I Choose Bovin. Brief Encounters With a Remarkable Man

Author: Vladimir Dvorkin, Major General, Professor,

Chairman of the Organizing Committee of the Luxembourg Forum

Alexander Bovin passed away 16 years ago, on 29 April 2004. It did not feel wise to wait another four years to share my memories on the twentieth anniversary of his death. After all, we are in the middle of a pandemic.

I met Alexander Bovin for the first time in December 1991. In later years, much would be written about his life and career. That he was a consultant to Yuri Andropov, the then-secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. That he served as a speechwriter for Leonid Brezhnev. That he participated in negotiations with Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968. As I learned afterwards, he opposed military intervention in Czechoslovakia. Back then, all I knew about him was what everyone knew: Bovin was the host of a weekly TV show called “International Panorama”, and he was a political commentator at Izvestia.

Briefing before the Trip

In December 1991, a delegation including Yury Ryzhkov, Alexander Bovin, and three other well-known persons was formed to go to the United States for consultations on strategic stability. The topic was relatively new. The notion of strategic stability was formulated in 1990 in the US-USSR Joint Statement, where it was defined as relations that remove the incentives to launch an initial nuclear strike. Its principles were implemented further in the strategic offensive reductions treaties.

I do not recall who chose me, but I was asked to talk about strategic stability with the members of that delegation. At first, I was naïve enough to think that it would be possible to gather the entire delegation together and talk, but it was soon explained to me that the members were very busy people. They would not change their schedules just to meet with some colonel, so I should schedule a briefing with each of them.

Aleхander Bovin invited me to the editorial office of Izvestia. There, in a spacious private office, I found a large man sitting at a table covered with papers topped by an ashtray filled with cigarette butts. We greeted each other, and then he said (I remember it word-for-word): “You probably came in vain. Mikhail Sergeyevich [Gorbachev] called me just twenty minutes ago and said that he appointed me ambassador to Israel. He caught me completely off guard, but I did not object. Apparently, I can’t fly to America now that I’m the ambassador”. I asked him what he would do in Israel, since he had no diplomatic experience, and Bovin replied that his first move would be to fire anyone over the age of 40. I pointed out that he wasn’t all that young, himself.

After a brief exchange of opinions on this matter, Bovin asked me to go ahead and tell him about strategic stability. I explained the main concepts and described the status of the START I treaty between the United States and the USSR. I also told him that Gorbachev had made the critical decision to form the Strategic Deterrence Forces under the leadership of army general Yuri Maksimov within the framework of the strategic missile forces and the naval and aviation strategic nuclear forces. This decision made it possible to form a unified combat control system, increase combat effectiveness, enhance nuclear safety, and reduce overall costs. I told him that Gorbachev had finally signed the first treaty with the Americans on a real reduction of strategic weapons by half. I described the key parameters of the START I and its unprecedented enhanced transparency, allowing two parties to exchange dozens of inspections, which would observe the underground missile silo and mobile missile launchers, ground-based missiles, ballistic missile submarines, and heavy bombers carrying cruise missiles. Eventually, both Russia and the United States obtained access to information that had previously been available only through the colossal resources of their intelligence services. We started exchanging hundreds of notices about the deployment of new strategic weapons and the disposal of the old ones, informing each other in advance about planned missile test launches, exchanging magnetic tapes with telemetry results, etc. Bovin listened very attentively, took notes, and asked very informed questions.

He noted right away that the mutual control agreement was unique and very important. He pointed out that when conflicting parties lack general information about the conditions of each other’s armed forces, each side tend to exaggerate its opponent’s quantitative and qualitative indicators and build up their own capability so they can respond adequately. This creates a positive feedback loop in the field, which is always unstable and may open a direct path to an uncontrolled arms race, which is especially dangerous with strategic nuclear weapons, since it can undermine strategic stability in its original understanding.

In the end, Bovin did go to the United States with the delegation and mentioned afterwards that our talk was very useful.

Substantive Discussions

We did not meet or talk again until 1997, when his diplomatic mission was over. Later, we saw each other from time to time. He came to see me when I headed the Fourth Central Research Institute of the Russian Defence Ministry and recorded an episode of his show, “Substantive Discussion”. He warned me in advance that he was going to play devil’s advocate and ask provocative questions. I understood that he wanted to highlight the issue and present the subject in a way that would engage the audience. And he did a good job.

At that time, I told Bovin about the difficulties with the entry into force of the START I treaty, which was signed in July 1991 but only ratified by the parties in December 1994. The delay was mainly due to Ukraine’s position: Ukraine demanded nearly USD 3 billion as payment to remove nuclear warheads, destroy the remaining missiles, and announce non-nuclear status in accordance with the Lisbon Protocol. Bovin listened with genuine attention and interest.

We discussed the impact of START I on subsequent important events, which Gorbachev could not have predicted when he signed the treaty with the American president just six months prior to the collapse of the USSR.

Under the agreement, the parties had seven years after its entry into force to reduce their strategic nuclear weapons from about 11,000 nuclear warheads to 6,000, cut launch vehicles to 1,600, reduce heavy missiles from 308 to 154 units, and comply with a whole series of sublevel restrictions.

However, by the time START I came into force in 1994, Russia had already met most of the treaty's requirements because it had deactivated expiring missile systems and had not managed to replace them with new ones. In 1992, Russia’s strategic nuclear forces included 2,500 delivery vehicles and 1,780 warheads, and by 1994 we had 1,597 delivery vehicles and 7,060 warheads. We only had to deactivate 50 heavy missiles of the remaining 204 to meet the requirement on the weapon limits, while the United States did not even begin to reduce their strategic nuclear forces, remaining instead at their initial level.

In other words, START I allowed Russia to cut the cost of maintaining treaty-level weaponry, using those funds instead to develop and upgrade additional types of missile weapons. (Incidentally, the same thing could be said about the New START.) The United States, however, had to spend money to achieve a significant reduction.

In 2000, I described to Bovin how Gorbachev’s initiative to create the Strategic Deterrence Forces, which Marshal Igor Sergeev planned to reanimate in new circumstances, was completely ruined by an absurd, self-promoting move by the then-Chief of the General Staff Anatoly Kvashnin, who acted with the support of Russian Federation Security Council Secretary Sergey Ivanov, to reduce the Strategic Missile Forces to one-sixth of its previous size, leaving just two divisions. It was clear to me that Bovin understood this problem and many other problems in our country.

The last time we talked was when Bovin called me, approximately two weeks before his death.

Bovin’s Heritage

Bovin was an outstanding person, and I make no claim to having had a special relationship with him. I just think it is necessary to emphasise that he had analytical talent and vast experience working with the top tiers of power.

The main reason I decided to offer these memories goes back to something Bovin wrote in these pages many years ago. In March 2003, Nezavisimaya Gazeta published an article by Bovin entitled “I Choose Talleyrand” about the policies adopted by Russia and other leading countries in respect of Iraq. We all know how that turned out, but the author’s opinion was deeper than just a view on current events.

I believe that Bovin expressed his main idea in the following words: “Talleyrand taught that politics is the art of cooperating with the inevitable. If we fail to prevent a war or direct it in a legitimate channel under the UN, if we see that a war is inevitable, then it is unreasonable to pose as a protector of international law. The political losses will clearly exceed the moral gain”.

Further, Bovin writes that he anticipates objections and to be reproached for opportunism and cynicism. “It is hard to argue. The temptation to put on white gloves is strong. But sometimes, one has to retreat to preserve one’s strength for the next attack. Valery Bryusov wrote, ‘But half-measures are hateful!’ And at the end of the day, in the moral sense, he was right. Especially if we take into account the long-term strategic perspective. However, looking at modern Russia and its position in today’s world, I choose Talleyrand”.

Next, Bovin analyses various options for Moscow’s decisions and actions and proposes compromises that he feels would not harm Russia. It is safe to say that in the early 2000s, very few people were able to discern the road map for the country's domestic and foreign policy that was being shaped in and around the Kremlin. Western investments, new technology, and a wide range of equipment and machinery, some of them critical for overcoming our historical gap in technology, were still flowing to Russia without hindrance. But the signs were already there that in its domestic and international policy Russia would focus on a marked independence, traditional spiritual staples, and its historically significant national pride and popular solidarity under the leadership of the country’s head.

Bovin did not advocate for reckless adherence and submission to Western policy in return for investments and technology. In his article, he wrote: "I hope Putin will not sell his beloved sovereignty for a bowl of lentil pottage (even American pottage)”. At the same time, he was well aware that Russia would not benefit by adopting stances that assumed it had some special geopolitical role while it contributed a mere 2% to the global GDP. He also knew that it would take many years to turn Russia into a strong, prosperous country with appeal beyond its immediate neighbours.

However, the country continued to move toward political confrontation, which was cemented in 2007 by Vladimir Putin’s address to the Munich Security Conference. Bovin did not live to see all of that, or the events of 2014 and subsequent years. His advice to follow a policy of cooperating with the inevitable was not heard. At the same time, at this crucial stage in the life of our country, we should still retain hope that his recommendations will eventually be accepted to some extent.

That is why I choose Bovin.

Source: Nezavisimaya Gazeta