Speech by David Holloway at the online conference of the International Luxembourg Forum "Intellectual Legacy of Academician Andrey Sakharov and Issues of Strategic Stability"

David Holloway is a Senior Fellow Emeritus; Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University; Ph.D. (USA)

It is an honor to take part in this conference devoted to the Intellectual Legacy of Academician Andrei Sakharov and issues of strategic stability.Thanks to my friend and colleague Sidney Drell, I had the great good fortune to meet Andrei Dmitrievich twice, once in his apartment in Moscow in June 1987, when he spoke to me about the history of the Soviet atomic project, and again in August 1989, not long before his death, when he and Elena Bonner gave a seminar at Stanford on the recent turbulent session of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union.But our topic today is strategic stability in the light of Sakharov’s intellectual legacy.

I want to focus on three elements of Sakharov’s thinking and relate them to our current situation.The first is his conception of strategic stability. Sakharov played a key role in the buildup of Soviet strategic nuclear forces. By the late 1960s a relationship of strategic parity was being formed with the United States.Strategic stability had been created: neither side had an incentive to strike first because each knew that the other could retaliate in a devastating way.In July 1967 he wrote that the “period of approximate and unstable equilibrium,” which had begun in 1957, would not last forever: it could be broken, and the illusion might arise that it could be broken.

Sakharov made this point in a letter to Mikhail Suslov (a member of the Politburo and the leading ideologist of the time) seeking permission to publish an article on the topic of Anti-Ballistic Missile defenses (ABMs) in Literaturnaia Gazeta.In his letter he disagreed with earlier comments Aleksei Kosygin had made about the purely defensive character of missile defenses. Sakharov spelled out the ways in which ABMs could be both ineffective and destabilizing.He urged that the Soviet Union agree to an ABM moratorium with the United States.Nuclear weapons, in Sakharov’s view, were an instrument of deterrence.In the article he sent to Suslov, he totally rejected the idea that Clausewitz’s notion of war as the continuation of politics by other means could apply in the nuclear age.Such a war would be catastrophic for all.But strategic stability – the stability of deterrence relationships – was not permanent.It needed to be managed carefully.

The second point I want to take from Sakharov is the need for informed public dialogue about nuclear issues.In the article he sent to Suslov, Sakharov argued that the question of a moratorium on anti-missile defenses “belongs to the category of highly sensitive matters that are difficult to discuss openly, but it is more important than ever to begin such a discussion.”Suslov denied Sakharov’s request to publish the article.Sakharov was dismayed, and that dismay is reflected in the opening paragraph of the essay he wrote in the early months of 1968: Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom.Here he noted that his views were formed in the milieu of the scientific-technical intelligentsia, which was very worried about the future of humankind.Their concern, he continued, was all the stronger because policy in key areas, including military affairs, was not grounded on “a profound study of facts, theories, views, presupposing unprejudiced and open discussion, which is dispassionate in its conclusions.” Scientists had a crucial role in enabling humanity to deal with the challenges it faced, many of which have a significant scientific-technical dimension.He was making the point about the Soviet Union at the time, but it is a point that has more general application.

My third point comes from the opening paragraph of an article he published in 1974 on “The World after Fifty Years.” In words that have great resonance today, he wrote:

Everyone who starts to think about the future of the world after fifty years – about that future in which our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will live – is seized by powerful and contradictory feelings.These are despondency and terror before the tangle of tragic dangers and difficulties in the immeasurably complex future of the human race, but at the same time hope in the power of reason and humanity in the souls of billions of people, which alone can resist the approaching chaos.

Sakharov was greatly interested in the progress of science and technology, but his enthusiasm was balanced by trepidation about the future.“Scientific-technical progress will not bring happiness,” he wrote, “if it is not complemented by extraordinarily profound changes in the social, moral, and cultural life of humankind.”

How do these three elements relate to the problem of strategic stability today?

Strategic stability in the 1960s was based on the ability of both the US and the Soviet Union to retaliate in the event of a surprise attack by the other.The danger of a deliberate attack by one side on the other has diminished, but the danger of nuclear war by accident, inadvertence, or miscalculation has increased. The requirements of strategic stability have thus become more stringent.The US-RF strategic relationship is more complicated than it was in the Cold War, for a variety of technological, doctrinal, and geopolitical reasons.This is a complex issue, but let me suggest, in very broad terms, an approach to dealing with it:

  • New START should be extended with a commitment by the US and Russia to conduct negotiations for a new treaty that would:
    • offer paths to accession for the other P5 nations, including China.
    • cover nuclear warheads associated with non-strategic nuclear weapons.
    • potentially add new technologies and weapons (or in a separate agreement), in the form of prohibitions on testing or fielding.

As the leading nuclear powers, the US and Russia should engage with each other and with other nuclear powers (either through the negotiations or in separate fora) on the following questions:

  • approaches to strategic stability based on the need to minimize the risk of nuclear weapons being used while maintaining their deterrent role;
  • a common agreement on the prevention of a nuclear war, similar to that signed by the USA and the USSR in 1973;
  • organizational and technical measures aimed at eliminating the conditions of potential false warnings of a missile attack, including as a result of cyber intrusions;
  • organizational and technical recommendations common to all nuclear-weapon states on ensuring cyber security of nuclear weapons command and control systems;
  • initiatives to improve the coordination and security of space operations

This approach would attempt to build on the aspects of Sakharov’s intellectual legacy that I pointed to earlier.It would address the concept of strategic stability in new technological and geopolitical circumstances.It would have to draw on the scientific and technical expertise not only of governments but also of civil society, fitting into what Sakharov referred to as “the category of highly sensitive matters that are difficult to discuss openly,” but require such discussion.And third, it would address – at least partially – Sakharov’s concern that unless we change the way we think and act, scientific-technical progress will outstrip our capacity to use it for good.

A final point for our troubled world: When a journalist asked him why he persisted in his hopeless struggle for human rights in the Soviet Union, Sakharov answered: "Well, there is a need to create ideals even when you can't see any route by which to achieve them, because if there are no ideals then there can be no hope and then one would be completely in the dark, in a hopeless blind alley.”