The old diplomats who ended the Cold War —ranging from the defeated visionary Mikhail Gorbachev to the erstwhile war criminal Henry Kissinger—continue to warn us that the risk of nuclear war may never have been higher than now. And events this spring have continued to confirm their pessimism.
Russia has released a document specifying its policy regarding deterrence—including the conditions under which it might use nuclear weapons. One interesting point is that they are prepared to do so in retaliation against a conventional military strike if that strike might disrupt any response by the Russian nuclear forces.
This position is actually quite similar to one that the US declared in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which stated, among other things, that it would use nuclear weapons in response to any attack on the allied nuclear forces’ command and control or warning and attack assessment capabilities.
Some observers have noted that, since the Americans and Russians are worried about the same thing, there is a basis for them to negotiate a treaty banning attacks against the nuclear command and control system of the other side. To be sure, relations between the two countries are very hostile now, but they had managed to negotiate arms control treaties even during the coldest part of the Cold War, and this should still be possible.
Nevertheless, nothing in recent White House actions indicates any such intention. On the contrary, the US Defense Department is now planning to acquire conventional ground-launched missiles that fly distances previously banned by the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The treaty called for the elimination of all nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5, 500 kilometers. The US has accused Russia of violating the agreement with an illegal ground-launched cruise missile of its own. And, within two weeks after the US withdrew from that treaty in 2019, the US was testing a Tomahawk cruise missile. Now, US will match the Russians with a ground-launched variant of the Navy’s sea-launched cruise missile, which will have an estimated range of between 1,250 and 2,500 kilometers. The budget for fiscal year 2021 includes $125 million for 48 Tomahawks.
In another ominous development, Donald Trump has notified his intention to withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty in six months. That agreement had permitted all States-parties to conduct unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories at short notice. Special planes have been kept ready for such flights, and for gathering data about the military operations observed below, which they then shared with any of the 34 States-parties. More than 1,500 overflights had taken place.
The US withdrawal from the treaty was based on its accusation that Russia had violated it— an accusation that may be well-founded. Russia had indeed established no-fly zones in Kaliningrad, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. However, Germany, France, Poland, and the UK had previously informed the US that they did not regard this noncompliance as grounds for abrogating the treaty. Since then, 11 European countries have jointly declared that they regret the US decision and will continue to observe the treaty themselves. Some Democrats in Congress consider Trump’s decision illegal, for the administration did not fulfill its obligation to notify Congress 120 days before announcing its intent to withdraw from the treaty.
Despite these negative developments, the US and Russia have agreed to begin new arms control negotiations. The most immediate issue concerns the New START Treaty, which will expire in February 2021 unless the two countries extend it for up to five years. Russia is willing to do so without pre-conditions, but the US has not made any such offers.
Trump has nominated Marshall Billingslea to serve as undersecretary for arms control and international security. He may not easily be confirmed by the Senate because of his reputation as a critic of arms control and a supporter of torture while serving in the Pentagon. The US has made it known that it wants Russia to pressure China to join them in trilateral negotiations, but China has already declined that proposal, so no plans are yet clear for the nature or timing of the talks.
Reported by Metta Spencer, drawing upon sources from the Arms Control Association by Sarah Bidgood, Shannon Bugos, and Kingston Reif.