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Stranded in the Cold War Siberian Winter

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) marked a turning point in relations between the U.S. and the USSR. Signed in December 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the treaty came into force on June 1, 1988 and was the first treaty to ever destroy nuclear missiles, rather than just cap the number each side could possess. It eliminated  intermediate range missiles (between 300-3,400 miles), including the Soviets’ accurate SS-20s. At the time of its signature, the treaty’s verification regime was the most detailed and stringent in the history of nuclear arms control. It established various types of on-site inspections, including short-notice inspections of declared and formerly declared facilities and elimination inspections to confirm elimination of INF systems in accordance with agreed procedures.

In practice, this meant that teams of Americans would fly in to conduct inspections throughout the USSR. Eileen Malloy was posted to Moscow in 1988 right after the treaty was signed and worked directly with the government to facilitate the visits of U.S. inspection teams. In these excerpts she talks of her unintended stay in Ulan Ude, Siberia — in January. Ambassador Malloy was interviewed beginning in November 2008 by Charles Stuart Kennedy.

You can also read about when she went skinny dipping with the first lady of Kyrgyzstan. Go here to read about the negotiations to arrive at the INF Treaty. You can also read the transcript from the panel discussion on women in the Foreign Service, which she moderated.


Trust but Verify

MALLOY: When I arrived in Moscow [in 1988] to take on this huge challenge…. it was opening up the first ever arms control implementation office that was set up to run the INF treaty….

Bearing in mind that Soviets are not very good about dealing with women,…I turned out to be a pregnant female. They just did not know what to do with me at all….So I was there for two years doing that, it was very eventful….

It was really a tremendous achievement negotiating this treaty. The Russians have a very different philosophical approach to treaties.

We tend to feel, we Americans, that whatever is not prescribed or prohibited in the treaty we can do. They feel that you can only do what is explicitly detailed as allowable in a treaty. So my prime job was to work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and to work with the military, the Soviet Nuclear Military Center to smooth out all of these disputes to make sure that the American teams who would land at the portal entries to conduct surprise inspections were able to reach their sites.

If you remember President Reagan’s famous phrase “trust but verify,” “doverie, no proverjae” in Russian. In order to get political support in the United States, there had to be a vigorous inspection angle to the treaty. We couldn’t just trust the Soviets when they said that they had eliminated these missiles. We had to have American teams go in and visit sites to make sure that they weren’t there, that they weren’t deployed.

The teams had to be able to land either in Moscow or the portal that was in Siberia announce where they wanted to go anywhere in the Soviet Union, and reach that location within a certain number of hours. So it was very complex. We were the ones who translated, met them at the airport, made sure that the U.S. military plane was serviced, just got the whole thing going, and then whenever there was as dispute, we would conduct negotiations with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But it was all virgin terrain. Nobody had ever done this before so we were making it up as we were going along….

“The Jeep was frozen solid because it was -30 degrees in the garage”

The [U.S. inspection] flights in and out would come into two sites….Moscow was one. The Siberian town of Ulan Ude, which is just above the Mongolian border, was the eastern portal. Flights would come in from Yokota Air Force base in Japan and land there. The logic was that you had to be able to reach whatever site we wanted to inspect within a certain number of hours and due to the expansive distances of the USSR it could not be done if you just used Moscow as a port of entry. Running and maintaining that site in Ulan Ude was a huge challenge….

[When the officer assigned to Ulan Ude had to transfer to Moscow], all of us Moscow-based officers had to cycle out to Ulan Ude and cover that place. That was a huge challenge because it would take us more than 24 hours to reach it. Each time we travelled the Soviets would know that the United States was about to declare a surprise, unannounced inspection.

To get around that we would travel on a regular but random basis. Some times we would meet inspection teams and other times there would be no pending inspection. It was a bit difficult to maintain that schedule. One time I went out with my whole family….

When I had to go back to Ulan Ude a second time [in 1990] to meet an unannounced inspection, Captain Sandy Schmidt went with me. And the two of us…were responsible for all the diplomatic escort duties, which involved getting up an hour before we had to go to the airport to thaw out the Jeep, which was frozen solid because it was -30 degrees in the garage.

And then Sandy had to do all these complex things to get this Soviet Jeep running. I never learned to drive a stick shift but fortunately she had.

We got ourselves out to the airport and planned to get the team off to their inspection site, hand them over to their Soviet handlers, and be done with work for two days until the team returned to Ulan Ude. Or so we thought.

The Air Force plane came trembling in over the horizon, this enormous C-130, the big transport plane. It was so cold and the runway was in such bad condition that when it landed it broke a strut. So we got the inspection team sent off, and we started to figure out what to do with the plane. And as fast as we can try and get it repaired, the plane starts to freeze.

There were no hangars. It was totally out in the open, in Siberia, in the winter. Every system on the plane that had any type of fluid started to freeze and break. So the air crew realized, the only thing they could do is open every system, just drain everything before it could freeze and rupture. We had to order another plane out of Yokota and it took two days to get it there with a repair crew.

Sandy and I both speak Russian, but my Foreign Service language instruction did not include aeronautic engineering terms. We spent two days standing outside, unprotected on the tarmac in Siberia trying to help with the air crew negotiate with the airport authorities. I ended up with frostbite across my cheeks. There are some great pictures of us desperately trying to keep warm in all this. We actually got to be pretty good buddies with the airport people through all of this.

The thing that I was most pleased with was the U.S. crew of the plane. Of course, there was nothing much for them to do. They did not have the equipment they needed to repair their plane. They are trapped in Siberia unexpectedly for two days without so much as a change of clothes.

We made arrangements for them to get hotel rooms, to be fed but after that they were bored and wanted to go for a walk. They had not planned even to get off the plane. So they did not have winter gear or parkas to walk around….

The Façade of Siberian Infrastructure

There was a winter ice festival going on with what seemed like the whole town out building ice castles and sliding down these enormous runs of ice on rugs and stuff. The flight crew got into it and they started playing with the local people. They had a great time. I think that little interaction did more for Soviet-American relations than anything else because they actually got to talk to people. People could see that the U.S. military men were not monsters. It was a really hard two days, but it was interesting.

The replacement plane arrived and fixed the original plane. The replacement plane took off, went back to Yokota, and right at that moment the inspection team returned having finished their INF inspection. They were oblivious to the fact that this plane had been trapped there the whole time.

They boarded the plane and the first thing they do is complain about the fact that the meals they ordered for the return flight were not there. Of course, they did not understand that the plane had been there on the ground in Ulan Ude the whole time. Then the challenge was to get the plane off the ground because it now had two days of ice and snow on it.

There is no de-icing capacity in Ulan Ude. They brought out a truck and a man with a hand pump and a garden hose who tried to spray away the build-up of ice but it was so slow that by the time he got one wing done the previous one was frozen again. The pilot decided to do the de-icing the old-fashioned way.

Because the Soviets had to bring in English-speaking air traffic controllers when they knew a flight was coming, and this plane was making an “unscheduled” departure, there was no English-speaking air traffic controller in the Ulan Ude air tower.

So the U.S. pilot could not communicate what he planned to do to the tower. He just said to us, “Tell them I’m leaving.” He taxied out to the end of the runway, gunned his engines, and while still completely covered with ice and snow, roared all the way to the end of the runway and hit his brakes so that everything on the wings would fly off and clear himself of ice and snow. Well, of course, the Soviets then thought he had crashed and started emergency equipment roaring out to the end of the runway.

At the same time the U.S. pilot just turned his plane around, now going totally in the wrong direction and took off that way. They got off headed to the USAF in Yokota and I’m left with a mob of angry Soviet airport people fired up about what this pilot has done. It took Sandy and I quite a while to calm everyone down and smooth things over.

What it showed me was how abysmally ill-equipped the Soviet infrastructure was in those days — that you could have a major regional airport in Siberia with no de-icing capacity and no hangars. We realized from that how badly broken the system was. For me it was the beginning of seeing behind that façade of the super adversary to what was really there.

“We did not notice that the driver was dead drunk”

We then finally were going to get to go home three days late to Moscow so Sandy and I packed up, went to the airport more than ready to board an Aeroflot flight back to Moscow.

We were so relieved to be going home. We got on the plane, went roaring down the runway and right as we were about to lift off, one of the tires exploded. The pilot managed to save the plane but we were this close to crashing and burning there. We were rather shaken up by that. We were left with no accommodations, no flights until the next day, totally stranded.

Everybody else on the plane just went into the terminal, lay down on the floor to go to sleep. But we, being evil foreign diplomats, they did not want to leave us running loose for the night so they told us we must go back into town. There were no taxies or anything. So Sandy and I wandered around out front of the terminal building. We always were under Soviet escort, but they were not about to drive us anywhere.

The official vehicle we had parked in the garage back in town so it could freeze up for another two months. So the only way we could find to get back into town was that we came across one of these great big “Chaika” limos that had delivered a wedding party to the airport and was making a dead head run back into town. I do not know if you have ever seen these things. They are decorated and they have a little baby doll tied to the front.

The driver said he would take us into town but we did not notice until we were in the car that he was dead drunk. So here we were roaring back into town, rolling around in the back of this Chaika driven by this guy who is going all over the road. I mean, to survive a near plane crash, we thought we would not make it into town. But we did. He did not even want to be paid. At that point Sandy and I thought nothing could get us now….The next morning we got up, went back to the airport, got on a plane and finally got home to Moscow….

Frozen Policies

The treaty called for each side to pay for services. For instance when our plane came in, we had a payment that we would make to Moscow for the airport services that we were provided. But that would not actually get to the people running the airport at Ulan Ude. They told me they never saw any of that money. So they had to provide the support, but they did not have enough funding to sustain the services.

I suggested to them that rather than paying a cash amount, why not have the U.S. government send them a used de-icing truck from some airport in the United States. They thought that would be absolutely wonderful.

When I got back and recounted this conversation, the Washington policy group slapped me on the hand. I had no authorization to make any such offer, to have any such discussion with the Soviets. We were not here to help them. To me it was the most logical thing. It would have made our operation safer. It was the only way we would know that the money we were paying them for services was actually getting to them.

But there was still this reflexive, “We’re not helping the bad guys” kind of thing.

I think in hindsight people realized now that had we started on a more cooperative relationship back then, it might have been easier to mount some of the national security programs that we did after the breakup of the Soviet Union.