Ex-Head of Russian NASA: ‘Huge Luck’ Is Only Defense Against Nuclear Catastrophe

[Editor’s Note: The possibility of nuclear Armageddon is no less real than when this interview was published in October 2011.]

Roald Sagdeev, a Gorbachev adviser at the 1986 Reykjavik summit, recalls ‘the blunder.’

Dr. Roald Sagdeev’s perspective on the 1986 nuclear disarmament negotiations between United States President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is among the most highly informed on the planet. Dr. Sagdeev, now a professor at the University of Maryland, attended the Reykjavik summit as science advisor to President Gorbachev.

While Director of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences from 1973 through 1988, Dr. Sagdeev was instrumental in the joint Soviet-U.S. Soyuz Apollo Test Project and headed the Venus-Halley International Space Project. Currently, aside from his work at the University of Maryland, Sagdeev is on the Supervisory Council of the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe. On the occasion of Reykjavik’s 25th anniversary, he recalls key decisions from those flawed talks, and their impact on today.

The Skeeve: Why was Star Wars a deal breaker for Mr. Gorbachev?

Dr. Roald Sagdeev: He understood that Russia would be unable to reciprocate in a strategic way—because it would be too costly for Russia. He was looking for a different outcome, and in the process he became so emotionally involved, rhetorically and emotionally, that he lost flexibility in dealing with the Americans.

The Skeeve: Did Gorbachev really believe the United States would have the capacity to develop the SDI defense system?

Dr. Roald Sagdeev: It’s a very difficult question. I was part of a small group of people who were trying to give him arguments that it is undoable. It looked like sometimes he would accept this view. But on the other side, being emotionally involved in all this debate, he thought, Why are Americans pursuing this idea if it is unrealistic? It is illogical. If you agree to dismantle all strategic nuclear weapons, why do you need any defense from them? That was a major argument he was trying to convey to Reagan, especially in Reykjavik.

“Now we are playing a different game in a completely different paradigm. The very presence of these thousands and thousands of warheads, this is a danger.”

The actual negotiations in Reykjavik finally focused on what kind of activity should be permissible within the antiballistic missile defense. For some reason, again because of this emotional, rhetorical involvement, Gorbachev said, “Only laboratory level of research. Nothing More.” And Reagan, of course, was insisting why not also go to the next step, to the tests and development?

Most of my colleagues, including me, were expecting that Gorbachev would be flexible enough and take this offer from Reagan and then see in the forthcoming years how things would develop, but he was so involved in his rhetoric, he said, “No, no, no.” They were unable to settle. He canceled.

The Skeeve: Did Gorbachev walk away thinking Reykjavik had been a failure?

Dr. Roald Sagdeev: He was very angry. After he left Reagan, he went to a press conference in Reykjavik and spoke for an hour or so. He narrated the whole story, how they were close to agreeing on these major nuclear reductions, and suddenly the stubbornness of Reagan.

But interestingly, at the end of his speech, he blamed everything on the military industrial complex, saying that Reagan is a hostage of the military industrial complex.

I consider now it was a blunder of Gorbachev’s. He was so inflexible, and the world could have become completely different if they could have agreed at that time.

The Skeeve: What difference would there be?

Dr. Roald Sagdeev: There is a lot of speculation among the experts. Some of them say, “Oh, Reagan would never have been able to get his proposal through.” There were a lot of opponents, even within his own team.

“The Caribbean [Cuban Missile] Crisis was one of the best-known examples of how we managed to avert nuclear war. Largely it was because of the luck.”

But it would have been interesting at that time to give this unusual breakthrough its historic chance. Until Reykjavik, for many of the people around Gorbachev, we saw Reagan as an inflexible ideologue, that SDI was religion for him. After Reykjavik, we thought maybe this guy genuinely wanted to get rid of nuclear weapons.

The Skeeve: What can we thank for no nuclear weapons being used since 1945?

Dr. Roald Sagdeev: Huge luck. A few times the world was very close to the breakthrough of the war, and luckily it didn’t happen. The Caribbean [Cuban Missile] Crisis was one of the best-known examples of how we managed to avert nuclear war. Largely it was because of the luck.

Now we are playing a different game in a completely different paradigm. In my view, the main danger now is complacency, “Okay, we are not enemies anymore; so why worry too much?” But the very presence of these thousands and thousands of warheads, this is a danger.

The Skeeve: Do American and Russian leaders trust one another more post-Reykjavik?

Dr. Roald Sagdeev: In the nuclear area there is sufficient trust between the two sides, but there is a huge inequality between the two sides. Russia is not anymore a superpower. Even economically, it is somewhere between a developed and a developing country. Many Russian experts are asking: “Why do we need to keep the balance with Americans? What do we have to defend?” Until Russians change their mind on that main issue, it will be very difficult to negotiate the real breakthrough in nuclear disarmament.

Personally, in nuclear strategy, I think China is much more realistic and modest. China is now the second economic power in the world. Until now at least, they are satisfied with a reasonably modest level of nuclear arms.

The Skeeve:“Reasonably modest?” What’s the count on that?

Dr. Roald Sagdeev: Sometimes you can encounter a figure like 40 or 50 nuclear weapons equipped with delivery vehicles. So it’s two orders of magnitude smaller than America and Russia would have.

The Skeeve: Does America have more than 100?

Dr. Roald Sagdeev: I think by final recent figures that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton published a few months ago, it was about 5,000 altogether of the nuclear weapons with delivery vehicles.

The Skeeve: In retrospect, did Gorbachev regret the Reykjavik outcome?

Dr. Roald Sagdeev: He couldn’t stop talking about it, and he eventually put himself inside such a box that he couldn’t get out. At the later stage, I think he finally understood Reagan, and they became almost friends. But it was too late: Gorbachev was loosing his influence and power inside Russia, and Reagan was about to become a lame duck.

Allan MacDonell Administrator
Director of Skeeve Allan MacDonell is the author of ‘Prisoner of X’, ‘Punk Elegies’ and ‘Now That I Am Gone.’
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