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.”
Therefore, Russia can have little confidence that this pattern will not continue. In response to the lack of progress on missile defense and to NATO’s de facto breach of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, Moscow formally announced on March 10 that it was completely halting its participation in this treaty.
Some statements from Moscow also indicate that the proposed US deployment of strategic anti-ballistic missile systems in Europe might trigger a Russian withdrawal from the INF Treaty, a move that would allow Russia to deploy missiles targeting any future US anti-missile sites.
Despite certain budgetary and technological constraints, some US defense experts suggest that Washington should abrogate the INF Treaty even before Moscow does and begin building new missiles to confront not only Russia but also China’s growing military ambitions.
The results would be a new and even more unpredictable nuclear arms race. The way to avoid this nightmarish scenario would be to pursue direct negotiations between American and Russian experts in search of mutually satisfactory solutions. This has not yet happened.
When Obama came to the White House in 2009 and announced his now-defunct “reset” policy toward Russia, 21 bilateral government groups were formed. The issues they covered ranged from science, medicine, and human rights to space, climate control and security. Also high on the list of priorities: arms control, international security, cyber security, defense and military cooperation, nuclear security and other related subjects.
Pressured by Congress to punish Russia for its role in the Ukraine crisis, and particularly its takeover of Crimea, Obama ordered the work of almost all these groups to be frozen. Such actions are illogical. They not only punish Russia but also weaken international security, including that of the United States and its allies.
Many top American nuclear scientists insist that severing working relations with Russia as a response to the Ukraine crisis is a dangerous folly. “US-Russia cooperation is absolutely essential when dealing with some of the lingering nuclear safety and security issues, like the threat of nuclear smuggling and nuclear terrorism, and to limit to spread of nuclear weapons,” said Siegfried Hecker, former head of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The existential question is, Whom should we trust regarding the nuclear security of our country: the politicians or the scientists?
According to recent public opinion polls, only 38 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s foreign policy, while 51 percent disapprove. And only 17 percent of Americans think Congress is doing a good job, while 75 percent think it is not.
It seems the American people are wiser than their politicians. If so, shouldn’t Obama restart the US-Russian bilateral working groups, starting with those that address arms control and nuclear security?