What would Ron think?Photo: Wikimedia Commons
What would Ron think?Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Whenever Moscow is accused of violating arms-control agreements, two reactions are foreseeable. First, Moscow will categorically deny the accusation and respond with more or less arbitrary counter-accusations. Second, some Western “experts” feel compelled to join the fray, attempting to “prove” Moscow’s innocence and accusing their own governments of shameless propaganda.

However, this game, which is currently being replayed in the context of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, is not without risk. If the West adheres to its convictions and is not distracted by fake arguments, Moscow’s diversions will not work. Nothing illustrates this better than the controversy over the radar of Krasnoyarsk, which some 30 years ago became a major issue in US-Soviet arms-control negotiations.

In mid-1983, US satellites discovered a radar under construction in the Krasnoyarsk region of central Siberia. The main building, which resembled other new Soviet early-warning radars, was quite large and pointed northeast; the wide coverage angle and the estimated range of more than 4,000 kilometers would allow it to monitor large parts of Siberia.

Washington charged Moscow with having committed a major arms-control treaty violation. The treaty to ban nationwide ballistic missile defenses (ABM Treaty) determined that early-warning radars had to be deployed along the borders of a country, and face outward. These two criteria were intended to limit the potential role of early-warning radars in the battle management of large-scale missile defenses. The Krasnoyarsk radar violated both.

But was it even an early-warning radar? The Soviet answer was: “No.” The system, Moscow argued, was used to monitor satellites and was therefore treaty-compliant. Even some Western analysts initially doubted Washington’s accusations and ridiculed them as a propaganda offensive of the Ronald Reagan administration. But with each day that the radar neared its completion, its primary function became more apparent – and so did the weaknesses of Soviet justifications.

Although the construction – like almost every large radar of this kind – was also capable of space tracking, the location of the site as well as the fact that the antenna surface pointed toward the horizon in a rather low angle suggested that its role was a different one. Moreover, the USSR already had enough radars to ensure the observation of space objects. Hence, such a complex system had to have another rationale.

The reason for the decision to build the radar at this particular place became clear when one looked at the larger context. The site closed the radar coverage gap in the northeast of the Soviet Union, thus opening up the option of erecting a comprehensive missile defense far beyond the existing system around Moscow. Whether the Kremlin actually sought such a comprehensive missile defense, or whether the radar had been built at the “wrong” place merely to save money, was irrelevant. The breach of the ABM Treaty was obvious.

Still, the Soviet Union continued to deny US allegations. Moscow offered strained counteraccusations and then tried to “offset” the missteps of both sides against each other. One even announced a moratorium on the construction of the radar.

But while some in the West were still trying to refute the accusation of a Soviet treaty violation and instead denounced American wrongdoing, high-ranking Soviet officials were admitting behind closed doors what Washington had suspected from the very beginning: Moscow had committed a calculated violation in the hope that their counter-charges against the US would ultimately legitimize the completion of the radar.

When the Reagan administration continued to demand that the plant be demolished, Moscow finally opted for pre-emptive accommodation: In September 1987, a delegation of Democratic members of the US House of Representatives was invited to visit the site in Siberia.

In their report, written after the inspection of the 11-story broadcasting complex and the 30-story receiver building, the delegation concluded that the radar was unlikely to be intended as a battle management radar. As an early-warning radar, however, the report went on to say, the Krasnoyarsk radar violated the letter, but not the spirit, of the ABM Treaty. Although the radar was still without electronic interior, and with the crucial question of its future working frequencies still unanswered, the US delegation had opted for the “minor” violation.

Predictably, this transparent attempt at trivializing the issue was not going to put the Krasnoyarsk story to rest. The US government continued to insist on a more satisfactory solution, thereby maintaining pressure on Moscow.

When the third Review Conference of the ABM Treaty in August 1988 stalled because of the Krasnoyarsk conundrum, and the US started to hold nuclear-arms-control negotiations hostage to progress on the issue, Moscow decided to internationalize the radar. In October of the same year Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev announced that the Krasnoyarsk radar would be transformed into an international space research centre.

However, the new US administration of George H W Bush was determined not to let Moscow get away on this issue. Bush stayed on the course set by his predecessor, and finally succeeded: In October 1989, Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze admitted that the Krasnoyarsk radar violated the ABM Treaty, and announced the demolition of the plant.

The Krasnoyarsk story dates back three decades. But it shows that a consistent Western policy that is neither misled by Moscow’s denials or counter-claims nor by Western “experts” can succeed. Western negotiators would do well to remember this memorable episode.

Michael Rühle

Michael Ruhle is head of energy security, NATO Emerging Security Challenges Division. The author expresses solely his personal views.