By Jamshed Baruah
“We are on the brink of a new cold war,” warned UN Secretary-General António Guterres on May 24, 2018 adding that there are no negotiations under way between the U.S. and Russia for further strategic nuclear arms reductions. Whether presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin would turn over a new leaf when they meet in Helsinki, Finland on July 16 remains to be seen.
However, the U.S. Arms Control Association (ACA) is of the view that the two nuclear giants would discuss nuclear risk-reduction and arms control – in particular the future of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which will expire in 2021 unless extended by mutual agreement, and the compliance dispute over the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
In an interview in March, says the ACA, Putin voiced interest in an extension of New START or even possibly further cuts in warhead numbers. The Trump administration is conducting a review of its position on the matter.
The ACA director for disarmament policy Kingston Reif says: “Extending New START would be an easy win for the President. It could help create a positive atmosphere for improving the U.S.-Russia relationship without making an unwise or impractical concession to Moscow. Failing to do so, on the other hand, will limit U.S. intelligence on the scale of the Russia nuclear arsenal.”
“Without a positive decision to extend New START, and if the INF Treaty comes to an end, there would be no legally-binding limits on the world’s two largest nuclear superpowers for the first time since 1972, and the risk of unconstrained U.S.-Russian nuclear competition would grow,” warns Daryl Kimball, the ACA executive director.
Former assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, and chair of the ACA board of directors, Thomas Countryman adds: “Should the INF Treaty collapse and New START expire without replacement … the consequences for effective cooperative management of nuclear risks and for nuclear nonproliferation would be severe.”
These views underline why the U.S.-Russian summit is both important and significant, coming at a time of heightened tensions, mutual suspicions and conflicts between the two countries.
Experts are of the view that the choice of Helsinki for the summit is both appropriate and propitious – being the place where the Helsinki accords were adopted by the United States, Soviet Union and 33 European states in 1975. These accords affirmed the intent, and set in motion a process, to improve relations between the East and West, prevent a nuclear holocaust, and build common security.
“The Helsinki accords affirmed the prohibition of armed conflict, non-intervention in internal affairs of other States, obligation to resolve conflicts non-violently, respect for human rights, and obligation to achieve arms control and disarmament,” says Alyn Ware, Global Coordinator for Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament.
“And it strengthened the European mechanisms for conflict resolution and common security, such as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe,” which is now called the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
“As such, holding the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki signals a step-back from the conflicts and mutual threats between Russia and the West, and the possibility of a stronger focus on dialogue, détente and disarmament,” he adds.
The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which meets one week before the Trump-Putin Summit, has already called on the USA and Russia to reduce the risks of a nuclear war by taking nuclear weapons off high-alert and adopting no-first-use policies.
In May 2018, 50 leading women parliamentarians from 23 countries (including many from Europe) released an appeal to leaders of nuclear-armed states supporting the calls from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and also urging governments to phase out their reliance on nuclear deterrence with reliance on common security.
The joint statement commemorating International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament and the 175th birthday anniversary of Bertha von Suttner, the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on May 24 recalled:
“The United Nations was established with an array of mechanisms through which nations can resolve conflicts, negotiate disarmament and achieve security through diplomacy not war. These have been supplemented by additional common security mechanisms such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“We urge governments to make better use of these common security mechanisms, and especially to replace reliance on nuclear deterrence with reliance on common security.”
German parliamentarians Roderich Kiesewetter (CDU), Ute Finckh-Krämer (SPD) and Agnieszka Brugger (Greens) initiated in 2017 a European parliamentarians’ joint letter to NATO and OSCE to reduce nuclear threats and support disarmament.
However, according to other policy analysts, incremental disarmament measures are insufficient to end the threat of a nuclear exchange by accident, miscalculation or intent.
“Trump and Putin should also consider lowering the alert status of U.S. and Russian weapons that are maintained in a state of immediate readiness to launch, ‘No-First-Use’ commitments, better military-to-military communications (re-establishing and upgrading hotlines instead of scrapping them), and an end to provocative and potentially dangerous military exercises close to each other’s borders,” says John Hallam, Co-Chair of the Abolition 2000 Working Group on Nuclear-Risk Reduction.
“In addition, the leaders should reaffirm the joint statement of Gorbachev and Reagan made in Helsinki in 1986 that ‘A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’,” Hallam adds.
Initiatives pour le Désarmement Nucléaires (IDN), a French international relations think-tank, has issued an appeal for NATO States to call on President Trump and President Putin to eliminate tactical nuclear weapons from the European theatre.
This would involve the U.S. removing its nuclear weapons stationed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey. And it would involve Russia agreeing to verified decommissioning of their tactical nuclear weapons.
The U.S.-Russian summit is being held four days after the 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels. Marc Finaud from IDN stresses: “The July 11-12, 2018 NATO summit offers a unique opportunity for the European Allies to take the initiative again and demand from the U.S. a negotiation that would lead to the withdrawal of both American and Russian tactical weapons from European soil.”