In a media landscape positively saturated with news of both the real and “fake” variety concerning the United States and its increasingly troubled relationship with Russia, it is curious that one of the few sensible ideas to come out of Capitol Hill regarding Russia policy in recent years—that of a new call for a US-Russia Strategic dialogue by Senators Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, Diane Feinstein, and Edward Markey—has been met with a virtual media blackout.
The senators, who have been outspoken in their criticism of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Putin’s annexation of Crimea, support for rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine, and purported violations of the landmark INF Treaty, clearly recognize, as few of their colleagues do, that while the United States and Russia are and likely will remain at loggerheads over these and other issues, the need for a strategic dialogue over nuclear weapons is as urgent as ever.
In a letter to then–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week, the senators noted that “There is no guarantee that we can make progress with Russia on these issues.”
“However, even at the height of Cold War tensions,” they wrote, “the United States and the Soviet Union were able to engage on matters of strategic stability. Leaders from both countries believed, as we should today, that the incredible destructive force of nuclear weapons is reason enough to make any and all efforts to lessen the chance that they can never be used again. “
But why make a call for a diplomatic push to ease tensions with Russia in the midst of the bitter atmosphere engendered by Russiagate?
The reasons for this are straightforward. As Senator Jeff Merkley told The Nation on Monday afternoon, “There is never a bad time to have communication between nuclear forces.” Merkley cited the fact that in February the Trump administration issued an updated Nuclear Posture Review, which Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, decried as containing “most disturbing and significant changes to U.S. [nuclear] policy.”
Dr. Gronlund noted that, among other things, the administration’s new policy “shoots a big hole in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is key to U.S. security. It simply rejects the U.S. obligation to take steps toward nuclear disarmament.” “President Trump,” said Gronlund, “is embarking on a reckless path—one that will reduce U.S. security both now and in the longer term.”
The updated US nuclear policy was followed in turn by this month’s announcement by Russian president Vladimir Putin that Russia was in the process of developing a new generation of hypersonic nuclear cruise missiles.
As Senator Merkley rightly observed, “There are a lot of challenges here and you don’t want to have misunderstanding or a new arms race.”
“We should be engaged with them,” said Merkley, pointing out that the New START Treaty, signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev in 2010, has a timeline and can only be extended “if the two sides are engaged in talks.”
In a recent op-ed in Time magazine, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the co-signatory to the 1987 INF Treaty, expressed his worry about the current round of nuclear saber rattling, writing that “the primary responsibility for ending the current dangerous deadlock lies with the leaders of the United States and Russia. This is a responsibility they must not evade, since the two powers’ arsenals are still outsize compared to those of other countries.”
This is a deadlock that Senators Merkley, Sanders, Feinstein, and Markey are trying to break, by urging the administration to give diplomacy a chance.
If only anyone were listening.