The confrontation over Ukraine has brought US-Russia relations to a dangerous point of crisis, perhaps even worse than during Soviet times. At the moment it is unrealistic to expect a speedy improvement, but failure to make an earnest attempt at dialogue, particularly when it comes to discussions over nuclear weapons, could be catastrophic.
The general public is aware that the two former Cold War superpowers are facing off on the political, economic and informational fronts. But there has not been sufficient coverage of the fact that they are at risk of launching a new nuclear arms race. Major arms control treaties, which took many years and great political efforts to negotiate, are gravely endangered.
Washington and Moscow repeatedly accuse each other of violating and abrogating these treaties, while planning new and often drastic countermeasures. Russia complains that the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, becoming the first nation since World War II to exit a major arms control agreement. This move was followed by the development and deployment of the US Ballistic Missile Defense System, with elements in several countries in Eastern Europe close to Russia.
Moscow also protests NATO’s eastward expansion, with good reason. Despite the dissolution of the Soviet-era Warsaw Pact in 1991, NATO has increased its membership from 12 nations to 28, and has placed the accession of Ukraine and another former Soviet republic, Georgia, on its agenda. The United States also keeps large nuclear arsenals in several European countries, and NATO has an overwhelming superiority over Russia in conventional weapons.
Washington, in turn, accuses Moscow of repeatedly violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, an important document signed by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987. The only instance in which states agreed to abolish an entire category of nuclear weapons, the INF Treaty led to the destruction of 2,692 such weapons, 846 by the United States and 1,846 by the Soviet Union. Under the treaty, both nations are allowed to inspect each other’s military installations, assuring compliance and mutual security in this regard. But US officials claim that Russia violated its obligations not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (the “prohibited range”) or to possess or produce associated launchers.
Russia denies such charges and complains that Washington has disregarded many of Russia’s concerns in recent negotiations over missile defense. Some of these concerns might be dismissed as artificial, but even in the eyes of such distinguished security experts as Keir Giles and Andrew Monaghan, “viewed from Moscow, the history of US [ballistic missile defense] development is one of inconsistency, unpredictability, and doubtful assurances.”