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As Trump flounders on foreign policy, Russia flexes its nuclear muscles

EPA/Maxim Shipenkov

As Trump flounders on foreign policy, Russia flexes its nuclear muscles

EPA/Maxim Shipenkov

Thirty years after Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed a landmark nuclear arms treaty which laid the foundations of post-Cold War relations between the West and the Soviet Union, recent developments suggest that the Kremlin has quietly restarted the nuclear arms race with the deployment of a new generation of nuclear weapons which could wind back the clock to the bad old days of superpower confrontation.

Of course, there have been episodes since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that have put considerable strain on relations between the two powers – chief among them Yugoslavia, Iraq, Chechnya, Georgia, Libya and Ukraine. But the latest news from Russia suggests a more fundamental shift. According to a report in the New York Times US officials confirmed on February 14 that the Russians had secretly deployed new ground-launched cruise missiles known as SSC-8s with a range capability of between 500km and 5,500km in the area around Volgograd in south-west Russia. A second operational unit was deployed elsewhere, but its location is as yet undisclosed.

These missiles are intermediate range nuclear weapons that carry multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). They are not intercontinental, but the target range of the Volgograd site covers the entirety of Western Europe – including Britain.

This latest round of missile deployments is a gross breach of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed in 1987 in Washington by Reagan and Gorbachev. It was an historic superpower agreement, the product of three years of negotiations and summits and the first ever to ban an entire category of nuclear weapons. It set a pattern for mutual arms reduction that paved the way to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) signed in 1991 and 1993 – and updated by New START in 2010. In short, the INF Treaty was a crucial milestone on the road to ending the Cold War.

Making Russia ‘great again’

The reasons for the new deployment are obvious enough. The SSC-8s are the latest manifestation of Vladimir Putin’s reassertion of Russian power. Although he shed no tears for the failed communist experiment, he called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Once secure in power, Putin set about building a "strong Russian state and rebuilding the country’s damaged global position. In this he had enthusiastic support from the military and the defence industry. Russian annual military expenditure grew from €46.2 billion a year in 2012 to €71 billion in 2016. Enhancing the country’s nuclear capacity across all weapon types is a central plank of the programme to achieve equal status with America.

In order to achieve his objectives, Putin has gradually pulled Russia out of the cooperative forums and agreements forged with the West after the Cold War. In 2007, he withdrew from the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty in protest at Washington’s plans for a NATO missile defence "shield” in Eastern Europe. In 2014, he annexed the Crimea in defiance of international law and intervened militarily in the domestic tumult in Ukraine.

At loggerheads: Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. EPA

In October, he suspended an historic agreement with the US to dispose of surplus weapons-grade plutonium, arguing that the Americans were already reprocessing their own surplus plutonium for military use. He also stationed nuclear-capable short-range Iskander missiles in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the borders of Poland and Lithuania. This, he said, was a response to the deployment of 4,000 troops to bolster NATO’s conventional forces in the Baltic area.

There have also been successful Russian tests of the new RS-26 Rubezh intercontinental ballistic missile and the first images of the RS-28 Sarmat, a new “super-heavy” intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) of a kind that the Americans do not yet possess, were released in November 2016.

Russia rejected a US proposal in 2013 to reduce strategic warheads to 1,000 and Russia has consistently refused to engage in bilateral negotiations on non-strategic nuclear weapons reduction with Washington. The currently unfolding deployment of SSC-8s around Volgograd should therefore be seen as the latest phase of a process of escalation that threatens to spiral into a new arms race between Russia and United States.

Getting back on track

We have been here before, of course. In 1976, the Soviet Union deployed the first generation of Intermediate Range Nuclear Missiles, the SS20s, triggering crisis for Western Europe. The problem then, as now, was that these missiles threatened only Western Europe – not the US. Partly for that reason, the Carter administration in Washington was slow to respond.

It took several years for the NATO alliance, prodded by the then German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, to rise to the challenge of the new threat. Fearing that his country would be the primary theatre of a future nuclear conflict in Europe, Schmidt pressed for a coordinated Euro-Atlantic response. The result was the “NATO dual-track decision” of 1979, in which the Soviets were offered arms reduction negotiations and simultaneously threatened with Europe-based rearmament if they refused.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev outside the 1986 Reykjavik Summit. White House Photo Office

In the longer run, this tactic succeeded: in the INF Treaty of 1987 the Soviets and the Americans agreed to decommission the intermediate-range weapons on both sides. It was this treaty that framed the ban on ground-launched INFs that would remain in place until the recent deployments in Volgograd.

Meanwhile, in the White House

There are many parallels, then, between the current situation and the crisis that flared in the late 1970s. But there are also some important differences. The Trump White House is far more dysfunctional than Carter’s. His stated views about NATO have been contradictory – oscillating between damning the alliance as “obsolete” and pledging “100%” support.

The assurances offered by his vice-president, Mike Pence, and the US secretary for defence, General James Mattis, at the recent Munich Security Conference are not enough to dispel doubts about America’s commitment to Europe and the ability of the Trump administration to handle a crisis such as this.

Trump’s policy regarding Russia is difficult to read, especially in the aftermath of the sudden exit of his national security adviser, General Mike Flynn, amid speculation about the administration’s allegedly close ties with the Kremlin. To cap it all, uncertainties remain about who is really making foreign policy in today’s White House.

In such a climate, forging an agreement with the European allies is not going to be easy. There was much talk at the Munich Conference of “alliance solidarity”, “unwavering support” and “historical connections”, but a concerted Euro-Atlantic response is yet to emerge. As the decision-makers work their way towards a solution, it is crucial they ponder on the lessons of 1979. Like the “dual-track” policy of the early 1980s, an effective resolution of the current predicament will have to balance two objectives: to strengthen the missile defence shield and Western counterstrike capability while drawing Moscow back into arms-reduction negotiations.

It would be foolish to underestimate the obstacles ahead. The current Russian leadership has unpicked the fabric of the international peace woven at the end of the Cold War. And Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov has made no secret of his contempt for the Western alliance. At the Munich Conference, he declared that NATO “remained a Cold War institution” and that his country intended to build a “post-West world order” based on the supposedly self-balancing competition among autonomous nation-states.

Against this mood music, dialogue and predictability will be difficult to re-establish. And yet it remains an indispensable key to peace and security. Russia and America are currently talking past each other. Both sides indulge in megaphone diplomacy, febrile twittering and accusations of “fake news”. And – as Helmut Schmidt knew very well – it is easy when diplomacy fails, to get trapped in “the logic of military calculations” to the point where a small crisis could “escalate quickly into a direct military confrontation between the great powers”.

The task of conducting a genuine dialogue with Russia will fall to the US president, who must first reunite the Western alliance. Is President Trump – who sometimes has sensible things to say – capable of quitting Twitter, thinking big and acting like a statesman? It should be hoped that he is, and that the world’s leaders will relearn the habits of civility and diplomatic seriousness that enabled Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to transcend the Cold War.