By Jonathan Power
War over Ukraine? It mustn’t be. Some of us believed that at the end of the Cold War in 1991 American and Soviet nuclear rockets would be left to rust and rot in their silos. Indeed, we actually saw Ukraine, where the Soviets made most of their rockets and based many, (who says that Ukraine doesn’t have an umbilical relationship with Russia?), deciding to give up its nuclear armoury—for which the world should give more praise than it does.
Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did quite a lot for nuclear disarmament. At a summit in Iceland, Reagan and Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, panicked most of their advisors and western commentators when they nearly agreed to total nuclear disarmament. Only Reagan’s misplaced persistence in demanding to keep alive research into his dream project, the “Star Wars” anti-missile system (which could never work) and Gorbachev’s unwillingness to agree to this, perhaps fearful the politburo would be ranged against him since proof that the US had stopped this research would be difficult to come by, stymied an agreement. Both sides were equally at fault at what could have been a historic opportunity.
Despite all his rhetoric and bear-hugging of Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, President Bill Clinton achieved very little on the disarmament front. His successor, George W. Bush did only a bit more, putting weapons into storage, rather than dismantling them. Hopes were focussed on Barack Obama who was chosen at the onset of his presidency to be honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize, partly because it was thought he would be a standard-bearer for disarmament. Apart from an initial agreement with Russia to reduce superpower long-range rockets down from 2,200 warheads each to 1,500, still enough to blow up most of civilization, Obama was able to do precious little. It wasn’t his fault.
The resistance in Congress to ratifying this pact was immense and passage only came on the promise of spending $80 billion to modernise nuclear forces. Even George W. Bush junior’s plan to base an anti-ballistic missile system on Polish soil to deter Iranian missiles was modified by Obama only somewhat because of Republican resistance. It was an attempt to satisfy legitimate Russian concerns about it being used to intercept a Russian attack. More American compromise is still needed on this—it remains an issue—such as moving the site to Romania, nearer to Iran and further from Moscow and finding a way for Moscow to share the running and control of the system.
Turning the page, the US has not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which would help stymie the further spread of nuclear arms to other countries. For new nuclear powers, if you can’t test you don’t know if you have a workable bomb.
The next stage in the disarmament process should be getting rid of short-range tactical nuclear-tipped missiles based in Europe. Moscow is insisting that the first step must be the US removing all its tactical weapons from Europe, which is fair given their proximity to Moscow. It would be as if Russia had rocket bases in Mexico. As for cutting the number of intercontinental rockets, the last big cut was made in the time of Obama and President Dimitri Medvedev. Biden did renew the agreement, but no disarmament talks are presently planned.
All this adds up to very little nuclear disarmament. The US Senate is an immovable brake on Biden, as it was earlier on President Barack Obama. For his part, Donald Trump wanted to upgrade the US armoury of nuclear missiles. (How can anyone say Trump was in President Vladimir Putin’s pocket?) As for the Russians, observing the power of the US Senate to probably refuse to approve any new treaties, it stops them from suggesting opening negotiations.
But how is it, 30 years after the end of the Cold War, that either side can justify nuclear weapons? Is Russia an enemy or is it not? Successive American presidents have said it no longer is. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barak Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden have all said it is not. The Russians say the same thing about the US and Europe. Putin still calls them “our friends”. But surely non-enemies don’t have nuclear weapons pointed at each other.
At least that is what basic morality and common sense would say. At the end of the Cold War nuclear weapons should have been allowed to rust. Many people in the West wanted this, probably a majority, but big media, Republican congressmen and senators, the military (although not all of it) and those earning a living in national security jobs, the intelligence services and including some academics, successfully fought to keep nuclear armouries replenished. Even though there were some powerful voices against nuclear weapons such as former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz they were unable to resist this tide.
Step back a little and look at the situation from above—remember how the earth looks like a tiny dot from photos sent back to Earth by the rocket Voyager 1 as it traverses the outer edge of the Solar System. Surely, being so inconsequential in the cosmos, we should not be tearing into each other. Maybe we have taken ourselves too seriously. But for the first 20 years after the Cold War it seemed we were moving, if not fast, at least in the right direction. It should continue, even faster.
There is no longer a dangerous ideological divide—Premier Nikita Khrushchev once said, “we will bury you”. That sort of talk is gone. Communism is no longer the ruling ideology of Russia, backed by a ruthless police state that would stamp on the slightest dissent. Russia has now become capitalist, albeit with a human rights problem. In pre-Covid times its borders were open and still are for those travelling southward. The Christian religion and its moral teachings are for most Europeans, Americans and Russians still the foundation of a shared culture, including ethical rules for everyday life, and the arts- literature, theatre, ballet, opera and popular music. I would guess that 90% of Russian social legislation and the penal code is similar to the West’s. Spend time with Russian families at home and at work and you will see what I mean.
On human rights observance, Russia is worse but not by much. Ten years ago the case of the torture and death of businessman Sergei Magnitsky who had exposed serious corruption in Russian society became a hot issue on Capitol Hill. Congress decided to get tough on Russia and imposed sanctions for the first time since the end of the Cold War. However, it can’t be said this was as serious an issue as the serial human rights abuses carried out by whites including policemen in the US against black victims. Far many more innocents and petty criminals are locked up in America than in Russia. Russians has become angry that the US is regularly interfering in their internal affairs while failing to clean its own house. It was downhill from then on.
The media is largely controlled by the Putin Administration, but it does allow in Moscow a major radio station, two tv stations, a newspaper and a business magazine to write and report what they want. The internet is free. So are foreign broadcasts. Away from Moscow, there are many other fairly free local papers and broadcasters, albeit on a smaller scale. In the West, instead of government diktat, we have press barons as owners who drive a personal or corporate agenda. The exceptions like the Guardian, Le Monde and the Christian Science Monitor have relatively small circulations. (The BBC, although government-owned, manages to maintain high-class, independent reporting and commentary, albeit on national security issues it is often self-censoring and biased against Russia and China.)
So what is it all about? Why are we allowing events around the issue of the independence of Ukraine to slip out of our control to where the warriors call the shots? Loose talk in Moscow about bringing a nuclear-armed Russian submarine up close to the US coast does not help. Neither does the present deployment of similar US submarines in the Black Sea.
Since both Putin and Biden maintain they are practising Christians, I ask them how, when they meet their maker, they will explain why they kept or even used nuclear weapons that could or did kill hundreds of millions of people and make many of our cities uninhabitable? Quite rightly, we are supposed to fear God and his wrath. Christ taught us to love our enemies.
Don’t the US and Russia want to set an example to the rest of the world, as is their sworn obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? After all sauce for the goose is good for the gander might say the Iranians and those in the Middle East that will probably emulate Iran if it does go nuclear. Is the US prepared to modify the expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders that nearly 100% of Russians are angry about? Is Putin prepared to give the media and NGO activists and protestors more freedom, including releasing from prison the present leader of the opposition, Alexei Navalny? Are they both prepared to initiate big new cuts in their nuclear weapons stockpiles?
Biden is checkmated by the intransigent forces around him. Maybe it is the same with Putin. Therefore, the world is checkmated. What a terrifying impasse this Ukraine crisis is.
About the author: 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