By Jonathan Power*
Last week Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden had a phone call. But many say, so what? They are so wrong. A lot was there if you read between the lines. Importantly, they reaffirmed that the New START Treaty, cutting long-range nuclear-tipped missiles by one third, (that’s a lot, on its own), would now be renewed in a matter of days, a decision that President Donald Trump refused to take.
What else is afoot?
Apparently the two did not discuss Ukraine much – merely the US reaffirming its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty – which suggests that at last neither side is planning to significantly raise the temperature, even though Biden appears to want to continue Trump’s recent policy of providing lethal weapons to the government.
Neither, apparently, did they discuss Syria although later the State Department did put out an anodyne statement saying the US was committed to “help shape a political settlement”. Now that dictator Bashar al-Assad has effectively won the civil war with Russian military help Syria is no longer a big dividing issue.
Neither did they discuss Georgia and its government’s desire to join NATO, anathema to Russia. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a later comment hedged on that too.
All this suggests that neither Putin nor Biden have any desire to be provocative. (Although they do have a long-running dispute over one issue – the construction of the North Stream 2 pipeline that will bring oil and gas from Russia to western Europe.)
This should mean that now could not be a better time to get down to some of the nitty-gritty that needs to be worked on to lower the number of nuclear armaments. Both sides have committed themselves to fast progress by signing up to resolutions passed by the membership of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
If Ukraine, Syria and Georgia have truly been taken off the boil there is no other issue, conflict or calamity in view anywhere in the world that should be an excuse for renewed American-Russian hostility. In truth we are living in a more peaceful world than we have seen for a long time.
What needs to be done? First and foremost is to continue where New START leaves off. Further dismantlement of the still large stockpiles of long-range, city-blasting, nuclear missiles is the imperative. Since the end of the Cold War numbers have fallen sharply, but they still have around 4,000 each, enough to destroy every major city in the world. (China has 300.) They must continue to cut at an ever more rapid speed.
President Jimmy Carter who was a great enthusiast of SALT 2 felt he had to drop it at the last minute because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Senate would never have ratified it anyway. Nevertheless, the US and Russian presidents quietly decided to mutually observe the treaty without ratification. If the present Senate refuses to block a new agreement, then the Administration could do what it did with SALT 2 – obey its rules anyway and persuade Moscow to do the same.
Some argue that nuclear weapons give strategic stability, what others call MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction. Maybe they do– but at a cost, not just financial but at great risk. The number of near misses because of false radar signals and the discovery of misinformed, undisciplined or intoxicated silo officers have been many. (The locks on US rockets were discovered to the White House’s surprise to have codes of 00000 to avoid memory lapses and thus to make firing quicker.) Then there is the chance of a truly mad president pressing the button. (If there was a Trump 2 there would be a danger of that.) On the Russian side there is no reason to think that things are that much different.
Not least is the moral question. A few theologians have tried to argue that if these weapons keep the peace, they are the least bad option. But others, including thinkers from the pope to the mullahs of Iran, have argued that such destructive weapons go against God’s (Allah’s) teaching and could never be used. How could one in all good conscience destroy a whole city like New York or Moscow or Shanghai? Russia and the US have their rockets on hair-trigger alert at all times. MAD is the dead-on-right acronym.
An immediate step that could be done fairly rapidly would be to return the US to the Open Skies Agreement, which Trump withdrew the US from. This gave both sides the right to spy on each other’s nuclear installations to ensure there are no surprise developments.
A second should be to return to the treaty that banned medium-range weapons fired from land (meant for use inside Europe – the so-called Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Trump said he abrogated the treaty because of Russian cheating. In part, it was also because the Pentagon wanted to be free to match China’s unchecked build-up of such weapons.
On November 17 last year the US successfully test launched a new missile, the SM-3, capable of intercepting Russian missiles. While it was being developed the US said that it was only meant to protect its battleships. Later, under President Obama, the White House said it was to protect Europe from Iranian missiles (which Iran doesn’t have and seems to have no operable plans to implement). In truth, as the Kremlin kept insisting, they could easily be “tweaked” to protect Europe and the United States from Russia. Now with the successful SM-3 launch Russia and China are on the back foot. These interceptors can be placed on ships which can manoeuvre wherever they want. They will also be placed in Romania and Poland. (The system is now called Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence.)
This successful test heralds a big shift in the balance of power. Balance the Russians argue is the essence of peace. Moscow is furious, fearing that an attack on its long-range missile bases or its cities could be launched and then the Aegis system would make a retaliatory strike near impossible. Deterrence- the balance of power – they fear, is going up in smoke.
Indeed, some Russian experts say it has made the New START treaty irrelevant. Moscow will not agree to further cuts in long-range rockets (which have the most explosive warheads and multiple warheads to boot) until this new American development is negotiated away. Without success in that, the Russians say, the chances of inadvertent war will increase.
Recently, Putin expanded on his existing offer of a moratorium on the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) on European soil by suggesting that Russia and US/NATO engage in verification measures “regarding the Aegis systems”, a first step towards abolishing their use. The US and Russia do need to cooperate, not least because both have an interest in forestalling Chinese deployment of INF weapons. The only way to do this is with trilateral negotiations, leading to a global ban. (Perhaps the UK and France need to be brought into these discussions too.)
If one adds up all the abrogations made by Trump plus Aegis, plus his refusal to renew new START, it’s difficult to argue that Trump was being blackmailed by Russia in order to defend its interests. Yet some influential Americans still say this.
There are enough difficulties without creating fantasies. It’s the time to get serious about nuclear disarmament in all its facets and locations. One hopes that Biden realizes this and gets to work on them while the ink is still wet on the signing of the renewal of New START.
* The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com