May 12, 2003
Looking for Leadership at Upcoming Summit
By Matt Bivens
WASHINGTON -- So there's to be another mini-summit between presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. Another photo op-illustration of self-congratulatory complacence and missed historic opportunity. When they meet in St. Petersburg three weeks from now, the presidents are expected to trade snarky barbs about Iraq, to haggle over oil -- and to drop the ball on the most important matter of all, the 28,800-odd nuclear weapons in our collective arsenals.
Hundreds of those nuclear weapons are mounted on long-range missiles that are fueled, aimed at specific Russian and American cities and set for launch. According to Back From the Brink -- an umbrella group of major U.S. arms control advocates -- the Pentagon allows itself just 14 minutes to decide whether a suspicious radar blip or other computer alert is a nuclear missile coming in from Russia (as opposed to a technical glitch, or perhaps an unannounced rocket launched for peaceful purposes). The U.S. president then has just eight minutes to decide whether to retaliate against Russia; and then it takes three minutes for the missiles to lift off after the order is given. So, it takes 25 minutes in all -- which is, not coincidentally, how long it takes the closest Russian nuclear missiles to leave the Motherland and start smashing into America.
U.S. missiles, by contrast, take just 10 minutes to get from missile silo to Moscow. So the Russian Defense Ministry allows itself three minutes to decide whether it's under attack by U.S. nuclear forces (as opposed to, say, looking at fake alerts created by hostile computer hackers). It then allows the Russian president an additional three minutes to make up his mind -- go or no-go for the end of the world -- and then the missiles take four minutes to lift off after the order. Three plus three plus four leaves us just 10 minutes from a blip on a Russian radar screen transforming into nuclear war.
Does this seem alarmist? Too bad, because it happens to be actual fact. Just as it's still a fact that U.S. spy planes prowl Russia's airspace borders, looking for gaps in defenses to be exploited by cruise missiles and heavy bombers; that U.S. subs dog the heels of Russian subs when they leave port; that Russia in its poverty has spent billions on two new command-and-control bunkers in the Urals, at Kosvinsky Mountain and Yamantau Mountain -- bunkers that are only now coming on line; that the United States is suddenly seeking bunker-busting H bombs.
These facts are inconvenient to the storyline of U.S.-Russian friendship. It's a nice story, and one I and many Moscow Times readers have much invested in. But if it's to be more than a bedtime fairytale to distract us from the nuclear war just 10 minutes away, U.S.-Russian friendship demands leadership.
So far, Bush-Putin meetings have produced one ridiculously useless treaty that demands nothing of either side until many years from now, at which point it expires the very next morning -- a one-day wonder of a nonagreement. This time around, they're expected to pose and posture over Iraq -- who was right, who was wrong, who gets how much oil and why.
And these are the two security-and-terrorism-minded presidents. What happens when 40 Chechen terrorists storm a remote Russian missile silo and seize control of a fueled, armed and targeted rocket, all set to deliver a nuclear warhead to Manhattan?
No one's even really asking.
Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, writes the Daily Outrage for The Nation magazine. [www.thenation.com].