In February, the Trump administration announced its unilateral suspension of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty, which was first signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev back in 1987. The withdrawal will become final in August. In response, Russia also pulled out of the treaty, leaving open the option of building new and more sophisticated medium-range nuclear weapons. These developments have benefited the Russian military and arms industry, and hurt the cause of Russians who support disarmament. Arms manufacturers in both Russia and the United States are pleased with the treaty breakdown, according to Vladimir Pozner, host of an influential Russian TV interview program.
“The fact that the US pulled out of that treaty is seen by some [Russians] as positive,” he said in an interview. “‘Now, great, we can do some stuff that we weren’t allowed to do before.’”
The Trump administration has refused to reveal if it will agree to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits the number of nuclear warheads on deployed bombers, submarines, and long-range missiles. New START expires in 2021, but both sides could agree on a five-year extension.
The United States and Russia each have an estimated 6,000 nuclear warheads, which can be delivered at various distances—by land, sea, and air. If the two treaties aren’t renegotiated, the world could be confronted with a nuclear-arms race not seen since the days of the Cold War.
But that arms race is not inevitable, according to Alexey Arbatov, head of the Center for International Security at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations. The military and arms manufacturers in both countries exercise a lot of influence, he explained in an interview. “But the key issue is the position taken by top political leaders.” And those leaders are subject to political pressure, as seen in the 1980s.
The grassroots disarmament movement in the United States and Europe set the stage for passage of some disarmament treaties. In 1982, 1 million people rallied in New York against nuclear weapons in what was America’s largest political demonstration up to that time. European protesters marched against deployment of both US and Soviet nuclear weapons in their countries. In response, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev declared that the Soviet Union would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. The United States never made such a pledge. And Russia abandoned that policy in 1993, Partially in response to the mass upsurge, the US and USSR negotiated the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) and the INF.
Today, the US disarmament movement is much smaller, although there are efforts in Congress to support arms treaties. And the movement is almost nonexistent in Russia, according to Oleg Bodrov, an environmental and anti-nuke activist in St. Petersburg. Proponents of disarmament don’t organize independently but work within environmental and human-rights groups, he said in a phone interview. “We have some movement, but it is not very strong, not so active,” he said.
Bodrov said Trump’s refusal to negotiate nuclear treaties “helps promote militarization in Russia. During the Cold War, we had meetings between the US and USSR. Now, we have nothing but confrontation.”
Putin has taken advantage of Trump’s policies to create a political atmosphere of fear, which is then spread by government-controlled media, according to Bodrov. “The mass media say we have enemies everywhere, in the US and Europe,” he said. “The main government policy is militarization and nuclearization.”
Analyst Arbatov put it even more bluntly. “Disarmament is not very popular in Russia now. Armament is popular.”
Yet there are some glimmers of hope. In mid-May, President Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met in Sochi. Pompeo reported that both sides had discussed not only extending the New START treaty but also “a broader range of arms control issues that each of our two nations have.”
Trump has proposed including China in arms-control talks, something China rejected out of hand. If negotiations between the United States and Russia will be tough, adding another country will make talks even more difficult, if not impossible.
So nuclear-arms talks remain in limbo. As a practical matter, Russian leaders may simply wait out the administration, pending the 2020 US presidential elections.
Journalist Pozner stressed the importance of halting a new nuclear-arms race. Both sides have sufficient weapons “such that the entire world could be destroyed time and time again,” he said. “The Russian leadership would like to see de-escalation and bringing back some trust.”