Let us think together about the letter four United States senators sent recently to the now departed secretary of state Rex Tillerson, urging him to start arms-control talks with Russia. The senators were Dianne Feinstein, Edward Markey, Jeff Merkley, and Bernie Sanders—three Democrats and an independent who may as well be one. And the letter they sent was blunt. It began, “We write to urge the State Department to convene the next U.S.-Russia Strategic Dialogue as soon as possible.”
The next paragraph read: “A U.S.–Russia Strategic Dialogue is more urgent following President Putin’s public address on March 1st[,] when he referred to several new nuclear weapons Russia is reportedly developing[,] including a cruise missile and a nuclear underwater drone, which are not currently limited by the New START treaty, and would be destabilizing if deployed.”
A little further down, this: “We encourage the administration to propose alternative solutions to address Russia’s violation of the Intermediate–Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov admitted to the existence of this ground launched cruise missile (GLCM), but contended that the system was INF Treaty compliant.”
Among those aware of it, this letter was read as a highly positive move on the part of its four signatories. The senators noted all those disputes that now color relations between Washington and Moscow. These include, of course, “Russia’s brazen interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.” The letter also mentioned Ukraine, the reannexation of Crimea, and “continued violation” of the above-noted INF Treaty. “There is no guarantee we can make progress with Russia on these issues,” the senators wrote. But it is because of them, not in spite of them, that we must negotiate: This was the core of their argument.
I suggested the letter enjoyed a positive reception, but I must qualify: to the extent it enjoyed a reception at all. As my colleague James Carden wrote, the senators’ letter “has been met with a virtual media blackout.” Most of us, given how immersed we are in media manipulation, seem to have nodded, “Good idea. We should be talking to the Russians about nukes now that Putin suggests another nuclear arms race is in the offing.” Maybe this was the response the press intended to cultivate. A first, reparatory step toward improving things.
Anyone who proposes controls over nuclear weapons, in any circumstance whatsoever, has a good idea. But the context is important, readers: Don’t leave home without it. What is the context in which this letter was sent from the Senate over to the State Department? What is its starting point and where does it drop us all off? These are the questions we must ask.
Why not begin with what the four senators did not do—or, more accurately, have not done?
How come the senators did not acknowledge in their letter all the American actions that have contributed to the dangerous new arms competition that has developed between the United States and Russia? Why did they not criticize the Obama administration’s earlier authorization of a $1 trillion modernization of the Pentagon’s nuclear inventory, or (2) the latest National Security Strategy, issued in December, which announced a strategy premised on “great power competition” with Russia and China, or (3) the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review, released in February, wherein our generals advocated a further push to the deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons, thereby lowering the nuclear threshold. To their credit, the four signatories have on occasion spoken out against aspects of the US nuclear-modernization program and the new US nuclear posture. But surely a letter urging a genuine US-Russian dialogue would at least acknowledge the relevance of these potentially provocative American policies, if not call for the Trump administration to put a halt to them.
We are back with our old friends, causality and responsibility. Always a problem when one tries to understand Washington.
The absence of causality and the proper assignment of responsibility for the worrying state of affairs with Russia runs all throughout the senators’ letter. The letter mentions Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, but of course never considers the US role in cultivating the fateful coup in Kiev four years ago. As to Russian meddling, I am still drumming my fingers on the table awaiting evidence—any shred will do at this point. Otherwise, I am waiting for evidence of nothing stated. The Russians are in violation of INF? There is a good argument the Americans are, having deployed a missile system in Eastern Europe whose capabilities may be in violation of INF limitations, and that the Russians are not. Moscow claims that Washington overstates the range of a disputed Russian system, and if the Pentagon has refuted this, I have not seen it. (Even the senators’ letter makes reference to Russia’s position on this matter.)
Good enough that President Putin focused four minds with his state of the nation speech on March 1, when he reviewed Russian progress in developing new-generation nuclear weapons in response to recent US moves—a point he made very clearly. But their minds and Senate speeches ought to have taken up the matter of a new nuclear threat long earlier. And now they have drawn the line in the wrong place, having missed our own responsibility for many of these developments. This is the price of a long string of capitulations—not to Russia but to our foreign policy and national-security apparatus.
For years these four senators and their colleagues have gone along and got along, offering little or no resistance or objection, as the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists (of which they are members), and the press conjured a case against “Vladimir Putin’s Russia.” Scrutiny and discernment of any given aspect of this went out the window long ago. I date this syndrome (as I consider it) to Putin’s much-remarked speech at the Munich security conference in 2007, wherein he more or less told Washington that unipolarity and hegemony were simply not 21st-century technologies.
Now that things are turning truly dangerous, it is in some ways desirable that influential voices propose calling a halt at least to the worst of it. But in calling for a strategic dialogue with Russia, without regard for the role we played in bringing about these nuclear dangers, they are in effect urging the reinstitutionalization of the Cold War and the very arms race we once thought it safe to assume we had put behind us. And by flinching from the questions that have unnecessarily poisoned US–Russian relations, they have legitimated the conjured narrative of a Russian threat, too.
If some new “dialogue” comes to be, we stand at best to return to SALTs and SALT IIs, STARTs and New STARTs, and that will be the substance of US–Russian relations. All aspiration of transcending enmity will have been foregone. We will be back in the land of debating deterrence or rollback. And to state my case plainly, I oppose all that makes deterrence necessary but wholly favor it when circumstances do make it necessary.
One cannot quite say, “No, thanks,” to Senators Feinstein, Markey, Merkley, and Sanders—the first and last of whom have of late been among our most vociferous Russophobes. But now you know the sound of one hand clapping.