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Journal of Cold War Studies 4.3 (2002) 151-152

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Book Review

The Russian Nuclear Shield from Stalin to Yeltsin

Jennifer G. Mathers, The Russian Nuclear Shield from Stalin to Yeltsin. London: Macmillan Press, 2000. 227 pp. $65.00.

The recent controversy surrounding strategic defense, stirred by U.S. president George W. Bush's commitment to build a national missile defense system, has raised questions about the future of Russia's strategic nuclear forces. The arrival of Jennifer Mathers's book, which (despite its title) focuses on the development of the Soviet and then Russian antiballistic missile (ABM) system, is therefore very timely. The book, a revised version of a doctoral thesis published in the Oxford University St. Antony's College series, includes eight well-balanced chapters in chronological order with all [End Page 151] the requisites of a solid dissertation: extensive notes and references, wide bibliography, and a helpful index. The novelty of the research is, however, open to doubt, and the net value of the book is questionable.

Mathers's analysis can hardly qualify as a major contribution in security studies. She offers no solid descriptions of weapon systems and no tables, maps, or photographs. Nor does she provide a cogent analysis of the interplay between the ABM and the development of air defense systems or the link between strategic and theater missile defense capabilities. The role of satellite technology and the particular interests of the "space lobby" receive almost no attention. The recent book by Nikolai Sokov, Russian Strategic Modernization (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), provides much richer food for strategic thought.

In terms of political analysis Mathers's book is also deficient. It does not advance any consistent hypothesis or set of propositions, nor does it seek to incorporate theoretical insights into its analysis. Its key premise—that decisions "were shaped by a combination of domestic and international factors and by the agendas and priorities of individual political and military leaders as well as constraints and opportunities of the environment in which they operated" (p. 1)—is nothing but self-evident. Mathers then tries to compare the impact of these factors in different periods and to define "the role which ABM occupies in Soviet strategic thought" (p. 2), but she fails to use any precise methodology or criteria. Readers looking for an innovative political analysis of security issues will have to turn elsewhere—for example, to the recent book by Celeste A. Wallander, Mortal Enemies, Best Friends (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).

Even as a purely historical survey Mathers's book is unimpressive. It does not cite newly released documents or even a single new piece of evidence from the former Soviet archives, a source that Mathers evidently decided to ignore. Nor did she conduct any interviews with aging Soviet strategists and negotiators, many of whom are now willing to talk. She provides quite a long list of Russian secondary sources, and the articles in Vestnik PVO (Air Defense Herald) and Armeiskii sbornik (Army Anthology) may indeed be of some interest, but it is simply impossible to attach any credibility to the twenty-eight articles from Kommunist vooruzhennikh sil (Communist of the armed forces) that grace her bibliography.

It is perhaps not quite fair to criticize the book for what it does not attempt to accomplish or pretend to be. Indeed, as an analysis of Soviet decision making in one particular field it does add some value. Although treating this topic in isolation from other, parallel developments is an artificial exercise, it does help to reveal how measures that appeared perfectly rational from an institutional standpoint could turn out to be so strategically senseless, amounting to a colossal waste of resources. Many of Mathers's comments about bureaucratic intrigues and the complex interactions between Soviet political and military leaders, while perhaps not truly insightful, are on the mark. Mathers also convincingly traces the persistent and self-reproducing patterns in Soviet strategic thinking, patterns that remain largely intact in post-Soviet Russia. With the new interest in strategic defense issues, the book will likely find...