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

Frank von Hippel, Senior Research Physicist and Professor of Public and International Affairs Emeritus, The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs; Ph.D. (USA)

Some personal memories of Andrey Sakharov and his contributions to strategic stability

Frank von Hippel, Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University

Contribution to the online-Conference of the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe, The Intellectual Legacy of Academician Andrey Sakharov and Problems of Strategic Stability,15 July 2020, 12-2 PM EDT

I first learned of Sakharov when I read the translation of his great essay, Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom, in the New York Times on July 22, 1968.

I realized that the Soviet authorities had not succeeded in stamping out intellectual freedom in the Soviet Union and that here was a world-class intellect with a proposal for how to end the Cold War. I was very excited for several days.

Two decades later, thanks to Jeremy Stone and Evgenyi Velikhov, I had the opportunity to discuss with Sakharov.

Stone had mounted a pressure campaign among US scientists for freeing Sakharov from Gorky. He invited me and my wife to meet Sakharov and Bonner on 11 February 1987 in their apartment, shortly after Gorbachev invited them back to Moscow.

Velikhov invited Sakharov and others, including me, to be on the board of the International Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity. As a result, I attended with other members of the Foundation board the meeting where Sakharov first met with Gorbachev. Sakharov brought with him a list of political prisoners, who he insisted Gorbachev should free.

At the meeting with Sakharov in his apartment, we discussed what Sakharov would say at the International Scientists’ Forum on Drastic Reductions in Nuclear Weapons for a Nuclear-Free World that Stone and I had come to Moscow to attend.

Fortunately, the KGB recorded and transcribed our discussions in Sakharov’s apartment for Gorbachev, and I obtained a copy of Gorbachev’s marked up copy after the Politburo files were thrown open by President Yeltsin.

We discussed two main topics: ballistic missile defense and deep cuts in offensive nuclear forces.

Ballistic missile defense

At that time, US interest in ballistic missile defense was blocking progress in the negotiations that ultimately led to the INF and START Treaties.

Sakharov felt, however, that the Reagan Administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative would collapse under the weight of its technical infeasibility and that the US would not break out of the ABM Treaty if progress was being made on nuclear reductions.

That was the thrust of Sakharov’s speech at the Scientists’ Forum three days later. After his presentation, in a break between the sessions of the Forum, Andrei Kokoshin and Sakharov had a debate on the subject for the benefit of the press. I learned later that the same debate was going on around Gorbachev. Perhaps Sakharov making public the case for a change of the Soviet position helped Gorbachev make that change.

Deep cuts

My own exchange with Sakharov during that visit at his apartment was about a paper some colleagues and I had written about the possibility of reducing the number of deployed strategic warheads on each side to 2,000. Sakharov argued that an analysis of the impact on strategic stability of such large cuts could be done only with “thousands of analysts with computers.” Fortunately, with the end of the Cold War, it did become possible to make such cuts without elaborate analysis.

It would be wonderful if we could have another such reduction. Today, however, we are again tangled in debates over possible first strikes and the potential effectiveness of US strategic defenses against a Russian or Chinese retaliation with their surviving strategic weapons after a US first strike.

In my view, the existential deterrence from nuclear weapons is robust and would continue to be robust at much lower levels.

What I worry about, however, is that fears about theoretical first strikes have created instabilities. One is the possibility of an accidental nuclear war due to the launch-on-warning postures the US and Russia have adopted. I also worry that US interest in ballistic missile defense is stimulating offensive buildups in Russia and China.

So, we have again two types of strategic instability to worry about today: crisis instability arms race instability.

If Sakharov were still with us today, he would be speaking out about these dangers. In his absence, we lesser mortals must do so. I thank the Luxembourg Forum for its intellectual leadership in this area.