On Aug. 8, an explosion at the Nenoksa Missile test site in northern Russia during testing of a new type of nuclear propelled cruise missile resulted in the deaths of at least seven people, including scientists, and was followed by a spike in radiation in the atmosphere.
Analysts in Washington and Europe are of the belief that the explosion may offer a glimpse of technological weaknesses in Russia’s new arms program.
The deeper concern, however, should be of the perilous consequences of the new Cold War and arms race that is developing between the United States and Russia.
In February, the Trump administration pulled out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, an arms control treaty considered to be among the most successful in history by former U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Huntsman. INF banned land-based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and missile launchers with ranges of 500 to 1,500 kilometers.
The United States accused Russia of violating the treaty, but did not wait for this accusation to be verified by international inspectors.
Russia previously accused the United States of violating the treaty through its adoption of drone warfare, and by stationing missile launchers in Deveselu, Romania.
This summer, the Trump administration has given indications that it will not ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is set to expire in 2021.
Signed by the Obama administration as part of its “reset policy” with Russia in 2010, the New START treaty limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 and the number of deployed and nondeployed intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, submarine-launched ballistic missile launchers and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments to 800.
On Aug. 9, The New York Times ran an op-ed piece by columnist Brett Stephens entitled “The U.S. Needs More Nukes,” which mimicked the position of Trump’s National Security Council John Bolton, a serial arms control killer.
Stephens wrote that “the problem with arms control treaties is that the bad guys cheat, the good guys don’t, and the world often finds out too late.” And now Russia, he says, is cheating again, although Stephens does not present any evidence in his article that would confirm this.
According to Stephens, U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan set the standard for effective government policy by responding to the Soviet Union’s deployment of the SS-20, a medium-range nuclear missile that threatened military installations in western Europe in the late 1970s, by deploying hundreds of intermediate-range Pershing II and cruise missiles to Europe.
Stephens in turn believes that the Trump administration and its successor should respond to Russian and Chinese provocations today through similar arms buildups and deployments.
Besides painting a Manichaean view of the world as divided between good and evil, one of the major problems with Stephens’ column is that he fails to provide adequate historical context to validate his main argument.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union only embarked on a large-scale arms buildup after the United States had developed a massive nuclear stockpile of 22,229 warheads (or 10,948 megatons of TNT) by the early 1960s, which dwarfed that of the Soviet Union, which felt it had to catch up.
Stephens similarly presents Russia and China as bad actors menacing the United States today, when the United States has at least 15 times more overseas military bases, and spends more on the military than Russia and China combined, along with at least six other major countries.
A new mobilization is now urgently needed in favor of arms control that can be modeled on the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s.
Gen. Lee Butler, commander of U.S. nuclear forces in the 1990s, issued a mea culpa upon his retirement in which he rebuked the “grotesquely destructive war plans” and “terror induced anesthesia which suspended rational thought, made nuclear war thinkable and grossly excessive arsenals possible during the Cold War.” Butler added that “mankind escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of diplomatic skill, blind luck and divine intervention, probably the latter in greater proportion.”
Whether the same luck will prevail in the second Cold War is not worth leaving to chance.
Jeremy Kuzmarov is author of “The Russians are Coming, Again: The First Cold War as Tragedy, the Second as Farce,” with John Marciano (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018) and “Obama’s Unending Wars: Fronting the Foreign Policy of the Permanent Warfare State” (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2019). He lives in Tulsa.
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