Phil Karber has placed another story, this time directly associating himself with the discredited claim that China has 3,000 nuclear weapons. Karber found an essay by General Viktor Yesin (in Russian), a former commander of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces, and placed it in the Falun Gong-run Epoch Times.
Yesin’s essay is full of errors, so let’s start with the easy one. Yesin claims China is producing fissionable material at a place called Koko Nor. Above is a picture of me (younger, thinner), at the facility in Koko Nor, which was closed in the mid-1980s. It ain’t producing nuclear weapons.
China moved the nuclear activities at Koko Nor — which were related to design and fabrication — to a place called Mianyang. This is a picture of me (older, fatter), with the much-maligned “UCS-crowd” visiting Mianyang. I keep saying it over and over again. A real scholar would get on an airplane and do some fucking research. More comments after the photo and jump.
Speaking of airplanes, General Yesin’s exaggerated views of China’s nuclear forces are well-known. He presented a similar paper at a small meeting I attended in Switzerland in 2009, which received some attention in the Washington Post when the East-West Institute published the rapporteur’s report. I actually blogged about the subject, although I did not mention General Yesin by name as the meeting occurred under the Chatham House rule. Given that he is openly publishing these statements now, I see no reason to obscure his identity. (His name is transliterated as Esin in the EWI paper.) Several colleagues wrote in to share their own assessments of General Yesin –“idiot” and “well-known nutty commodity” were two comments — while an equal number wrote in to describe him “very solid, sober, reasonable, serious, and scientifically objective.” What to make of those very different interactions, I don’t know.
In my limited experiences, he’s been right out of central casting. This may be a case of “garbage in, garbage out” that tells us more about Russian views of China than anything about General Yesin. General Yesin’s views are, I would note, typical of those circulating within Russia, where alarmist estimates of American and Chinese military capabilities are the norm. As I noted in 2009:
I presume readers are familiar with the phenomenon of extreme assessments of foreign nuclear programs by Russian observers. I was very recently at a meeting where one colleague noted dryly, “It is wrong to stereotype entire countries, but if it weren’t wrong, we would say the Russians are paranoid.”
Yesin is, on balance, probably a positive voice for stability in US-Russia relations. One of my concerns about Phil Karber’s baseless claims is that not that he will distort US policymaking, but that false information will deepen the already considerable Russian paranoia that has led them to retain three to five thousand tactical nuclear weapons. Karber’s efforts to gain attention for himself have a real cost — he may say he is in favor of arms control measures, but by spinning up the Russians he ensures efforts to reduce the Russian stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons go nowhere.
Second, Yesin has apparently claimed these are official figures, but in fact they are most likely derived from the same bizarre Usenet post that Karber relies on. (I will refer to it as the “Yang Zheng” essay — although you can read all about it here and here.) At the very least, many statements are factually inaccurate. For example, Yesin appears to identify “Baotou” as a source of fissile material–“Они находятся в Баотоу (автономный район Внутренняя Монголия), Кукунор (провинция Цинхай), Ланьчжоу и Юймынь (оба в провинции Ганьсу).”– a mistake the United States made in the 1960s and that was repeated in the online post that is the source of all this nonsense. In fact, Baotou’s primary mission was to fabricate fuel rods for China’s plutonium production reactors. As far as I can tell, all of these claims, from Karber to Yesin, still seem to trace back to the same Usenet post; this is simply an exercise in laundering bad data.
Yesin also claims that a site at Koko Nor (Кукунор) remains active — in fact, China closed the site in the mid-1980s. As I noted, I visited Koko Nor in 2005 and took lots of pictures.
Karber should get on an airplane and do some research! Citing Yesin is not research. It is just hearsay — a real scholar would visit the place that Yesin claims is an active nuclear weapons facility. He would see with his own two eyes that it has not been active for a very long time, just as Gregory Kulacki tracked down the original Hong Kong publication that was misquoted in the Usenet posting.
Third, Rick Fisher claims that “Gen. Yesin has dropped a nuclear bomb on the hubris of the American arms control community.” I should add that Fisher himself cited the bogus Yang Zheng essay directly — not once but twice. He’s hardly a paragon of judgment. I usually avoid taking pot-shots at Fisher because, despite all my objections to his work, at least he’s not lazy. He actually visits China. But since he doesn’t feel like playing nice today, let’s not let it go unremarked that he was one of “Yang Zheng’s” original suckers.
If Karber isn’t interested in doing actual research himself, he could also ask others before going public. Here is what Karber did not do when he found Yesin’s essay — he didn’t forward it to colleagues for comment and analysis. He tried to keep it a secret (as though the rest of us don’t have friends who read Russian) and then tried to surprise the Administration with a press story. That’s not research, it’s advocacy. The fact that Karber doesn’t consult with his colleagues suggests that he is more concerned with the headline than the real answer. The only comfort that I draw from any of this is that Karber is down to the Epoch Times as a venue for his bullshit.