Russia’s Nuclear Paranoia Fuels Its Nuclear Propaganda

A classic disinformation campaign about U.S. nukes reveals a lot about Moscow's military anxieties.

ADANA, TURKEY - JULY 18: A picture taken on July 18, 2016 in Incirlik, Adana, Turkey shows a general view from Incirlik 10th Adana Tanker Base Commander while  Adana public prosecutor's office is conducting research and investigation in the base after the Parallel State/Gulenist Terrorist Organization's failed military coup attempt. (Photo by Yusuf Koyun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ADANA, TURKEY - JULY 18: A picture taken on July 18, 2016 in Incirlik, Adana, Turkey shows a general view from Incirlik 10th Adana Tanker Base Commander while Adana public prosecutor's office is conducting research and investigation in the base after the Parallel State/Gulenist Terrorist Organization's failed military coup attempt. (Photo by Yusuf Koyun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Twitter has been aflame with reports that the United States is moving the few dozen nuclear weapons stored at the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to Deveselu military base in Romania. I am calling bullshit on this one — but it’s bullshit in a telling way.

It’s most likely Russian propaganda, all part of an elaborate strategy to build opposition to U.S. missile defense efforts and deflect criticism of Moscow for violating arms control treaties. This is a particularly irritating manifestation of the bullshit asymmetry principle: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”

The evidence to suggest that there are U.S. bombs in Romania is pretty thin. An anonymous person blindsided a former Romanian president with a “sources say” question that he was dumb enough to answer — allowing Romanian media to cover it as though sources actually say — and then an obscure EU-focused website called EurActiv stated the outrageous rumor as outright fact, citing nothing more than “independent sources.”

The Romanian government has already denied it — and, come on, the story never made much sense to begin with. For one thing, there are no storage facilities at Deveselu for the nuclear bombs. The United States has specific security requirements for its nuclear weapons, and Deveselu does not meet them. For example, B61s in Europe are stored in specially designed vaults called the Weapons Storage and Security System, or WS3. There are none at Deveselu or anywhere in Romania. I even checked some recent satellite images supplied by Planet. I found nothing remotely looking like new construction, let alone nuclear weapons storage.

For another thing, the NATO-Russia Founding Act contains a political commitment by NATO not to store nuclear weapons in former Warsaw Pact states. The United States and its allies could renege on this commitment, of course, but that is the sort of thing that would require consultation among NATO members. Consultation means talking, which NATO is really good at. That process would take months, if not years, and would be bound to leak.

No, if the United States withdraws its nuclear weapons from Turkey as it did from Greece in 2001, those weapons will go to another location in Europe with appropriate storage facilities, like Italy’s Aviano Air Base, or simply come back to the United States.

So why is an obscure news outlet like EurActiv reporting that nuclear weapons are to be stored at Deveselu? Let’s just say EurActiv Measures is more like it.

Here’s some important context: Deveselu is an “Aegis Ashore” site for U.S. missile defense interceptors — that is to say, it is a land-based version of the ship-based missile defense system. (It even kind of looks like a ship on land.) The Russians have always hated the idea of U.S. missile defenses being stationed in the territories of their erstwhile Warsaw Pact allies and have said so repeatedly. Claiming that U.S. nuclear weapons are going to be stored at Deveselu is a surefire way to stir up local European populations against a given military site. You don’t need to be an arms control wonk to connect the dots here.

Moreover, the Russians, including President Vladimir Putin himself, have repeatedly asserted that U.S. missile defenses are a pretext for stationing offensive, nuclear-armed missiles in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. It is impossible to know how sincere the Russians are about this fear, but they say it a lot. And it certainly helps raise concern about what might be going on at Deveselu, which makes Putin happy.

The whole thing reads like a pretty classic Russian disinformation operation. A few anonymous sources make a claim in an obscure foreign newspaper. That allows Russia’s state media to “cover” the allegations without quite taking responsibility for them. The story gets redistributed by the usual nitwits — looking at you, Breitbart! — and useful idiots connect the dots for Moscow. And, thanks to the geniuses in the Defense Department’s press shop who “neither confirm nor deny” any story about the location of U.S. nuclear weapons, Russian media are having a ball.

The Soviets used to do this all the time. One of my favorite examples is the claim that HIV is a U.S. bioweapon gone rogue. In the early 1980s, the KGB planted the story in an obscure newspaper in India. Thomas Boghardt tells the story expertly in an article for the journal Studies in Intelligence. They let the story fester for bit, before having Soviet media kick it into high gear. That was followed by a campaign by an East German “doctor.” It would all be very funny, except these views are prevalent in Africa and complicate efforts to fight HIV infection. Many important African figures have flirted with AIDS denialism, something that, in part, seems to have been strengthened by the circulation of such conspiracy theories (and which conspiracy theorists then recycle as further support). These sort of stories become impossible to beat back once they go, if you’ll forgive the pun, viral. “Once the AIDS conspiracy theory was lodged in the global [subconscious],” Boghardt wrote, “it became a pandemic in its own right.”

There are literally dozens of other examples of Soviet propaganda like this. I strongly suspect the same thing is happening here. The Russians are using the concern about nuclear weapons located at Incirlik to push the idea that those weapons might come to Romania, largely in an effort to stir up local opposition to missile defense.

There is, however, another disturbing possibility. Even if the Russians — or some Russians — know that the EurActiv story is hokum, they may genuinely be worried about the idea that the United States would convert missile defense interceptors into INF-like weapons that could kill the Russian leadership with little or no warning. Although it is ridiculous from an American perspective, I have long argued that the Russian General Staff is genuinely terrified about the threat of decapitation — the ability of the United States to use nuclear weapons and precision munitions to kill the Russian leadership in a surprise attack. I’ve written about this before:

“It is a funny sort of paranoid fantasy, the notion that the United States might place nuclear weapons on missile defense interceptors and use them to decapitate the Russian leadership in Moscow. But I suspect this is the rub. The simplest explanation for Russia’s overwhelming concern with missile defense is that the General Staff fears that Russia is much, much more vulnerable to an attack against the country’s command-and-control infrastructure — what used to be called decapitation — than we realize. Part of this is a fear that missile defense interceptors could be armed as offensive missiles, part of it is that missile defenses could mop up a disorganized Russian retaliation. Most of it, however, is probably sheer terror at the persistent technological advantage held by the United States in light of Russian vulnerabilities.”

I know it seems absurd, but I think the Russians do believe it. Moscow was unmoving during the New START negotiations at the beginning of President Barack Obama’s administration on the issue of missile defense interceptors and offensive missiles using the same silos. That’s why it insisted on an obscure and politically troublesome provision prohibiting the placement of missile defense interceptors in silos built for intercontinental ballistic missiles and vice versa. Then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates also mentioned that Moscow expressed concern that “ground-based interceptors in Poland could be fitted with nuclear weapons and become an offensive weapon like a Pershing and a weapon for which they would have virtually no warning time.” A senior official later told me he was surprised to see that remark in an unclassified setting. And this year, Putin made precisely the same claim in public. I know it is weird. But it just may be that the Russians think some weird things.

Even if Russia is paranoid, the increasing performance of missile defense interceptors means that the missiles could also be used to attack ground targets. I asked my friend David Wright to model an SM-3 Block IIB interceptor based in Poland converted to a nuclear weapon, and, sure enough, it would violate the 1987 INF Treaty and pose a threat to Moscow.

As far as I can tell, no one in the United States is planning to do this, but one reason the Russians may be suspicious is that they may be thinking about it themselves. John Krempasky likes to say the easiest way to figure out what the Russians are up to is to look at what they are accusing the United States of doing. He has a point. Many countries have adapted surface-to-air missiles to have surface-to-surface roles, including Russia and the United States. Some foreign observers are already warning that it is Russia that is planning on converting its most advanced air defense missiles into intermediate-range nuclear weapons.

I have long pressed the Obama administration to try to talk to the Russians about dealing with this problem. In particular, I have proposed that the United States and Russia agree to a ban on nuclear-armed missile defense interceptors.

The United States, after all, doesn’t use nuclear weapons on its missile defenses. In fact, a 2002 bipartisan amendment put forward by Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) prohibits the Defense Department from spending money on the “research, development, test, evaluation, procurement or deployment of nuclear-armed interceptors of a missile defense system.” That’s because after the chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board indicated that then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was “interested in looking at” nuclear-armed missile defenses, Stevens freaked out.

On the other hand, Russia’s missile defense system, at least the one around Moscow, may still be armed with nuclear warheads. Russia is reportedly moving toward a conventional missile defense of the city, something we should hasten along if at all possible. And if Putin intends to keep the Moscow anti-ballistic missile system armed with nuclear warheads, that is a sufficiently terrible idea to make this proposal all the more important.

So why not agree to prohibit nuclear-armed ballistic missile defenses? Everyone bangs on about reducing the massive stockpile of Russian tactical nuclear weapons. Well, a lot of those nuclear weapons are thought to be air defense warheads. Let’s do it!

Banning nuclear-armed missile defense interceptors would help shore up the INF Treaty at a time when it looks to be faltering. There are any number of challenges facing the treaty. Addressing one of them would be a step in the right direction.

Perhaps most importantly, a ban would require verification, in the form of confidence-building measures, that demonstrates that neither side is converting missile defenses into nuclear-armed offensive missiles. That would probably involve visits to missile defense sites to examine the interceptor warheads and ensure nothing worrisome is stored at the base. Imagine if we had such an agreement today. It would be a simple thing to demonstrate to the Russians, as well as to the rest of the world, that there are no nuclear weapons at Deveselu and that the story — whether it was hatched in Moscow or not — is bunk.

Photo credit: Yusuf Koyun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk