WASHINGTON — As America enters into its most public debate about nuclear weapons and missile defense in decades, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee is warning that Russia will likely try to influence the debate about the Pentagon’s modernization plans — potentially including attempts to co-opt the nonproliferation community.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, spoke March 1 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he mentioned several times the idea that Russia is preparing to gin up opposition to nuclear modernization plans through social media and other means.
“There are well-meaning, very sincere opponents to all of the things we talked about today,” Thornberry said. “But after what we’ve seen the past year or two, we better look under the hood and make sure that the Russians are not fueling our controversies in the way that we have seen them do in recent months.”
“I suspect we’re going to see much more sophisticated methods coming from Russia to try and influence the decisions that are required to implement this Nuclear Posture Review,” he said. “So it’s a big deal.”
Asked by Defense News after his speech if the government has recently seen signs that Russia is funding nonproliferation groups, Thornberry was evasive, noting that the topic was more in the lane of the intelligence community but offering: “I think we need to be much more alert than we have been on how they are trying to influence our defense decisions.”
The chairman coached his comments in historical context, citing declassified CIA files that show Russia funded and provide indirect aid to the movements against nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s.
“What they did in the ’80s was they provided propaganda themes, they provided organizational support, they forged U.S. military documents, they gave them money,” Thornberry said. “Add social media and all the new tools that are available that we saw them just use in the last election — I think we need to be much more alert than we have been on how they are trying to influence our defense decisions.”
Unsurprisingly, Thornberry’s comments drew strong condemnation from the nonproliferation community.
Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, hit back at Thornberry as “a politician who is doing nothing to stop the actual Russian attack on our democratic institutions but spins conspiracy theories about how the Russians manufactured an entire antinuclear movement in the 1980s and are doing it again now.
“Americans’ fears of nuclear wars don’t have to be fanned by the Russians. [U.S. President Donald] Trump and Thornberry are doing a fine job all by themselves.”
Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said it was “concerning to hear an elected official resort to what almost resembles nuclear McCarthyism by hinting that defense critics might be pawns of the Kremlin.”
“I hope he has something specific to refer to and not just be drawing broad parallels with the Cold War to create unsubstantiated suspicion about the patriotism of defense critics,” Kristensen said.
Both men willingly acknowledged Russian efforts to co-opt the antinuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s, but downplayed the effect that had on what Cirincione called a movement grounded in a “massive, genuine and rooted ... deep fear that the two superpowers would fight a nuclear war on their continent.”
Added Kristensen: “The opposition to the missiles in Europe was motivated by the madness of the nuclear arms race on both sides of the Iron Curtain, not whose side you were on.”
The recently released Nuclear Posture Review called for two new ship-based nuclear capabilities, while the upcoming Missile Defense Review is expected to call for a dramatic increase in America’s defensive posture ― requirements that will require increased spending from taxpayers.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.