For the first time, the U.S. has deployed advanced Patriot missiles as part of military exercises in the Baltic region, escalating tensions with Russia and helping boost military industry stock prices to record highs
Aaron Maté: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The Russia news in the US this week is all about Donald Trump Jr.’s emails, so you might have missed what’s also happening right now with Russia and its neighbors. The US has deployed long-range Patriot missiles to the Baltics for the first time. This comes as the US and NATO allies conduct military exercises in the Baltic republics on or near Russia’s border. Russia is conducting exercises of its own nearby and, in just the past week, the US has approved Patriot missile sales to both Poland and now Romania. The main contractors include Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. As all this happens, major defense industry stocks have hit an all-time high. According to CNBC, “NATO concerns about Russia are seen as a positive for the defense industry, particularly missile defense systems makers such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.” Daryl Kimball is Executive Director of the Arms Control Association and he joins me now. Daryl, welcome. Daryl Kimball: Thank you. Aaron Maté: Thanks for joining us. So talk about what’s happening right now in the Baltics, a story that is not getting very much attention. Daryl Kimball: Well, this is part of a longer-term pattern that has been in motion for several years, especially since Russia’s invasion and then annexation of Crimea, which was a part of Ukraine, now Russia. These Baltic states, which are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, have always been concerned about their security vis-a-vis Russia because they are on the frontier with Russia. They directly border Russia. So they’re even more concerned about their security and NATO and Russia have been for the last two or three years paying more attention to beefing up their defensive hardware, their exercises, in preparation for a possible conflict. So what we’re seeing here with the deployment of the Patriot missile batteries is part of this larger pattern and it’s meant to reassure Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, these three Baltic states, as much as it is to provide, you know, hardware that could be useful in a military conflict. Now these are defensive missile systems. They’re designed to knock down short-range, offensive missiles. These have been deployed in other parts of the world where there are possibility of regional conflict. So the US-Russian security relationship remains tense despite the fact that Donald Trump is, on the surface, making nice with Vladimir Putin. But beneath the surface, there are very deep and serious tensions. Aaron Maté: Okay, you know, Daryl, I don’t want to get sidetracked into a discussion of Ukraine because it is tangential but I do think it’s important to note that there is a counter-narrative in terms of Baltic states being concerned because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. That would be the Russian perspective, which would be that if Baltic nations are concerned about Ukraine then they should not be blaming Russia but the Western states who helped overthrow the Russian-backed government, now leading Ukraine to talk about joining NATO, which is on Russia’s border. Putin has said that he was acting in response to that threat, because Russia does not want another hostile NATO country on its border. But let me ask you, if Russia threatens these Baltic states and they’re already members of NATO, and NATO already has Article 5 in which states are obligated to defend each other, why isn’t that protection enough for them already? Daryl Kimball: Well, Article 5 is words on paper and has never really been exercised with respect to a conflict with Russia. What’s different today, I think, is the fact that, you know, Russia has used unusual means to deal with its neighbor, in this case Ukraine. We could get into a long discussion about Ukraine. I disagree with that contra-narrative you just mentioned but the reality is that tensions are high on both sides of the NATO-Russia border. What’s very important in our view, the view of the Arms Control Association, as well as military and security experts in Europe, in the United States, and Russia, is that there is a more consistent, effective, and sustained dialogue between Russia and NATO countries about the deployment of conventional forces along the border, that there is a tighter and regular means of communication between Russian and NATO military officers to avoid the possibility of military-to-military incidents and, apparently as a result of the Trump-Putin meeting that just took place on the margins of the G20 meeting, there is going to be a meeting between Russian and American military personnel to try to avoid military close encounters that could lead to an accidental shootdown over the Baltic Sea, for instance. So these are the kinds of measures that are necessary to reduce tensions, to start building back the trust that has been lost over the past few years between Russia and NATO about their respective security situations. Aaron Maté: And again, on Ukraine, I’m no expert on it. What I do know though is that this week Ukraine, the government met with NATO for talks about joining it and Ukraine being on Russia’s border, obviously that is a ominous prospect. I think you’d agree with that. Daryl Kimball: Well, there have been discussions between Ukraine and Russia over the years about economic ties. There have been discussion between Ukraine and the European Union on economic issues. I don’t think that NATO is anywhere close to considering an official bid by Ukraine to join NATO, even though some in Ukraine might want to do that. Given the situation in eastern Ukraine, the ongoing conflict, I don’t think that that’s something that NATO wants to consider. So I don’t think that’s a real threat. But the real concern now is that the United States and Russia are increasing their military postures and it could lead to miscalculation. The other thing I would just note is very important for the two sides to discuss is the future of the treaties that regulate their nuclear arms. The United States and Russia reached an important agreement in 2010, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, that sets up monitoring of each side’s strategic, that is long range, nuclear forces. It limits each side to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads on 700 delivery vehicles. That’s land-based missiles, bombers, sea-based missiles. That treaty goes into, those limits have to be met in 2018, but the treaty is set to expire in February of 2021. So before Donald Trump leaves office, he will have to decide with Vladimir Putin about whether to negotiate a new agreement to replace that one, to extend that agreement by another five years beyond 2021, or to let the whole thing expire. If they let it expire, that would be the first time since the early 1970s that the United States and Russia do not have an agreement regulating the world’s most dangerous nuclear weapons. These are the world’s two most powerful nuclear superpowers, so that’s a key issue. Then, also, there are- Aaron Maté: Daryl, let me ask you, sorry, didn’t Trump already tell Putin in a phone call this year that he doesn’t want to renew it? Daryl Kimball: Well, it’s hard to tell what Donald Trump said. Reportedly, President Putin, in that initial phone call back in February, I believe it was, Putin suggested the two sides should discuss the extension of the treaty beyond 2021. The two presidents can decide to do this without the approval of their respective parliaments. Trump reportedly said, “The New START agreement is a bad deal. I don’t know about that.” Right now, the Administration, the Trump Administration, is undertaking a formal review of US nuclear policy and part of that decision will probably be to determine whether Trump wants to extend New START, negotiate a new agreement, or let it all just go away in 2021. So we don’t know for sure, but I would also just note that, up until that phone call, Russia had rejected the idea of extending New START. President Putin had rejected a proposal from President Obama in 2013 to negotiate deeper reductions in the two sides’ still-bloated nuclear arsenals. So that would have been a shift for Putin. We’ll have to see what Trump decides to do. I am worried that the Trump Administration will decide to let this treaty go by the wayside and that would be a terrible mistake. Aaron Maté: And, Daryl, I cut you off there. You were raising a second area of concern. Daryl Kimball: Yeah, one other area of concern regarding the two sides’ nuclear forces is that there is a very severe dispute over compliance with the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, the IMF Treaty. That was struck between Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan and that eliminated an entire class of intermediate-range, nuclear-armed missiles, the so-called Euro missiles. So neither side is supposed to have any ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles but the United States two years ago detected activity by Russia that suggests that Russia may not be in compliance. The two sides have only met once to discuss this issue, to try to resolve this dispute. The concern about Russia’s compliance with this treaty is leading some in the US Congress to propose that the United States should counter Russia’s non-compliant missile testing with our own, ground-based, intermediate-range missile. So if this issue is not resolved, if the two sides don’t sit down soon and find a way to address this compliance issue, we could see an escalation of tensions over this IMF Treaty dispute. So there are a lot of things on the security agenda for these two countries. And, of course, there is a long, long history between the United States and the Soviet Union, the United States and Russia, NATO and Russia. The two sides can debate until they’re blue in the face about who is right and who is wrong, but the reality that we’ve got to face is that we have these problems today and we need forward-looking solutions. And we need compromise and realism and pragmatism on both sides, Russia and the United States. Aaron Maté: Yeah, I just want to know what Putin says about all this. He’s accused the US of rejecting Russian offers to cease weapons production. And he’s pointed to the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty under George W. Bush. How much has that, if at all, factored into the current situation today, the withdrawal of the US from the ABM? Daryl Kimball: Well, about 15 years ago, yes, the George W. Bush Administration decided to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and that treaty was all about limiting each side’s strategic missile interceptor capabilities, so that they didn’t get into both an offensive and a defensive arms race. But by the early 2000s, the United States was becoming increasingly concerned about Iranian and North Korean ballistic missile capabilities and wanted to pursue systems that would have exceeded the treaty. Now, over these 15 years, the United States has only deployed 44 interceptors in Alaska and California that would not be compliant with the ABM Treaty. These missiles do not in any way threaten Russia or China’s massive nuclear retaliatory potential but, yeah, the Russians are concerned that the United States might further expand the United States’ strategic missile interceptor capabilities, particularly in Europe. So that is another area where the two sides need to sit down, have an adult conversation. They need to avoid lobbing accusations back and forth or bringing up old issues, water under the bridge, and they need to find some solutions. Right now, there is not a serious, sustained dialogue between the United States and Russia on these strategic weapons issues, missile defense, the IMF Treaty, the future of New START, or how to avoid a dangerous military-to-military incidence that could lead to a small conflict that then grows into a major crisis. Aaron Maté: Right, Daryl, so on that point, if the Baltics where these military exercises are going on right now on both sides, Russia and NATO, if the Baltics are a potential flashpoint, how could that situation be resolved in a way that doesn’t involve, you know, putting all these massive missiles inside Russia’s neighboring or nearby countries? Daryl Kimball: Well, I think one thing that needs to be done is both sides need to avoid the kinds of provocative exercises that they’re now engaged in in a tit-for-tat basis. You know, both sides need to, for the purpose of military readiness, they need to conduct exercises somewhere in some way. But to do so on the border of either side, it is provocative. It is worrisome and it’s particularly worrisome for the Baltic states who are in a vulnerable position because, you know, the Russian mainland is right up against their border. So I think, you know, there needs to be a long term dialogue between NATO and Russia about how to pull back ground-based forces from the frontier, so to speak. There was a treat negotiated back in 1990, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, that was designed to limit each side’s conventional force deployments in a way that made their militaries less threatening to the other side. That treaty has fallen apart for many different reasons and there’s not a replacement on the horizon. So the German government has proposed the renewal of a dialogue about conventional force limitations and transparency so that there is not this fear of some sort of lightning move across the frontier either from the West to the East or the East to the West. Aaron Maté: For people who want to know just what the scale is of the military build-up on both sides inside Eastern Europe between Russia and its NATO neighbors, can you give us an overview of just the kind of missiles and weapons systems that we’re talking about and how dangerous they are? Daryl Kimball: Well, it’s hard to catalog the whole list but let me just mention what kind of nuclear and missile weaponry the United States and Russia have. The US and Russia, as I said, have deployed about 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads. The United States has close to 800 nuclear delivery systems, the Russians close to 600. Each side deploys these on submarines, strategic bombers, and on land-based missiles. And then, in addition to that, you know, Russia has a force of several hundred tactical nuclear warheads for battlefield use. The United States still deploys, this is a vestige of the Cold War days, about 160 nuclear gravity bombs on 5 NATO bases in Europe. So in addition to the conventional military forces that are on the ground in Russia, that are on the ground in the NATO countries, you have this nuclear firepower just behind it. So if there is a hot war between NATO and Russia and one side is losing on the battlefield, there will be the temptation to threaten or to use nuclear weapons in order to counteract that loss or to avoid a loss. So that’s why, you know, it’s important to avoid any kind of conflict and that’s one of the reasons why, you know, US and Russian leaders have said for decades that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought, because it would mean the utter destruction of all of these countries in ways that would make World War II look mild by comparison. So, that’s what’s at stake and we can’t forget that that’s what we’re still living with, the world that we’re still living in. Aaron Maté: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association. Daryl, thank you. Daryl Kimball: Yep, thank you. Aaron Maté: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.