Catalytic Diplomacy
Truncate the Sword and the Shield Becomes Harmless
Prime Minister Stepashin Wearing Stone's Button
Prime Minister Stepashin Wearing Stone's Button [See larger]
A Russian Prime Minister offers President Clinton Russian agreement on a small U.S. ABM if the President will agree to major reductions to equal levels of 1,000 warheads each.

Stone was instrumental in the making of this historic offer—a high-water mark in Cold War disarmament proposals. His efforts went through three stages ending with a 90-minute talk with the Prime Minister just prior to the proposal being made.

It started with Stone’s effort from 1998 to 1999 to use missile disarmament as a quiet method of eliminating dangerous U.S. disarming attack options that could be removed in no other way. Later, in the summer of 1999, it was packaged with an effort to eliminate Russian objections to a small U.S. anti-ballistic missile system.

Stone proposed to resolve both problems with disarmament to equal levels of 1,000 warheads. At such low and equal levels, the Defense Department believed it could not maintain a disarming attack option, partly because such attacks required superiority in numbers. This would solve the first problem.

And if the disarming threat were eliminated, the Russians would not have to worry about the effectiveness of a small U.S. ABM in intercepting a small number of surviving Russian missiles, thus solving the second problem. In addition, this would permit them to take their forces off the high alert necessary to deal with disarming attack threats. The potential for accidental and inadvertent nuclear war would be reduced—thus solving a third problem.

In a ninety-minute meeting in Moscow with Stone, in July 1999, Prime Minister Sergei Vadimovich Stepashin is persuaded to make Stone’s grand bargain proposal to President Bill Clinton. In the next week, in a meeting in Washington in late July, the Prime Minister does just that.

But President Clinton rejected the idea, saying, “Unfortunately, Gore is running for president, and he doesn’t want any trouble.”


From the early 1950s through the 1990s, which includes the Cold War and the decade beyond it, the United States maintained war plans designed to expand any Soviet aggression in Europe to Soviet/Russian territory in a massive disarming attack. This was based on a theory that conventional Soviet attacks in Europe could be deterred in no other way. It was called “extended” deterrence to distinguish it from deterrence of attacks on our homeland. (As of 2009, nothing has changed. The Secretary of Defense still extols “extended deterrence” and the disarming attack option is still maintained along with the necessary forces on high degrees of alert, e.g., 15 minutes for submarines.)

Robert Gates & Extended Deterrence
Robert Gates & Extended Deterrence [See larger]
By the end of the Cold War (roughly 1989), it was hard to imagine a wartime crisis to which this disarming attack, involving full-scale nuclear war between superpowers, was even theoretically relevant. But the strategy was now embedded in the U.S. strategic plan and hard to remove. Worse, it increased the chances of inadvertent war due to accidents or misunderstandings. Unfortunately, major political problems were involved in getting rid of the option. (Note)

How Low Could One Go Without Changing This Strategy?

In internal bureaucratic discussions about the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START III—a proposed follow-on to an already negotiated START II, signed in 1997—-it became evident to insiders that the U.S. Defense Department felt it could not carry out these disarming attack options with fewer than 1,500 strategic warheads; indeed, it was resisting going below 2,500.

So it seemed plausible that the U.S. Defense Department would abandon the disarming attack option and stick to deterrence of attacks on the United States if disarmament levels went to 1,000 warheads or lower.

Reductions Through De-MIRVing

In retrospect this entire campaign had its roots in a brief telephone conversation I had with Bill Arkin, a well-informed expert. He mentioned, in passing, that if one wanted to end first-strike threats, the simplest solution was to eliminate the multiple warheads on the missiles of the U.S. submarine force (i.e., to eliminate all but one of the warheads on each submarine-based missile). Since MIRV referred to missiles with multiple independently targeted warheads, this proposal could be called “de-MIRVing” the submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

I had never thought of this; what a simple solution! I reflected that the START II agreement, signed on September 26, 1997, already included de-MIRVing the land-based force. From a political point of view, why not launch a new complementary campaign to de-MIRV the sea-based force?

Paul Warnke, former head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and a disarmament ambassador, joined me to co-write and publish “The Next Nuclear Step: DeMIRV Submarines” (Washington Post, January 22, 1998). (More info) As part of the proposal, we urged that Russian ratification of START II, then in some trouble, be encouraged by an American offer to reduce numbers of warheads substantially in START III—specifically to 1,000 strategic warheads, of which 500 would be on bombers, 150 warheads would be on land-based Minuteman III missiles, and 336 would be on single-warheaded (de-MIRVed) missiles on fourteen Trident submarines.

Paul and I called the current strategy an “unnecessary, useless and dangerous launch on warning/disarming attack strategy,” which we wanted changed to a policy of “secure reliance on a deterrent-only force”. (Note)

The problem was how to get rid of this disarming attack option policy. No president would want to advertise that he was giving up a strategic option—certainly not one to attack all Soviet forces. And none would want to discuss strategic war and its unpleasant possibilities. Disarmament, by contrast, was an idea that was politically correct. And if, through sufficient disarmament, these counterforce options would quietly disappear, perhaps the complaints could be overcome.

Stratcom Commander Confirms Our Strategy Would Work

In May 1998, through the good offices of General George Lee Butler, then a former commander-in-chief of the Strategic Air Command, I led a five-person delegation to SAC headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, to review what Stratcom was planning.
Starting second from left: Alton Frye, Townsend Hoopes, General Habiger, Jeremy Stone, Matthew Bunn, Charles D. Ferguson
Starting second from left: Alton Frye, Townsend Hoopes, General Habiger, Jeremy Stone, Matthew Bunn, Charles D. Ferguson [See larger]
At the Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, we described the FAS proposal to reduce START levels to 1,000 strategic warheads, while de-MIRVing the U.S. and Russian forces (and securing the de-MIRVing of the forces of Britain and France).

This visit confirmed the premises of the Warnke-Stone position. The then new Commander of Stratcom, General Eugene Habiger, met with me in private for a few minutes before the tour. I asked him about “extended deterrence,” which was the underlying rationale for maintaining a disarming attack option.

General Habiger readily agreed that at sufficiently low (and equal) levels of strategic forces on both sides, the United States would lose its ability to maintain extended deterrence. Other talks confirmed that the level was believed to be 2,000. And the Strategic Command took the view that they were required to maintain this extended deterrence option by a Presidential Directive.

Does The Presidential Directive Preclude Substantial Disarmament?

An important issue was whether the President’s directive to the Defense Department and the commander of strategic forces really required this option. Did Presidential Decision Directive 60 (PDD60) specifically require first strike/disarming attacks, or not?

PDD60 outlined what U.S. strategic forces were supposed to do and was then interpreted by the Defense Department. At the time, Stratcom had advised the Clinton administration that it would require new policy guidance if the projected START III levels of 2,000-2,500 were to be reduced further.

But it seemed entirely possible that the secret strategic guidance just talked of “deterrence” and that it was Stratcom which had expanded the meaning of “deterrence” from deterring attacks on ourselves to deterring attacks on our allies, i.e., from needing a minimal retaliatory deterrent to needing a massive strategic force suitable for disarming the Russian force.

So it seemed entirely possible that the Presidential Guidance could be maintained and that only a change in its interpretation was required—if the will were there to reinterpret it.

Would the Russians Accept 1000 Warheads?

According to an important paper by Alexei Arbatov, a distinguished Russian analyst and parliamentarian, the Russians were already talking about their preference for 1,500 warheads on each side, and even that required 50 percent increases in yearly costs for strategic forces “for better maintenance, overhaul and service life-extension programs.” In other words, since the Russians seemed headed for 1,000 or less on their force, a proposal of 1,000 on each side would seem to be acceptable to them.
Alexei Arbatov
Alexei Arbatov [See larger]

Then on May 12, for the third time, President Boris Yeltsin referred to the possibility of going far below 2,000 warheads by asserting that START III could see “even deeper cuts—of two or three times” beyond START II’s limits of 3,000-3,500. Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov had talked of 1,500, and the Russian Strategic Missile Forces Command had talked of 1,000. According to some analysts, the Russian nuclear arsenal "was broke and broken—with nuclear forces rusting, breaking down, and not getting repaired”. So it seemed in the Russian interest to agree to a proposal that would, after all, bring the American force numbers down to theirs.

But what would persuade a U.S. administration to make this offer against the resistance of Stratcom?

Heresy on the ABM Treaty in Moscow

In February 1999, I came up with a possible answer. The Russians should, in return for U.S. force reductions to a Russian level of 1,000, offer to permit the United States to build a small ABM system. I reached this idea reluctantly, having advised both sides for a third of a century since 1963 to oppose ABM systems.

Selling the Idea in Moscow

I decided to visit Moscow to try to sell the idea. In a “defuse-the-threat” memo dated February 19, 1999, that I carried to Moscow, I explained the situation.

At low and equal levels, the substantial Russian force surviving any American first strike could overwhelm the ABM system. (A trip report was published in the March/April 1999 FAS Public Interest Report and it included the Defuse the Threat Memo and the FAS endorsement of this general approach.) (More info)

The memo argued that at levels of 1,000, the United States would have to abandon the option of having 680 Trident submarine warheads on fifteen-minute alert ready to fire at Russian forces. It said such “low START III levels of 1,000 do more to stabilize the strategic balance than any ABM system, much less a minor one, does to upset it.”

The memo concluded that “Russia has the leverage to ask for the negotiation of low START III levels” because the “U.S. administration now needs Russian agreement to modify the ABM Treaty to permit a possible anti-North Korean missile defense.”

The Real Negotiators On The Same Plane

On the way to Moscow, on February 20, 1999, in a Delta Airlines waiting room in Kennedy Airport, I ran into Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Robert Bell, Senior Director for Defense Policy and Arms Control in the White House National Security Council. They were also on their way to Moscow for strategic weapons talks–which meant trouble for me in arranging appointments.

I buttonholed Strobe and gave him a one-page summary of the idea that reductions could stabilize the balance. He indicated that he would like to be briefed on how this worked when we were both back in Washington. Meanwhile, he suggested, that I “inflict myself” on an adviser in the lounge, whom he specified.

A briefing was later set up for Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Under Secretary of State John Holum on this subject, but, in the end, Strobe could not attend.

Andrei Sakharov in 1987 after release from Gorki
Andrei Sakharov in 1987 after release from Gorki [See larger]
In Moscow, a Russian, who had translated for me with Andrei Sakharov and numerous other government officials, met the plane. She had been working up an itinerary, but there were problems. The flu was raging; Army Day was taking place on Tuesday (and it became a two-day holiday); there were a lot fewer people interested in strategy and arms control in the 1990s than there were in the 1980s; and those with influence were constantly out of the country giving speeches or attending conferences.

In the course of the week, I discussed the defuse strategy with a number of relevant experts and bureau reporters of the Washington Post and The New York Times. More and more experts were coming out for 1,000 as the START III limits anyway—a reduction from the 2,000 agreed in principle at Helsinki by Clinton and Yeltsin.

What the experts did not seem to appreciate was the strategic significance of getting the level of U.S. strategic forces down to 1,000 to eliminate the U.S. counterforce threat, that is, to force a change in the U.S. presidential guidance as Stratcom said it would—or in Stratcom’s interpretation of what the guidance meant.

Of course, my idea was not entirely accepted even in sympathetic parts of the disarmament community. It was clear that the Defense Department would argue that a limit of 1,000 deployed strategic warheads was not enough to maintain a war plan that included carrying out a preemptive strike against Russian forces–while maintaining all necessary related options and reserves. But some American experts were not sure whether, if it had to do so, the Defense Department might not later revise its position and figure out how to carry out same war plan options with 1,000. (Note)

I asked the best expert on this that I knew, Steve Fetter, of the University of Maryland, who promptly produced a complex and interesting calculation that concluded, “If Russia could keep 100 mobiles roaming out of garrison, it would have a highly survivable force."

Depending upon how one looked at strategic realities, one could make a wide range of arguments. At one extreme of analysis, the Russians might keep their weapons on a high (and dangerous) degree of alert even if the United States had too few to wipe out Russian forces because U.S. missiles might be capable, in a crisis, of decapitating their leadership. Much therefore depended upon Russian attitudes. What were they?

In fact, they may have been at the other extreme. During this visit, one Russian general with great experience in this field said: “Jeremy, when you talk to me about this, I feel in complete accord with you and feel that we have been working together for years. But the big (Russian) generals do not agree with us. They say: ‘Oh, the Americans will never attack.’”

The Problem of the Small U.S. ABM Against North Korea

By February 1999, the problem had the additional feature that the world was watching a U.S.-Russian crisis induced by the U.S. desire to build a small ABM system against North Korea–a system that, if built, would require modifying or abandoning the ABM Treaty.

With Georgi Arbatov in 1999
With Georgi Arbatov in 1999 [See larger]
Visit to Moscow: The Defuse Strategy Plus ABM

I decided to work this crisis into the plan. On a one-week visit, from February 20, 1999, I presented this defuse strategy as a way to resolve this ABM crisis as well as to change the war plans and solve the de-alerting problem, to a number of relevant
Sergei Rogov
Sergei Rogov [See larger]
experts, including: Academician Georgi Arbatov, the founder of the Institute for Canada Studies; Sergei Kortunov, councellor to the head of President Yeltsin’s office; Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, head of the division of international cooperation of the Ministry of Defense; Sergei Rogov, director of Arbatov’s institute; and Anatoli Diakov, director of the Center for Arms Control, Energy, and Environmental Studies at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology.

The idea of using disarmament to force a change in U.S. guidance, and having Russia agree to a small ABM in return, was greeted with comments ranging from “brilliant” to “logical” to noncommittal.

“Truncate the Sword and the Shield Becomes Harmless”

In the summer of 1999, I decided to visit Moscow once more to see if this defuse strategy could be sold to Moscow. And this time, the timing was perfect.

"Truncate the Sword" button
"Truncate the Sword" button [See larger]
I came up with a catchy summary and phrase and printed it on an enormous button: “Truncate the Sword and the Shield Becomes Harmless.” In other words, if the strategic first-strike sword was truncated, no harm would come from the United States building a small missile shield because the sword could not eliminate enough of the Russian missiles to make it possible for the shield to function effectively. And I prepared a letter for Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin. (Appendix)

The trip started disastrously. On Friday, July 9, 1999, Aeroflot was delayed for eight hours at Dulles Airport. Flying on the same plane was the deputy chief of staff of the Russian government, General Alexander Piskunov. I had met him at lunch the week before with Paul Warnke–a meeting arranged by Rogov, who was traveling with Piskunov. But Piskunov spoke no English, and my wife’s Russian was not up to discussing arms control.

With Russian National Security Council
With Russian National Security Council [See larger]
Then on Monday, I was too dizzy to stand. This was probably due to bad meat eaten at a friend’s dacha on the previous day, but at the time I thought I might have some inner ear problem. This came at a time when I had also decided to resign as President of the Federation of American Scientists, and I had not yet decided what to do next.

Meanwhile, it seemed that my appointments were about to collapse because the person arranging them, Sergei Rogov, was leaving town. This three-way combination of a bad situation made this day in bed in the hotel a real low point of my life and career.

With Georgi Mamedov
With Georgi Mamedov [See larger]
But on Friday, the last day of the trip, everything turned golden. I met with the National Security Council of the Russian Federation (45 minutes); the deputy foreign minister, Georgi Mamedov, who was the main negotiator for this subject for Russia (90 minutes), and even with the prime minister (90 minutes). It was this latter meeting that offered me the best chance to advance the proposal. (Note)

Meeting with Prime Minister Stepashin

Prime Minister Stepashin began reading from remarks prepared for him that were essentially vacuous. I decided to interrupt and began explaining my proposal.

Stepashin had been the Chairman of the Parliamentary Defense Committee in the Soviet Union and was pretty well informed. I said his advisers were making two mistakes. First, they worried about building up Russian forces rather than lowering (through disarmament) U.S. forces. Second, they worried about a new arms race rather than eliminating the dangers created by the last arms race. In sum, they should use START III to eliminate U.S. counterforce options by lowering the levels.

He said: “Well, what would I tell the Duma?” I said: “Tell them you negotiated parity with the United States by forcing them down to the level that Soviet forces were planning anyway” (i.e., 1,000 strategic warheads). And he said: “Yes, and saved a lot of money on both sides”.

Stepashin wondered if the United States would really agree to 1,000. This was, of course, the key question. I said if they wanted a small ABM, they would have to negotiate, and 1,000 was more than enough for retaliation.

How, I asked, could the United States say it needed more? It would have to admit it wanted first-strike strategies! The world would consider this absurd. At this, Stepashin referred wryly to the recent dispute over Serbia and said, “We already know from Yugoslavia who will support whom.”

I said the U.S. offer, thus far, was to permit the Soviets to put multiple warheads on land-based missiles, but this would do Russia little good because it did not increase the number of points that the Americans needed to attack. He looked impressed. But he twice asked what Vice President Gore and President Clinton would say about this proposal–would it get a “positive response”? I said the military lobby would object.

Stepashin said, “I will talk to Yeltsin about this since he is commander-in-chief. For my part, I’d agree now consciously.” And in response to my discussion of the dangers of warheads kept on alert, he said: “Yes, we have a proverb, if one leaves a rifle on the floor, it will eventually go off.”

Finally, he said: “You have prepared me splendidly for my visit to President Clinton and Vice President Gore next week. What can I do for you?” I asked, “Could we have a picture?” He said “Of course.” I had earlier given him a copy of my button. He put it on and said, “This is for the Washington Post.” What an endorsement!

Then he said, “Well, I will have to discuss this with President Yeltsin, who is the ‘commander-in-chief.’” I gave him reproductions of two ancient maps of the Kremlin; he chose one and, smiling, said he would give the other to Yeltsin because it was older.

Washington’s Reaction

Returning to the United States on July 17, 1999 I made about fifty copies of the picture. And on Monday morning, I went to the Department of State and started handing them out. My message was: “You guys may not take me too seriously but the Russian prime minister is coming at the end of the week and here he is wearing my button advertising my proposal.”

After a 2:00 p.m. appointment at the Iran desk to talk about my work on U.S.-Iranian scientific exchange, I talked to Morton Halperin at 3:00; he was director of policy planning and had encouraged me. Mort believed that if the Russians would propose 1,000, he could get the Defense Department to study it. In the absence of a clear Russian proposal, the Defense Department had previously refused even to study what they would do under that limit. At 3:45 p.m. I met with Jamie Rubin, the press secretary for the department, and at 4:15 p.m. with Under Secretary of State for Policy John Holum.

On Tuesday morning, at 7:30 a.m., the phone rang. It was Sergei Rogov in Moscow. To my astonishment, he said: “It’s too much, Jeremy, for both sides.” The Russian military was, obviously, appalled and had pressured Rogov to call this off. I said: “It’s too late, Sergei, I was at the Department of State yesterday and they have all seen the picture!”

On Thursday, I had an appointment with the Deputy Secretary of State, #2 in the Department, Strobe Talbott. He wanted me to brief some of his staff and sat quietly while I did that. Afterward, he escorted me down his private elevator and said: “Jeremy, they [meaning the Russians] have taken your counsel.” I said: “Strobe, I am not entirely sure because Sergei Rogov called me on Tuesday morning and tried to renege.” He said, no “we have information,” they have bought it.

I left the Department with tears in my eyes. The grandeur of Strobe’s formulation really struck home: “Taken your counsel.” It made me sound like a wise elder of the tribe–rather than an activist living by his wits. And it meant that something really was happening.

In Washington, at a joint press conference with Vice President Gore, Prime Minister Stepashin said that Moscow and Washington “can cooperate in the ABM problem not only technically, but also politically and psychologically in order to eliminate the mistrust between the two countries which still exists.”

And TASS quoted him as saying of his meeting with President Clinton: “We had quite a serious discussion on issues relating to START-2 and START-3, and the ABM Treaty. I shall brief Russian President Boris Yeltsin on the results of our discussion.”

But what did happen about the disarmament proposal on which I had put such store? As far as I could tell, not much. And Strobe Talbott indicated at one point that nothing had been proposed.

The right wing did think that some kind of grand compromise was being considered along my lines. In January, in a column in the Washington Times entitled “Beware the `Grand Compromise,’” Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., accused Strobe Talbott and Assistant Secretary of Defense Ted Warner of hoping to conclude “what may be the ultimate bad arms control deal: A ‘grand compromise’ that would substantially eviscerate the U.S. nuclear deterrent—for example, forcing the elimination of one ‘leg’ of America’s historic strategic triad—in exchange for Russian agreement to a U.S. ‘national’ missile defense deployment in Alaska so artificially constrained as to be ineffectual.”

But on February 8, 2001, in Moscow, I met again with Sergei Stepashin who, by then, was head of the Russian Government Accounting Organization. I asked if he had, really, made my proposal. He said: “Yes, I did and the reason Strobe does not know about it is that it was made in private in the Oval Office just between myself and the President. But his response was that ‘Gore is running for President and he doesn’t want any trouble.’”

In sum, a very successful effort to stimulate a desirable Russian proposal came to naught, in the first instance, because of the U.S. election. Gore lost the election and President George W. Bush had little interest in disarmament. He did improve the political relations with Yeltsin’s successor, President Putin. And this improvement further diminished political interest in disarmament. Thus Stepashin’s quiet offer to Clinton may well be the peak serious disarmament proposal of the Cold War.

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