elites hastened the Soviet collapse, and now Putin is losing their support. In July the Center for Strategic Research, a Moscow think tank, said new polling showed that Putin may also face a greater risk of protests from less educated and less wealthy people in the outlying regions.

From whatever direction, Russia may be vulnerable to greater unrest or a “color” revolution. A spark could emerge from another stolen election, economic frustration, or the violence-wracked North Caucasus.

With Russia becoming less stable, the West should alter its policy.

First, Western leaders should distance themselves from Putin and step up criticism of his repression. President Obama should not withdraw from the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg in September, but rightly seems likely to decline a separate summit with Putin in Moscow. Discussions on issues of great mutual concern like counter-terrorism, arms control, missile defense, and Syria can be handled at the cabinet level. Puzzlingly, Putin seems to think the United States is in decline. In fact, he is overplaying his own weakening hand by brazenly criminalizing political opponents, and granting asylum to Snowden.

Second, the West should strengthen ties with independent voices in Russia, and offer more training abroad to promising democratic leaders and election monitors. The enduring value of people-to-people exchanges is often underestimated. Navalny, for example, was a Yale World Fellow in 2010.

Third, if unrest or a popular revolution breaks out, the Russians will have to find their own way, but the West can encourage peaceful, democratic change. Two decades ago the West did this as the USSR collapsed amid economic ruin. Among the lessons relevant today: keep faith with democratic forces, avoid triumphalism, provide humanitarian aid as needed, encourage rule-of-law and economic reforms, and oppose corruption, including by nominally democratic forces.

For now, Putin can suppress dissent and freedoms, but time is not on his side. The West has an interest in a freer Russia and should act on it.

William Courtney was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia, and special assistant to the president for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. Michael Haltzel, senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, was staff director for Europe at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Response to Ty Cobb’s SDI Commentary

Colleagues: While many agreed with my piece on SDI (Click Here to view), assigning it a central place in the disintegration of the Soviet Union, others whose opinion I respect disagreed. I am forwarding comments by former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, former Executive Director of the CIA, Rae Huffstutler, and former Assistant Secretary of State, Ted McNamara.

First, this from Jack Matlock, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union in the waning days of the Cold War, and previously was the Senior Director on the NSC staff responsible for Soviet and European affairs. Jack writes:


Ty, one can say that SDI had a marginal effect on the end of the Cold War–something to be separated from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The proposition that SDI played a significant role in the break-up of the Soviet Union seems based on the assumption that Gorbachev was required to increase spending on missile defense when the Soviet Union could not afford it. The fact is that the USSR, after 1987 or so, was REDUCING defense spending. In 1990 and 1991, SDI was not even an issue! The Soviets were ready to sign a START agreement without any reference to missile defense in 1990. We delayed the signing to 1991 to get through the Gulf War.

It also assumes that economic factors played the key role in the Soviet break-up. In fact, the economic problems the USSR experienced in the late 1980s were much deeper than the role of military spending. The decline in oil prices to something like $10.00 a barrel (something we encouraged) was infinitely more important, and basically the problem was with the whole structure of the state-run economy. 

Even so, these very fundamental problems were only some of the causes. The rise of non-Russian nationalism, stoked by the three nations on the Baltic, the competition between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and the growing conviction among the Russian non-Party political elite (and some CP leaders as well) that Russia would be better off without the other republics were very important and ultimately determining.

With respect to weapons, I say that SDI had at best a marginal effect because failure to deal with the perceptions on both sides made the sort of agreement discussed at Reykjavik impossible for a time. If there had been an agreement on this issue (and Gorbachev’s offer would not have “killed” the program), we could have had an INF agreement in 1986 and a START agreement for 50 percent cuts in 1987 or 1988. This would have brought the arms reduction we sought somewhat sooner. 

Yes, the Soviet military probably exaggerated the ability of the US to deploy a viable missile defense system. In reality, however, such a defense could easily be overwhelmed. All he needed to do was to step up production of missiles and develop sophisticated decoys, both of which the Soviets could do relatively cheaply. After all, even a perfect defense would not work if all the interceptors developed were used against decoys. (We still haven’t figured out how to distinguish a sophisticated decoy from a real warhead; I doubt if we ever will.) The Soviets could fairly easily counter SDI without great economic effect, but if the arms race continued, they could not reorient their economy as they needed to do. It was, therefore, the arms race in general that the Soviets needed to end, not just (or even mainly) SDI.

In fact, by 1986, many in the Reagan administration had despaired of finding a viable space-based defense. You are right that Reagan was much taken by Teller’s approach, but as we worked on it, it became increasingly clear that anything space-based was not going to work.  Why? Because of the principle Andrei Sakharov pointed out: it is much easier and cheaper to take something out of space than to put it there. A space-based laser or other directed energy defense (the only type we could imagine that could kill a rocket in the boost phase) would be vulnerable. Furthermore, it would require much more heavy lift capacity than the U.S. had at that time; recall that the Soviets had already developed much more lift capacity while we were working on making smaller stuff more accurate. Then what happens when you put it there? All it would take is a little shove from an adversary’s satellite to knock it out of orbit. As I have written, a space-based interceptor would be more like a sitting duck than a hovering hawk. We didn’t discuss this even with staff because so much depended on convincing the Soviets that it would work!

One thing your article does not make clear is that Gorbachev asked Reagan to limit SDI research to laboratories for ten years, not forever. I was told by the White House that we could easily accept eight years and I was instructed to draft a concept paper that would allow us to accept the goal of zero nukes in 10-15 years. (We knew we couldn’t do it with arms cuts alone.) However, the roof fell in upon our return from Reykjavik when everybody reacted negatively to the idea of eliminating nuclear weapons (or ballistic missiles) in ten years. Thatcher flew to Washington in a fury, the chairman of the JCS told us he would have to testify against any such arrangement, etc. We might have managed all that, but Iran-Contra hit and the new National Security Advisor, Frank Carlucci, didn’t think much of the proposal to eliminate ballistic missiles. (It had originally been a Perle-Weinberger idea, but when we thought through it, it made a lot of sense.) They proposed it, as they proposed zero/zero in INF because they thought the Soviets wouldn’t buy it. The president accepted both ideas because he thought they made sense.  Of course, we managed to convince Gorbachev re INF once we deployed, but we never did re ballistic missiles.

One of the other points I missed in your article was Reagan’s proposal to eliminate all ballistic missiles before strategic defenses could be deployed. He made this proposal in a letter to Gorbachev in July 1986 (you can find it among the documents available on my website He repeated it at Reykjavik. (See the transcripts of the final meeting, also on that website.) This is often ignored or skipped over in discussions of Reykjavik, but the proposal was not for just strategic ballistic missiles or nuclear armed ballistic missiles, but for all ballistic missiles. (We would have needed to define a range for artillery, which would be permitted, but everything else with offensive ballistic capability would be banned. This was relevant not just for nuclear weapons but potentially for chemical and biological weapons.)  

If Gorbachev had accepted that, we could probably have convinced Reagan to include nuclear-armed cruise missiles and aircraft as well, as this would have been necessary to reach the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, so dear to Reagan’s heart. Selling it to our military-industrial complex would have been a different matter!

SDI also gave the Soviets incentives to reduce their heavy ICBMs–which many considered our most important objective–but only if they were convinced that we would not deploy defenses as part of a strategy to deliver a first strike and then protect ourselves from retaliation. This was their fear then, and also what they claim to fear now.

Yes, Gorbachev wanted to “kill” SDI, that is get if off the political agenda, but primarily because it was a political problem at home.  Soviet views were not uniform. Scientists such as Roald Sagdeyev, then head of the civilian space program, and Yevgeny Velikhov, the chief scientific honcho for nuclear power plants, thought it would not work as the military feared and could be, essentially, ignored. But this was not the view of the Soviet military-industrial complex or the Soviet politburo. The latter were shockingly unsophisticated.  Bessmertnykh told me later that they thought SDI was a plan to orbit weapons that could be used to attack ground targets. Therefore, the program was an immense political problem for Gorbachev because of these perceptions. For him, it was a political rather than technical or military problem.

In my view, the Cold War ended ideologically in December, 1988, with Gorbachev’s speech to the UN in effect discarding the international class struggle (Marxism-Leninism) as the fundamental basis for Soviet foreign policy, and unilaterally reducing the Soviet military by a half million men. The next two years confirmed that he was serious (letting Eastern Europe go free and allowing Germany to unite and stay in NATO.)

In sum, I wonder how many of the people who argue that SDI played any role at all in the breakup of the Soviet Union actually witnessed on the spot what happened in that country between 1987 and 1991, participated in all the US-Soviet negotiations, knew all the principal Communist and anti-Communist political figures and interacted with them personally as the events unfolded. It took me nearly 700 pages to describe the process in my “Autopsy on an Empire.”  You will not find any former Soviet official, including Mikhail Gorbachev, who had the most to lose from a break-up of the Soviet Union, who will agree with them that SDI, as such, played even a minor role in the Soviet collapse.




Others were also closer to the Matlock viewpoint. Rae Huffstutler, who at the time ran the Soviet Division at the CIA and later served as the Executive Director of the Agency for 10 years, wrote:


Ty, a good piece. 

I do believe that you place too much credit, however, for the
threat of SDI in the fall of the USSR, however.  It is true that it
scared the military where it was believed that the US could in fact
make good on its threats.  At this point, the military had been
undergoing severe cuts in its resources as the Politburo tried to
resuscitate the economy — Marshal Ustinov had been moved from the
Party military-economic post to the Ministry of Defense in the mid 70’s
to oversee the reductions–but it wasn’t enough to reinvigorate the

I think the three most important factors in the fall were: (1) The
long stagnation where people came to believe that the Party could not
make decisions and provide leadership (the sinking ship syndrome); (2) The
revelation by Gorbachev of the deep corruption in the Party ( which, we
heard, caused millions to turn in their Party cards); and (3) The dithering
in the face of independence movements in the Baltic and East European
states.  The failed coup against Gorbachev illustrated that the Party
was in disarray, the army could not be commanded to uphold the orders
of senior officers, and the KGB would not act.  The three legs of the
“perch of power” failed to cooperate and act decisively! 

I believe that the threat of SDI was worrisome to the military, but of marginal influence in the collapse.”




Former Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Ted McNamara also supported this perspective. He wrote:


My main point about SDI is that no single foreign policy issue, and no single military issue, was central to the collapse of the USSR.  It fell apart from internal rot and contradictions.  Certainly, SDI was one of a number of external pressures, which the USSR faced.  But, all the external pressures combined were still secondary.  Thus, SDI must be looked at in that context.  

In that context, SDI was very marginal.  Gorbachev saw it as a threat to the USSR’s future military status relative to the US, not a current problem that they were facing.  That is not to say that it was not taken seriously; it was.  The Soviet always took our new technology very seriously.  I think Gorbachev’s negotiating goal was to “head SDI off at the pass,” i.e. stop it before it became a real threat.   The cost to them would be less if they could stop it early, than if they waited to see it, maybe, become a real counter-force threat and leave them in the dust. 



In sum, I greatly appreciate these and other counter views to my commentary on SDI and wanted to be sure the readers of this Forum had those perspectives to consider as well. Ty

Reagan’s “Star Wars” and the Collapse of the USSR

Colleagues: Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most important Presidential speeches of the last century, when Ronald Reagan announced the United States would seek to build a defensive capability to intercept offensive intercontinental missiles. I have spent much of the last two months collaborating with principal players in the Reagan administration with responsibility for the program, as I prepared an analysis of the origins of the speech, the reactions of allies and adversaries, the practicalities of what came to be called his “Star Wars” program, and, most importantly, the impact it had on the Soviet leadership.

I would like to thank in particular former National Security Advisors Robert C. “Bud” McFarlane and Admiral John Poindexter, and former NSC staffers Allan Myer and Gil Rye, for their insights and commentaries.

The analysis of the SDI program and its impact on the Soviet Union is attached (Click Here: Reagan and SDI Final version), which I think you will find enjoyable reading. A much shorter version, which is posted below, will appear in this Sunday’s Reno Gazette-Journal.

–       Ty


Reagan’s “Star Wars” and the Collapse of the USSR

By Tyrus W. Cobb

Thirty years ago President Ronald Reagan issued a stunning reversal of America’s national security strategy. Instead of basing our security on the presumption that an attack by one superpower on the other would result in the unleashing of a catastrophic retaliatory strike, Reagan committed the United States to pursuing a strategy of defending against offensive missiles.

The President was repelled by the idea that we based our strategic doctrine on the threat to annihilate the population of the Soviet Union, and Moscow did the same. The SDI concept, however, won few friends or admirers and was widely ridiculed as his “Star Wars” plan. The scientific community largely concluded it was “technologically impossible”; others were worried spending on the program would bankrupt the country.

Reagan was a staunch opponent of traditional arms control that focused only on limiting the growth of future capabilities. The President even envisioned a world without nuclear weapons, a position that he felt fervently about, and one that was opposed by friend and foe alike, including many in his administration.

These tenets were a remarkable deviation from traditional policy. Arms agreements that actually reduced inventories; replacing the threat to annihilate populations with defensive systems; developing and then sharing strategic defense capabilities; and eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons!

“I’ve become deeply convinced that the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence,” he stated.

In the arms control negotiations with the Soviets, SDI proved to be a very powerful bargaining chip, primarily because the President did not believe it was up for discussion. Secondly, as many of us who met with USSR officials came to realize, the Soviets were the most fervent believers that the U.S. could actually develop and field the complex systems needed for SDI to work! Moscow had apparently concluded that this system would tip the strategic balance toward the United States.

This came at a time that the USSR itself was falling further behind economically—much more so than many in the U.S. Intelligence Community believed.

We did not fully appreciate then that Gorbachev, unlike his predecessors, was aware of the depths that the Soviet economy had fallen. It also appears that Gorbachev was deeply concerned about the President’s SDI program, feeling that what was at stake was more than just a space defense program. He believed that if the United States combined its technological superiority with its economic potential, America would make an enormous “skachok” (leap) ahead. In doing so, we would, to use the Marxian phrase, “consign the Soviet Union to the ash- heap of history”!

Trying to open up Soviet society (“glasnost”) and restructuring the politico-economic system (“perestroika”), while arresting the U.S. military build-up so that resources could be redirected away from the defense sector, presented formidable challenges. Neither the Soviet Union nor Gorbachev survived them

SDI was instrumental in the demise of the USSR, but was certainly not the sole factor. In the end, the combination of greater political and social freedoms instituted by Gorbachev, and policies implemented under Reagan to impose severe economic and political burdens on Moscow, together led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, on Christmas Day, 1991.

Dealing with Two Russias

Colleagues: Many of you have asked for a good update on the state of affairs in Russia. My good friend Bill Courtney co-authored this excellent analysis of the “Two Russias”, which is reprinted with his approval.


Dealing with Two Russias


International Herald Tribune

January 24, 2013

TWO Russias are emerging — one seeking freedom and prosperity, the other focused on patriotism and populism. In the first, people can travel abroad, buy and sell their homes and keep money securely in banks. In the other Russia, President Vladimir Putin stifles dissent, alleges NATO missile defense threats, and seeks to ensnare former Soviet neighbors in an unequal Eurasian union. A new diplomacy that deals effectively with both Russias is essential.

The first Russia is modernizing. In 2011 it had the world’s sixth-largest economy by purchasing power parity. Gross national income per capita was approximately $20,000, akin to European Union members Poland and Hungary. Wealthier people often own foreign property or send children abroad for study.

In some areas Russia cooperates with the West. It facilitates supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan, backs selected sanctions on Iran’s illicit nuclear program and launches rockets to the international space station. And Russia concluded a new strategic arms treaty with America.

The second Russia is retrograde. It is returning to a more statist and authoritarian past, away from ideals of civil liberties and the rule of law. The Soviet Union is not about to reappear, but democracy-building groups are under assault, dissidents are thrown into psychiatric hospitals and justice is politically rigged. Russia ranks 142 out of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

The West should employ differing strategies in dealing with each of the two Russias, recognizing that “patriotic” forces are in power for now, but that they are increasingly alienating the urbanized and educated.

Modernizing elites value a growing economy and globalizing ties. Thus the West should encourage Russia to abide by the rules of the World Trade Organization, which should increase the competitiveness of Russia’s economy. A recent U.S. accord on intellectual property rights will help ensure that Russia benefits from its high-tech sectors. In the Arctic Council, Moscow is cooperating to seek economic opportunity while protecting the environment.

At the same time, Russia’s energy competitiveness is declining because of governmental interference. Offering more leeway for Western investment and technology to develop challenging deposits would help Russia regain export momentum. In this, the bold Exxon Mobil venture with Rosneft for Arctic exploration will be a bellweather.

Diplomacy with the second Russia should be guided by the West’s long-term interest in internal liberalization and fair treatment of others. The West should revive tenets of human rights diplomacy from the Soviet era, such as speaking out publicly against repression and raising individual cases of injustice at high levels. The West has been too quiet about systematic human rights abuses in the North Caucasus.

But outsiders can do little to advance reform in Russia except through personal interaction and Internet communication. The Kremlin ended U.S.A.I.D. programs, though the E.U.-Russia civil society forum remains helpful. Courageous foreign-funded groups such as Golos, which monitors elections, face harassment or closure. Cooperation on nuclear security is impeded; Moscow cancelled the Nunn-Lugar program.

Internationally, Russia struggles to retain its identity as a great power, even though it is being eclipsed by more dynamic areas of the world such as East Asia. But stubborn support for the Assad regime in Syria has tarnished the prestige of Russia, and intimidation of neighbors leaves it without friends or allies.

While not easy, the West has taken steps to counter retrograde Russia. In December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned against efforts to “re-Sovietize” its neighborhood by forcing a Eurasian economic union. The West has also encouraged Georgia to improve ties with Russia while helping it deter a reprise of the 2008 invasion. The West aids Caspian energy producers by backing multiple export routes to Turkey, Black Sea ports and China.

Retrograde Russia can be its own worst enemy. Last month at an E.U. summit, Putin lambasted as “uncivilized” proposals that would treat Russian ownership of energy assets in the E.U. the same way as property of other energy producers. A law to ban adoption by Americans of Russian children, many of them orphans with special needs, caused dismay. It was meant as a riposte to a recent U.S. law, the Sergei Magnitsky act, which prohibits entrance into the United States and use of its banking system by Russians who commit gross violations of human rights. On this front, fewer Western summits with Putin, and E.U. steps akin to the Magnitsky act, merit consideration.

Dual track diplomacy, embodying pragmatic but principled approaches, would foster cooperation with Russia on common interests while lifting the spirits of those who seek democracy and respect for human rights.

Denis Corboy, a visiting senior research fellow at Kings College, London, served as European Commission ambassador to Armenia and Georgia. William Courtney was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia, and special assistant to the president for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. Kenneth Yalowitz served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.