Military Glasnost

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The Krasnoyarsk radar was designed for ballistic missile detection and tracking, including ballistic missile early warning, and violated the 1972 ABM Treaty. It was not located within a 150-kilometer radius of the national capital (Moscow) as required of ABM radars, or was it located on the periphery of the Soviet Union and pointed outward as required or early warning radars. It was 3,700 kilometers from Moscow and is situated some 750 kilometers from the nearest border – Mongolia. Moreover, it was oriented not toward that border, but across approximately 4,000 kilometers of Soviet territory to the northeast.
The Soviet Union claimed that the Krasnoyarsk radar was designed for space tracking, rather than ballistic missile early warning, and therefore does not violate the ABM Treaty. Its design, however, was not optimized for a space tracking role, and the radar would, in any event, contribute little to the existing Soviet space tracking network. Indeed, the design of the Krasnoyarsk radar was essentially identical to that of other radars that were known – and acknowledged by the Soviets – to be for ballistic missile detection and tracking, including ballistic missile early warning. Finally, it closed the last remaining gap in Soviet ballistic missile detection coverage. The Krasnoyarsk radar, therefore, was constructed in direct violation of the ABM Treaty.

By late 1988 and early 1989, just as Bush was taking office, Gorbachev may have reached the zenith of his powers as a leader. It would have been an ideal time to seize the initiative and lock in a 50 percent cut in strategic weapons, as well as reductions in other systems, such as tactical nuclear weapons. A strategic arms treaty also might have been easier because Bush was not dazzled by Reagan’s grand dream of a defense against ballistic missiles that had proven so contentious in earlier years. But Bush hesitated.

In Moscow, Gorbachev’s room for maneuver soon began to shrink. The forces of freedom and openness he had unleashed began to overtake him, creating obstacles and open resistance: new forces of democracy at home; a sweeping tide of change in Eastern Europe; the reawakening of old nationalist dreams in the Soviet republics. On March 26, the first relatively free election since the Bolshevik Revolution was held for a new Soviet legislature, the Congress of People’s Deputies. In the balloting, the Communist Party leadership in Leningrad was turned out, pro-independence parties won in the Baltics and Yeltsin, the radical reformer, triumphed in Moscow. The Communist Party establishment took a shellacking. When the new legislature met for the first time from May 25 through June 9, Gorbachev ordered the proceedings broadcast on television. People stayed home from work to watch the broadcasts; the country was transfixed by debates that broke new ground in freedom of speech. One result was that Gorbachev, the party, the KGB and the military were lambasted with open and often trenchant criticism. The virus of freedom seemed to be spreading fast.

In China, Gorbachev’s visit in May brought the student protests for democracy in Tiananmen Square to a new level of intensity. They were suppressed by the massacre a few weeks later. Across Eastern Europe, ferment spread, especially in Hungary and Poland, where the Solidarity movement came out from the underground and won in the elections to parliament. On July 7, Gorbachev affirmed to leaders of the Warsaw Pact that the Soviet Union would not intervene to stop the juggernaut, and they were free to go their own way. During the same week, Akhromeyev, in his new capacity as an adviser to Gorbachev, had a remarkable tour of U.S. military installations during which he and Admiral William Crowe, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, openly debated how to end the arms race. Bush’s trip to Poland and Hungary in July exposed him to the torrent of change there. In his diary, Chernyaev captured the madness and the drama of these months. “All around Gorbachev has unleashed irreversible processes of ‘disintegration’ which had earlier been restrained or covered up by the arms race, the fear of war …” he wrote. Socialism in Eastern Europe is “disappearing,” the planned economy “is living its last days,” ideology “doesn’t exist any more,” the Soviet empire “is falling apart,” the Communist Party “is in disarray” and “chaos is breaking out,” he wrote.

In September, Shevardnadze flew with Baker on the secretary’s air force plane to a meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In a long talk on the flight, Shevardnadze drove home to Baker the urgency of Gorbachev’s problems at home, especially the forces of disintegration pulling the republics away from the center. Baker had not realized in the spring that Gorbachev’s situation was so precarious and the window of opportunity was closing. “Our CIA was way, way behind the curve,” he said. Baker recalled the first hints came only that summer, and by September, on the flight to Jackson Hole, it “really became obvious.” One concrete outcome of the Baker and Shevardnadze meeting in Wyoming was an agreement to exchange data about chemical weapons stockpiles. However, the Soviet Union did not disclose the secret research on the new binary weapon, the novichok generation.

Chernyaev called 1989 “The Lost Year.” It was also the beginning of the crack-up. A gargantuan superpower was starting to come unglued, with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons strewn across the landscape.

As authority weakened in the Soviet Union, secrets leaked out of the military’s most carefully guarded citadels. Velikhov, the progressive physicist and Gorbachev’s adviser, personally exposed some of them in another amazing glasnost tour. In July, he brought a group of American scientists, led by Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council, to the Black Sea to conduct a verification experiment involving a Soviet cruise missile, armed with a nuclear warhead, on a navy ship. It was rare for Americans to get so close to a Soviet weapon. The point was to determine if radiation detectors could spot the presence or absence of a nuclear warhead. While some theoretical studies had been done, the experiment offered a chance to check the radiation detectors against a real weapon. The question was important because of the larger debate at the time about whether there could be effective verification of sea-launched cruise missiles. The United States claimed it was impossible to verify nuclear warheads on naval cruise missiles, and insisted they should be left out of the negotiations on strategic arms. The Soviets wanted to count them—and limit them—because of the American advantage. Velikhov wanted to pierce the veil of secrecy, in hopes it would reduce the danger of the arms race, just as he had done in 1986, bringing Cochran to the secret Semipalatinsk nuclear-testing site, and again in 1987 to the disputed Krasnoyarsk radar. This time, the KGB tried to stop Velikhov, but Gorbachev overruled them.

On a sunny July 5, 1989, the Americans, joined by a group of Soviet scientists, lugged their radiation detectors aboard the Slava, a 610-foot Soviet cruiser at Yalta on the Black Sea. At that moment, the ship held a single SS-N-12 nuclear-armed cruise missile, NATO code-named “Sandbox,” stored in the forward, exterior starboard launcher. The Soviets were so nervous about the visit that they had rehearsed it for weeks. They feared the Americans might learn too much about the design of the warhead. The sea was a sparkling blue, and Cochran wore shorts, a baseball cap and a T-shirt as he and his team wrestled the test equipment onto the missile tube to measure the radiation. The evening before the experiment, the Soviets had insisted that, by the plan, the Americans could take only a very short reading, but Cochran got a longer one and plenty of data. Soviet scientists carried out their own tests, too. In one extraordinary glasnost moment, the hatch was opened and the Americans took photographs of the dark, menacing tip of the cruise missile, lurking just inside the cover.

No sooner were the scientists back in Moscow on July 7 than Velikhov bundled them off to the airport to see another secret installation. They flew 850 miles east to Chelyabinsk-40, near the town of Kyshtym, a nuclear complex built in Stalin’s day, where reactors had churned out plutonium for nuclear weapons. The complex was top secret, but when Velikhov appeared at the gates, they swung open. “It was the first time foreigners were in a town whose whole existence was to destroy America,” Velikhov recalled. Von Hippel, the Princeton professor who had known Velikhov since the early 1980s, said that Velikhov wanted the Americans to see a plutonium reactor being shut down, fulfilling a promise Gorbachev had made earlier. After the tour, “We had a fairy-tale-like dinner on an island in the middle of this lake, with a long table with white tablecloth and silver laid out under the birch trees,” Von Hippel remembered. Boris Brokhovich, the seventy-three-year-old director of Chelyabinsk-40, stripped naked and plunged into the lake. Several of the Americans then followed him. Not far from the lake was the scene of a devastating accident more than three decades earlier, when a storage tank exploded, throwing 70–80 metric tons of waste containing 20 million curies of radioactivity over the surrounding area. The total release of long-lived fission products, almost comparable to Chernobyl, had contaminated thousands of square kilometers. The accident, September 29, 1957, was hushed up for decades, but revealed after the Soviet collapse.

The last stop on Velikhov’s glasnost tour was the most daring, the one he had first suggested to the Central Committee, and which they had rejected: the Sary Shagan laser test site. This was the facility the Reagan administration claimed “could be used in an anti-satellite role” and might also be used for missile defense. It was the subject of the ominous illustration in Soviet Military Power showing a beam shooting straight up into the heavens. The Soviet leadership knew the claims were untrue but had been embarrassed to admit it. Velikhov brought the Americans to see for themselves on July 8. Von Hippel quickly realized the U.S. claims had been vastly exaggerated. “It was sort of a relic,” he said of the lasers he saw there, which were the equivalent of industrial lasers, easily purchased in the West. There was no sign of the war machine the Reagan administration had conjured up. “These guys had been abandoned, a backwater of the military-industrial complex. It was from an earlier time. It was really pitiful.” The one “computer” consisted of transistor boards wired together—built before the personal computer. “They had been trying to see whether they could get a reflection off a satellite,” he recalled. “They never succeeded.”

Velikhov’s campaign for openness paid one of its most surprising dividends in 1989, when the Soviet leadership finally admitted that the Krasnoyarsk radar was a violation of the ABM treaty, as Katayev’s candid internal spravka had indicated in 1987. Shevardnadze acknowledged the treaty violation in a speech to the Soviet legislature, and claimed, “It took some time for the leadership of the country to get acquainted with the whole truth and the history about the station.” This was a dubious claim, since Shevardnadze had signed a document laying out the issues two years before. The larger point was clear, however. Gorbachev was coming clean.

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