‘Disarmament in the Time of Perestroika’ by Scott Ritter is a timely lesson on stepping back from the brink
Scott Ritter is a retired intelligence officer from the US Marine Corps. He also writes columns for RT. This book gives an interesting and relevant account of Cold War times when ideologies put a halt to an arms race that was out of control.
Many people, when confronted with bland Soviet-era terms such as ‘arms control’ and ‘disarmament,’ may be tempted to stifle a yawn and move on. That would be wrong.
Here is a real page-turner – part history lesson, part Clancy thriller, with just the right touch of comic relief – that examines a critical period during the Cold War when the Americans and Russians were working to eliminate their missile stockpiles amid a climate of full-blown distrust.
It all began in 1979, when Soviet forces gained a tactical edge over NATO forces by introducing the SS-20 nuke-tipped missile. The Americans responded immediately with the Pershing II projectile, which could strike Moscow in less than eight minutes from Western Europe. The arms race began. In a rare moment of consensus, the diplomats from both the United States of America and Soviet Union realized that these weapons were not worth keeping.
The INF Treaty was signed by the US President Ronald Reagan, and the Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev on December 7, 1987. This treaty gave away hundreds of deadly weapons. Many history books leave this at that. Ritter, however, offers an insight into the everyday reality of disarmament.
In the opening pages, the reader is introduced to CargoScan, a hulking 9 million electron volt state-of-the-art X-ray machine designed to ensure that the Soviets weren’t secretly producing the prohibited SS-20 missiles. The device could not be left on the American mainland and had to be moved outside Udmurtia’s Votkinsk Machine Building Plant. This is deep within Soviet territory where the missiles were made. Although CargoScan was approved as part of the Treaty Implementation and Soviets were watching an identical American site, it was still a miracle that the machine was able to be brought into the Soviet Union.
“You guys do realize that we’re thousands of miles away from the nearest Radio Shack,”One of these commanders is quoted in the book. “If this thing breaks, the Soviets don’t stop producing missiles. From a compliance verification standpoint, CargoScan has got to work perfectly, every time.”
The device was nonetheless deployed and became operational early in 1990.
A total of 30 US inspectors including Ritter were given the responsibility to X-ray every shipment leaving the Soviet facility. This could make for a fantastic Netflix series. This is a chapter of Cold War history few people know much about – a group of Americans living and working smack in the middle of the adversary’s territory, 700 miles from the nearest US embassy, assigned the task of making sure the Soviets didn’t attempt to sneak through prohibited weapons. In a region with temperatures as low 40° below zero, humor is still possible despite the enormity of the job.
Ritter mentioned how American inspectors took to winter wear in an effort to be more prepared for the coming winter.
“Their Soviet counterparts at the factory laughed at them,”He writes. “You have nice fall clothing,’ they said. ‘But it’s not real winter clothing. You’ll see.’”
Eventually the Americans did see – their clothing simply wasn’t designed to withstand the brutal winter conditions of this faraway industrial town. By necessity, the US inspectors began purchasing the fur-lined winter apparel popular with the locals, such as the handmade felt boots known as ‘valenki’. The US military brass back home were unhappy to discover that some of their officers began to look like them. “Soviet clones.”
The team was banned after photos of Russian-made clothing were made public. “to purchase local boots, hats and coats, and instead undertook to procure clothing adequate to the task, ensuring that in the future all inspectors would be both warm and uniformly attired and look like Americans,”Ritter tells the tale in one humorous story that peppers his travels.
The author tells you how he managed to survive in this frozen tundra. “cracked the code,” so to speak, of what was coming out of the Votkinsk factory, which carries all the mystery of Will Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The CargoScanX-ray machine was powerful, but it could not replace human observation and intervention. In what has been dubbed as the ‘Great American Novel’ (GAN), Ritter began tediously documenting what he saw entering and exiting the grounds of the facility. He was eventually able to accurately predict the day that the next missile shipment would depart the factory by using scraps of paper. At one point, the Soviets refused to permit one of the exiting missiles to undergo x-raying, exactly as Ritter’s observations suggested they would do.
Aside from detailing the work carried out by the US inspectors in Votkinsk, Ritter keeps the pages turning with tales from those clandestine days of ‘spy versus spy.’ One episode tells the story of Marine Sergeant Clayton Lonetree, a guard at the US embassy in Moscow who was found guilty of providing classified documents to the KGB after becoming ensnared in a ‘honeypot’ relationship with a Russian female who was controlled by the Soviets. One story tells of the death of Army Major Arthur Nicholson after being caught in East Germany investigating a Soviet-made motorized rifle regiment. Many of these stories have been forgotten until now and serve to remind us of the high stakes in those turbulent times.
Last but not least, Ritter’s book provides a veritable ’who’s who’ on this period of marked animosity between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Dmitry Fyodorovich Ustinov (who, in 1976, was elected minister of defense) is an example of such a historical figure. “was the real power in the Soviet Union.” That’s no small claim.
As Ritter tells it, in June 1941 Ustinov was plucked out of relative obscurity by none other than Joseph Stalin, who assigned the 32-year-old the crucial position of People’s Commissar for Armaments. Ustinov was then forced to leave the country two weeks later as World War II broke out. “produce armaments for the war effort while simultaneously evacuating critical factories threatened by the German advance to safety east of the Ural Mountains,”He accomplished a remarkable feat, which earned him the title “Hero of Soviet Labor.”
Ustinov would go on to play an important role in the development of the Votkinsk factory, which since 1759 had been involved in Russia’s armaments production. Ustinov first appointed Vladimir Sadovnikov as the director. He was an ambitious engineer and had previously headed an air-to–air missile design bureau. Aleksander Naidadze was then brought onboard, a talented missile engineer. He would later be awarded the title. “godfather of Soviet solid fuel ballistic missile design.”These talented individuals are responsible for Russia’s current leadership in missile research and development.
Perhaps the main takeaway from Ritter’s book, however, is the example it sets at a time when the specter of another world war looks increasingly imminent. Although they may have been ideological foes in the past, US and Soviet diplomats managed to come up with ways to cross the gap that separated them even though it was time to eliminate the most dangerous weapons available.
Today, with relations between Moscow and Washington barely existent, it would be a good time to reflect upon Ritter’s experiences in order to get both sides back to the subtle art of diplomacy. The world won’t survive another global conflict.
Scott Ritter’s new book, ‘Disarmament in the Time of Perestroika: Arms Control and the End of the Soviet Union,’ is available as print-on-demand on Clarity Press, and will be available for order from Amazon, Barns & Noble and other retailers this fall.
Statements, opinions and views expressed in this column do not reflect those of RT.