Washington, 13 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - A senior U.S. official says the United States is not particularly concerned about a Russian military doctrine reserving the right to strike back with nuclear weapons should Russia be attacked.
The Defense Department official, who spoke to reporters Monday on condition of anonymity, said the doctrine might even prove to have positive value as a deterrent.
The Russian Security Council approved the doctrine last week. Russian officials were quoted as saying the doctrine means that Russia could respond first with nuclear weapons in a conflict only if the nation were driven into a corner and had no other alternative.
"This particular Russian doctrine does not particularly concern me, in the sense that the Russian forces are now quite clearly in a defensive orientation," the U.S. official said.
He said the doctrine could have a positive value, "in the sense that a general declaratory policy like that would add to deterrence and would make the Russian leadership less concerned that Russia would be attacked."
He said he did not interpret the doctrine as a threat, but said its publication could be considered understandable given the impoverished state of the Russian military.
The official reminded reporters that the Soviet leadership, under President Leonid Brezhnev, declared in 1977 that Moscow would never resort to a so-called first use of nuclear weapons. He said that the Brezhnev statement "was nothing that we took particularly seriously."
"We always believed that Russian (Soviet) doctrine allowed for the early first-use of nuclear weapons," the official said. "And as I recall, some of the documents that were found by the Germans after the Russian (Soviet) forces departed East Germany seemed to indicate quite strongly that the war plans called for early nuclear strikes."
The official was briefing reporters in advance of the visit to Washington this week by Russian Defense Minister Igor Rodionov. Rodionov is due to have talks today with Defense Secretary William Cohen and National Security Council Chairman Samuel Berger. Tomorrow, he has a meeting scheduled with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
The Pentagon official said the subject of Russian opposition to the planned addition of some of the former communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe to the NATO military alliance is likely to be a central topic of Rodionov's discussions in the United States.
Rodionov originally had scheduled a visit to Washington in December, but canceled it at the last minute. The Pentagon official said the visit was rescheduled in February, after Cohen became Secretary of Defense.
The Defense Department official noted that U.S.-Russian relations took what he called an ugly turn late last fall because of heated Russian opposition to NATO enlargement.
"Like everything else in the U.S.-Russian relationship, the military-to-military ties have been affected over the past many months by the disagreement over NATO enlargement," the official said. However, the official noted that U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed at their summit in April "that the disagreement over NATO enlargement should not be allowed to affect other aspects of the bilateral relationship."
The Pentagon official said that, since the Helsinki meeting, "we believe we have seen what represents a change in the Russian attitude, for the positive."
The official also dismissed a report in Monday's "Washington Times" newspaper which claimed that recent malfunctions of equipment controlling Russia's nuclear arsenal have switched missiles to "combat mode" on several occasions. The report, citing classified U.S. intelligence documents, said "equipment often malfunctions and on more than one occasion has switched spontaneously to combat mode."
The Pentagon official, however, said the report is "at best, hearsay."
"I've never seen any credible report from our intelligence services -- across the board -- that would indicate the risk of unauthorized or accidental launch has been raised," said the official, who is a specialist on nuclear matters.
At the State Department, spokesman Nicholas Burns said the United States is convinced that nuclear weapons in Russia are under the secure and central control of the Russian government.
He told reporters Monday the stability of the former Soviet nuclear weapons in Russia is an issue of the utmost concern to the United States. He said the United States works closely with Russia, not only to help it dismantle nuclear weapons, but to ensure the safety and stability of Russia's nuclear arsenal.
Burns declined to comment directly on the report. He said the United States takes the word of Russian officials who have assured Washington that the weapons are secure.