To Deal with the Russians, America Must Think Like the Russians

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath laying ceremony to mark the Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall in central Moscow, Russia.

The risk of nuclear miscalculation is now higher than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. There’s a simple way to avoid it.

July-August 2017

THE CURRENT low point in U.S.-Russia relations echoes the worst days of the Cold War. In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan called the USSR an “evil empire,” provoking a bitter reaction from Soviet leader Yuri Andropov and the Politburo, which declared in June that the U.S. media was at the “highest, most hysterical pitch.” In September, a MIG fighter shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which had strayed into Soviet airspace, killing 269 innocent people. In November, according to a declassified top-secret U.S. intelligence review, Andropov put Soviet nuclear forces on a “hair trigger,” fearing that the United States was about to launch a first strike under cover of the NATO military exercise “Able Archer.” Recent studies suggest that the November event was not as dangerous as often portrayed, but experts agree that the risk of inadvertent war was extremely high. Fear of a nuclear war unleashed by miscalculation, Russian insecurity or an accident in time of crisis was a factor that pushed Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to engage the Russians to end the Cold War.

This June, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Vladimir Putin angrily denounced the “hysteria” in Washington and in the U.S. media. Again, bitter accusations and scorn abound. Both U.S. and Russian experts now agree that once again there is a heightened risk of unintended nuclear war—much higher than in the early 1980s—but this danger is not as widely perceived as it was back then. There is less awareness, less alarm. Few people know as much about nuclear policy as William J. Perry, a former secretary of defense. He has been on a crusade this year, warning, “We are starting a new Cold War. We seem to be sleepwalking into this new nuclear arms race. . . . We and the Russians and others don’t understand what we are doing.”

The risk of nuclear miscalculation is now higher than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, due to increasingly lethal technology and the breakdown in almost all official mechanisms of bilateral communication since Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Yet that is only part of the story. In the 1980s, few could imagine today’s advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, data processing and geospatial analysis. The complex interactions and tightly coupled systems linked to modern nuclear arsenals—early-warning and command-and-control systems—have made accidental war more likely. Moreover, the Russians and Americans have to face new nightmare scenarios, like a terrorist hacking a nuclear command-and-control center or a ballistic-missile submarine.

If the Kremlin received intelligence of a possible U.S. attack, it could reasonably expect to have no more than seven to ten minutes to assess the information before Moscow was destroyed. Washington would not have much longer, and the new president is untested in crisis. In place of the regular contacts and civil discourse established by the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in 1985, Washington and Moscow now have frequent dangerous military encounters.

It is a depressing picture: America and Russia seem to be blindly repeating the errors of the past, creating a nuclear déjà vu even more menacing than before.

THERE IS again a great chasm in the worldviews of Washington and Moscow. We now hear a call to train more Russia experts, just as in the early 1980s, to help the U.S. government understand the way Moscow thinks, the nature of its perceptions, its cognitive universe and the sources of its behavior. The scholar Stephen Blank argues that Russia experts must be trained to counter the Kremlin’s “constant, unceasing information war” directed against the United States and virtually every European government. To understand Russian tactics and policies, Washington needs to be able to “think like a Russian.” Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, has taken to studying Russian history in order to investigate ties between President Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

Russians themselves suggest that Americans fail to understand not only their interests, but how to work with them. The late Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, commented privately about U.S. officials in conflicts over Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Crimea: “They just don’t get us. They’re not dealing with us the right way.”

How would Washington “get” the Russians? How should it deal with them in “the right way”? In 1983, negotiation expert William Ury and I were asked to facilitate meetings of the Harvard-Soviet Joint Study on Nuclear Crisis Prevention, which included senior experts and top former officials at the level of the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We knew Churkin back then as a bright analyst who would soon become the spokesman of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Gorbachev was still a little-known new Politburo member from the agricultural hinterland.