Russian President Boris Yeltsin, speaking in Beijing on Thursday,
reminded President Bill Clinton that Russia has a large nuclear arsenal.
This simple fact, of course, should never be mentioned publicly.
Yeltsin’s obvious breach of etiquette, therefore, sent shock waves
through the West. Typical of the American reaction, the Dow Jones
Newswires carried a column by Jim Murphy that began by quoting lines
from the “Solipsist’s Love Song.” Murphy then admitted that he wanted to
talk about “the sodden, perhaps evil, and increasingly demented
president of Russia.” But Murphy couldn’t write about Yeltsin “because
it’s too depressing.”
Like most Americans, Murphy doesn’t have a bomb shelter.
President Clinton, on the other hand, reacted by saying that
Yeltsin’s statement should not be taken seriously. This made everything
better, of course, because we can go on pretending that Russia isn’t a
threat. However, Clinton did take offense at being accused of a memory
lapse. Therefore, regarding the existence of Russia’s nuclear arsenal,
Clinton said, “I haven’t forgotten that.”
Clinton, of course, has a bomb shelter.
In Russia the reaction was different. As tens of thousands of
Chechens were fleeing for their lives, as the Russian army openly
threatened to blow Grozny off the map, Russian television took special
pleasure in replaying Yeltsin’s Beijing remarks. Nezavisimaya Gazeta
said it was a pity Yeltsin
had to remind the Americans of Russia’s missiles. Reaching back with
nostalgia, Izvestya reproduced the words of Nikita Khrushchev, who said,
“We will show you what’s what!”
Poor Khrushchev. Like Yeltsin, he was a heavy drinker. Like Yeltsin
he made some scary comments, for example: “We will bury you!” And also:
“Your grandchildren will live under Communism!” Notice he didn’t say
“your children” will live under Communism.)
People thought Khrushchev was a clown. The party took his decoder
ring away in 1964, so people quickly forgot what he had promised. And
that is for the best — if you’re a KGB general. Whatever the concerns
expressed in New York and Washington at this latest Khrushchevian
outburst, the Russian media knows not to worry. The Americans don’t
expect it to start raining nuclear missiles, said one pundit. After all,
the Chief of the General Staff, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff,
the head of the Air Force, and the Defense Minister have been making
anti-American statements since Nov. 17 and hardly anybody outside Russia
even noticed. President Yeltsin merely stated that Russia has nuclear
weapons. If people in New York got upset there is no problem. They will
take a pill and feel better in the morning.
There was some criticism of Yeltsin, of course. MTV mocked the
Russian president for blundering. Georgian President Eduard
Shevardnadze, who once served as Soviet foreign minister, said the
exchange between Yeltsin and Clinton left him “perplexed.” After careful
consideration, Shevardnadze said that Yeltsin was not serious. The
world, he explained, has abandoned the idea of nuclear war. In fact,
Shevardnadze predicted that “everything will remain at a level of
threats, since the world understood back in the 1980s there will be no
winner in a nuclear war.”
Yeah, better not to worry. After all, Yeltsin is hinting about a
nuclear war. And everybody knows that’s not serious.
Former Prime Minister Yevgenny Primakov was openly critical of
Yeltsin. He said that a person should never talk about nuclear weapons
unless he is about to unleash them.
The subtlety of Russian politicians goes very deep indeed.
Primakov, of course, is a former head of the Russian Foreign
Intelligence Service (SVR). In other words, he’s a KGB general with KGB
instincts. He knows that we know. He even knows that we know that he
knows that we know. So it’s very simple, as anyone can see.
Perhaps there is an invisible threshold. Perhaps you can talk about
using nuclear weapons up to a point. Perhaps you can talk and nobody
will take you seriously. But maybe you go too far and the sleeping
dragon opens one of its eyes. So you get Shevardnadze to pull the eye
Hey, are you asleep? Here’s a pill.
So it is possible to talk about nuclear weapons before you unleash
them. And why not? The most popular business newspaper in St.
Petersburg, Delovoj Petersburg, ran a story on Nov. 17 entitled,
“Russian Authorities Make Threats.” According to the story, a Russian
foreign ministry spokesman said that Russia and the U.S. may soon find
themselves on the verge of war.
Nobody in the West picked it up. Nobody got scared.
According to Russian Defense Minister Sergeyev the West is conspiring
to deprive Russia of her Caspian oil fields. Foreign Minister Igor
Ivanov said the patrons of the Chechen terrorists could be found “in
NATO.” The head of Russia’s Air Force, Gen. Anatoly Kornukov, joined the
chorus when he accused NATO of “advancing on Russia’s borders.” Gen.
Valery Manilov, deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, told Russian
TV viewers that nuclear weapons should be used if Russia’s survival is
Last week the second regiment of Topol-M intercontinental missiles
was added to Russia’s Tatishchevo division. The Topol-M is a road mobile
long-range missile that is designed to hit the United States. According
to Col.-Gen. Vladimir Yakovlev, commander of Russia’s Strategic Rocket
Forces, the Topol-M is 50-100 percent superior to previous missiles in
readiness, and 150-200 percent superior in strike efficiency. The United
States has no comparable weapon.
And here we sit on the great merry-go-round. The Russians are smiling
at us, they are growling at us, they are shaking our hand, they are
shaking their fist, they are begging our indulgence, they are spitting
in our face, and around and around we go — and where we stop, nobody
President Clinton says we should not take it seriously. Eduard
Shevardnadze says that nobody could win a nuclear war. Yevgenny Primakov
says you should only talk about nuclear weapons before you launch them.
The Russian press doesn’t think the Americans are really worried.
Are you getting the picture? Is this coming into focus for you?
In the text of Soviet Military Strategy, it explains, “One of the
important tenets in Soviet military doctrine is that a world war …
will inevitably assume the character of a nuclear war with missiles,
i.e., a war in which the nuclear weapon will be the chief instrument of
destruction, and missiles the basic vehicle for their delivery to the
Of course everyone knows there won’t be a world war. Decades will
turn into centuries, and centuries will turn into millennia, and
millennia will turn into layers of rock that will yield fossils. No war
will ever break out.
Take this with a glass of water and go to bed. You will sleep soundly
until a bright flash and a loud noise wakes you.