Towards the end of the Cold War: the funeral of the Pioneers and Pershing

A quarter of a century ago, the USA and the USSR agreed to destroy their medium and short-range missiles

25 years ago – December 8, 1987 – US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Short-Range Missiles. A total of 2,692 missiles were destroyed under the treaty..

For many reasons, this treaty is unique. So, for the first time in history, the superpowers agreed to completely destroy an entire class of missile weapons – up to this point, the treaties were to limit their number. Also, for the first time, Washington and Moscow agreed to verify the implementation of the agreement and included a detailed verification mechanism in it – since then, similar provisions have been found in absolutely all agreements of this kind..

Nuclear poker

Negotiations on the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Short-Range Missiles lasted six years, with a 15-month break – the Soviet delegation left the negotiating table. They went into a period that is considered to be the “peak” of the Cold War: by this time, the size of the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the USSR had become such that a conflict between the two states could lead to the destruction of human civilization..

This plot developed in a decade, when Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were at the helm of the United States, and the Soviet Union was ruled by Leonid Brezhnev, Konstantin Chernenko, Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Gorbachev – each of these leaders had their own ideas about how to solve the problem.

To a large extent, the negotiations between the American and Soviet diplomats were a mirror image of the tough struggle for military and political supremacy waged by the two superpowers..

The most laconic description of events does not convey all the tension of this strategic game. In the late 1970s, high-precision missile guidance technologies appeared in the United States, which made it possible to talk about the fact that in the event of a conflict with the Soviet Union, NATO countries would be able to destroy Soviet missiles and bombers with the first strike. By that time, the positions of the United States and European powers in confronting the Soviet threat had become significantly closer, and they decided to jointly build a nuclear security system. In addition, the United States has launched an ambitious Strategic Defense Initiative – the creation of a missile defense system capable of intercepting Soviet missiles. In response, the USSR decided to transfer its small and medium-range missiles, including the new Pioneer complexes (SS-20 in NATO classification), to the socialist states of Eastern Europe. NATO and the United States responded by installing Pershing medium-range missiles in Western Europe. Moscow was alarmed: the Persings with nuclear warheads were capable of hitting targets throughout the European part of the USSR, and their flight time was incomparably shorter than that of American strategic missiles..
Rounds of negotiations on a new treaty were interspersed with new initiatives of the parties and nuclear flexing. In November 1983, after the first Persings began to arrive in West Germany, the Soviet delegation broke off negotiations, and the Soviet Union transferred its nuclear submarines to American shores. Discussions resumed only in 1985.


The breakthrough was achieved by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, who signed the agreement at a ceremony in Washington..

Speaking at a conference at the Brookings Institution, Ambassador John Woodworth, who participated in the talks with the US Department of State and the Department of Defense, sums it up: “Reagan and Gorbachev were able to take steps that no one had risked before. … They made no secret of their initiatives, initially hoping to gain the support of American and Soviet societies. Each of them tried to act in the best interests of their country “.

Another participant in the negotiation process, Steven Pifer, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that in the final part of these negotiations, he first discovered that Soviet diplomats stopped blindly following instructions and began to be creative in solving emerging problems..

At the request of the Voice of America Russian Service correspondent, Ambassador Woodward described the differences between American and Soviet diplomatic styles: “In my opinion, the differences lie mainly in the field of culture. If the Americans see an arms control problem, they try to look for practical ways to solve it. The Soviet, and now Russian, approach is to try to use this problem as a lever, a means of pressure, in order to win something else by solving it ”.

However, William Burns, who represented the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in these negotiations, notes: “These were the first negotiations on nuclear weapons, which the Soviet Union lost,” since the basis of the treaty was the “zero option” formula originally proposed by Reagan.

Soviet Young Pioneers (1922-91)

However, Burns adds, the Soviet defeat is rather arbitrary. The Pioneer missiles did not increase the security of the Soviet Union, but created an additional burden on the Soviet economy, which was already going through difficult times..

The final

Another negotiator, Ambassador Avis Bohlen, now a professor at Georgetown University, said: “This treaty marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the end of the nuclear arms race. After that, the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia only decreased. “.

The United States and Russia have completely destroyed their short- and medium-range missiles, but this type of weapon remains in the arsenal of the other nuclear powers. Several years ago, a number of Russian leaders recalled the treaty and warned that Moscow might withdraw from it. The fact is that in modern conditions, while ensuring its security, Russia, to a much greater extent than the USSR, relies on its nuclear forces, and fears the development of nuclear potential in states that are close to its borders..

Because of this, Avis Bohlen warns that discussions between the United States and Russia on further nuclear arms reductions can be long and difficult..

  • Alex Grigoriev

    Alex Grigoriev specializes in covering international relations, defense and security, intelligence, terrorism, and nuclear issues.


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