We live in interesting times when it comes to US relations with pretty much any part of the world. President Trump’s idiosyncratic approach to policy often leads to mixed messages. Trump tweets one, while US institutions pursue others. In fact, since his entry onto the global stage, we’ve heard him say completely contradictory things about Russia, NATO and nuclear weapons – sometimes inflammatory, sometimes conciliatory. But whatever the latest Trump outburst, the reality is that NATO and Russia are currently undergoing military exercises on a scale not seen since the Cold War. Tens of thousands of troops are involved, across eastern Europe, as well as aircraft, warships, tanks and artillery. Does this constitute a new threat, perhaps a new cold war, and how does it fit with the ongoing relationship between the US and Russia since 1991?
Getting behind the rhetoric to the facts seems like a good first step in understanding what is actually going on in the world. SIPRI’s recently published annual nuclear forces data tells us that the ongoing decline in the total number of nuclear weapons is continuing. Of a global total of just under 15,000 warheads, the US and Russia possess 6,800 and 7,000 warheads respectively; of which 1,800 and 1,950 respectively are deployed. The ongoing decrease stems primarily from US/Russian bilateral reductions, as a result of the New START Treaty signed in 2011 by Presidents Obama and Medvedev.
However, all nuclear weapons states are modernizing their nuclear arsenals. And of course modernization always means upgrades, increased capabilities, more killing capacity. So alongside the reductions, the US and Russia both have big modernization programmes under way. The US has committed $400 billion to this during period 2017-2026 and there is speculation that they may spend up to $1 trillion on nuclear weapons modernization over the next three decades. These plans aren’t new though – they date back to the Obama administration. Russia’s overall military spending is a very small fraction of the US’s budget.
Prior to the provocative impact of the Trump rhetoric, there have been a number of occasions over the past decade or so, when a new cold war has been spoken about. The tension over Crimea is one, and the earlier conflict over Georgia is another. However, closer scrutiny shows long run factors at play which have not only prevented the development of positive relations between the west and Russia, but have had an actively deleterious effect. NATO expansion is one.
The first wave of NATO expansion, post-Cold War, came in 1999 with the admission of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. Then in March 2004, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania were also admitted – not only former Warsaw Pact members, but also former Soviet republics in the case of the Baltic states. In 2009, Albania and Croatia also became members. Montenegro was confirmed as the 29th member in June 2017. This scale of expansion has contributed to international tension as Russia sees itself increasingly surrounded by US and NATO bases. And NATO has recently exacerbated the situation by announcing new bases in eastern Europe.
But NATO isn’t the only long run problem which contributes to tension and arms build ups between Russia and NATO states. While less-well known, the impact of the US and now NATO development of missile defence systems, has long been a provocative obstacle to improved relations. Indeed, US insistence on the system has led to the production of new Russian missiles, intended to be capable of busting the missile defence system, as well as obstructing further US/Russian bilateral warhead reductions. When New START was ratified in 2011, a collective sigh of relief was heard, because the process following Obama and Medvedev agreeing to the principle in Prague in April 2009 was more fraught than had been anticipated. The issue which loomed continually over Treaty progress was the US missile defence system. Russia has been consistently opposed to the system, designed to shoot down incoming missiles, thereby allowing one country to attack another without fear of retaliation. The US administration insisted that the system was designed to counter threats from Iran, but its continued refusal to accept Russian offers of cooperation reinforced widespread views that Russia was actually the target. That assumption remains today and shapes much of the defence perspective of Russia.
In the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, one of the few military policies on the new White House website was a commitment to missile defence: ‘We will also develop a state-of-the-art missile defense system to protect against missile-based attacks from states like Iran and North Korea’. Following months of tension with North Korea over its continued nuclear testing, the US administration announced in May 2017 that its THAAD missile defence system in South Korea was operational, though not currently operating at full capability. As well as incurring protests from local residents who fear the weapon could make them a target, China and Russia are also concerned that the system could impact their nuclear capabilities.
NATO has been developing a missile defence system since 2005 when it embarked on the Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (ALTBMD) programme to provide complete coverage against tactical ballistic missiles with ranges up to 3,000kms wherever NATO forces might be deployed. At the 2010 Lisbon Summit NATO members decided to extend this system by linking together the satellite, ship, radar and interceptor systems of different states into a missile defence system under NATO command and control. This would then be joined with the US systems to cover the entire territory of 28 nations and a combined population of up to 900 million. The 2016 Warsaw NATO Summit declared the system in Europe as having an ‘Initial Operational Capability’. Current parts of this system include the command and control centre at NATO’s Air Command HQ in Ramstein Germany; four US missile defence destroyers based at Rota in southern Spain; a forward-based early warning radar at Kürecik in Turkey and an ‘Aegis Ashore’ missile site in Deveselu, Romania. Further ‘Aegis Ashore’ missiles are due to be stationed in Poland at the Redzikowo military base in 2018.
There is no doubt that the US missile defence system has increased tensions with Russia which believes that the system is a threat to its nuclear weapons defensive capability. In 2002, immediately after the US announced its withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, Russia reacted by refusing to implement START II and suspended the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). In 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened both to withdraw Russia from the INF Treaty (a major cold war arms treaty restricting the stationing of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe) and the CFE (which it did eventually leave in March 2015, citing the development of a missile defence system in Europe as one of the reasons). In November 2011, when the US failed to agree to make the missile defence shield a joint project with Russia, then-President Dmitry Medvedev announced sweeping plans to address what Moscow considered to be a threat to national security. In December 2013 Russia confirmed that Iskander missiles had been stationed in its westernmost territory of Kaliningrad for over 18 months.
So the situation between the US and Russia is a serious one with long roots, that is being increasingly militarised, drawing in other countries and vast resources. There can be no military solution to the tensions between these two countries – without destroying the human race and life as we know it. Peaceful solutions and mutual respect between countries are required and the peace movement must play a role in bringing this about.