US and Russia: New Age of Nuclear Instability (Part 1/2)

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Russia has the power to destroy the U.S. several times over, and unprecedented bipartisan hawkishness in Washington is driving the world to a precipice by blocking diplomatic talks, demonizing Putin, and delegitimizing the system in Russia says Prof. Richard Sakwa

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

On March 1, just 17 days before the presidential elections in Russia, President Vladimir Putin presented a two-hour State of the Union address to the Russian Congress, which drew a great deal of attention not only in Russia but around the world.

Part of the address focused on nuclear armament building, building weapons capable of penetrating the U.S. weapons shields. A video that Putin showed during their address has gone viral, causing some euphoria in military industries who are anticipating lucrative business contracts. Now the question is, was that speech a provocation for sparking another arms race with the U.S. or was it an attempt to get reelected, merely a campaign speech? On to talk about this with me is Richard Sakwa. He is professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent, and an associate fellow of Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House. He has written extensively on Russia. His most recent book is “Russia Against the Rest: Pluralism and Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order.” Thank you so much for joining me, Richard.

RICHARD SAKWA: My pleasure.

SHARMINI PERIES: Richard, now, Putin dedicated much of the speech to expressing his disappointment with the lack of U.S. adherence to international disarmament treaties. Let’s have a look.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: In 2000 the United States told us about its plans to withdraw from the ABM treaty. Russia objected to this categorically. We believe that the treaty, the ABM 1972 treaty, was a cornerstone in the international security architecture. According to this treaty both sides was entitled to have in just one area protected against missile attack. Russia deployed this system around Moscow, and the U.S. around Grand Forks. We’ve signed the new START treaty in 2010 between Russia and the United States on further reductions of strategic offensive arms. Yet when implementing these plans to build the global missile defense systems, all the agreements that we achieved as part of the new START treaty were undermined and devalued. I will only say that all this work has been conducted by us within the limits of current arms control treaties. We’re not violating anything. And I’d like to emphasize specifically that this military power is not to threaten anybody. We have no plans, either we have ever had plans to be an aggressor.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Richard, so I guess the question is, how factual are these complaints that Putin has against the U.S. and U.S. not adhering to certain agreements and treaties? And then of course, then, what is the counterclaim he’s making, which is that Russia has not violated any of these treaties? Your take on all of this.

RICHARD SAKWA: Yes. I mean, it was quite an important speech. It was two hours long. The first two thirds were devoted to domestic matters. Butter, if you like. But then the last third was talking about these amazing new weapons, these superweapons. Mostly nuclear, but also laser and some other stuff.

So his basic argument was that the United States left, it announced in December 2001 that it would be leaving the Antiballistic Missile Treaty signed in 1972. And in June 2002 the United States left it. So in that speech, Putin said, and in later interviews, he said there will be no new arms race, because Russia responded by it to this action by developing these weapons. According to him most of them have been tested. Some of them, like the Salmat, which is this huge rocket which can, with its massive payload which is almost detectable, he argues, with a payload of 10 multiple independent missiles, each ten times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So they’ve got them, they say. There is no need to have an arms race.

He also argued that the United States leaving the ABM treaty was fundamentally destabilizing because it was a cornerstone of deterrence. The idea is that no first strike would get away without a punishment, because obviously they goal for nuclear planners is to be able to deliver a devastating blow to which the enemy to which the enemy cannot respond. So Russia did respond. They’ve done it. So there’s no need to enter into another race.

More than that, he in later interviews, and fact in this one touched on it to say that the events in Ukraine, their taking over Crimea, was almost primarily connected with this action, the United States abrogation of the ABM Treaty. So this is enormous. So you’re absolutely right to be discussing it at this point. It means that we’ve entered into a whole new territory. That’s the Russian argument, that the United States that destabilized nuclear arms treaties and so on by doing, by withdrawing.

So on the other side, of course, the United States accuses Russia of having infringed the various agreements that, in particular, the 1987 intermediate nuclear forces one, though the United States has never actually identified or told publicly what they have in mind. There’s a number of candidates. So the debate continues, and all of that. I think the big picture is that we’ve now entered an epoch of nuclear instability. Nuclear deterrence has been a cornerstone in the Cold War of strategic stability. Now we’re entering a phase of enormous danger with the basic new START treaty which you mentioned, signed in 2010, due to end in 2021.

So I mean, it couldn’t be more dangerous. The United States has announced that under Obama and then confirmed by Trump a one trillion dollar modernization of its nuclear weapons. So in short, we’re in a new nuclear age in which there is for the first time since the, well, certainly the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, in which there are no serious substantive nuclear arms talks.

SHARMINI PERIES: Speaking of nuclear arms talks, shortly after President Vladimir Putin won the election last Sunday, President Trump did phone him to congratulate him. And according to the White House he also mentioned needing to meet over nuclear weapons, and, and so forth. So do you think this is a good move in the right direction, and what might be of concern and on the agenda at such a meeting?

RICHARD SAKWA: As to him phoning Putin after his victory, it was exactly the right thing to do. I know this probably won’t be very popular with some of your listeners, but one has to say that in relations with Russia, Trump’s instincts are, or let’s call it intuition and instinct, are the correct ones. That between superpowers, especially the only one, Russia that is, with the power to destroy the United States several times over, that you have to maintain diplomatic channels. You have to talk. There has to be dialogue. Instead of which, it seems that, let’s put it this way, that the traditional Republicans, the absolute hawks, the McCains, the Lindsey Grahams, all the others, Mitt Romneys allied with the liberal internationalists, the Clintonians, the Hillary Clintonians, and so on, are driving the world to the precipice, to unprecedented dangers, by blocking debate, by demonizing Putin, by delegitimating the system in Russia, by denigrating its actions and foreign policy, which each of, we can discuss them separately, have a logic and in many ways many people would actually say intervention in Syria and other actions are quite logical and the only sensible actions in the circumstance.

So Trump, in short, in telephoning to congratulate Putin showed a degree of statesmanship which is lacking amongst the traditional Republicans and in most part a large part of the Democratic Party.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Richard, you said something very interesting earlier in this answer, that Russia has the capability to destroy the United States several times over. Justify that remark.

RICHARD SAKWA: Well, just simply by the fact that even though the START treaty reduced the number of nuclear weapons, there’s vast arsenals on both sides, the United States and Russia, including the basic nuclear tour that Putin announced on the 1st of March, basically rendered the land-based, silo-based nuclear missiles the United States have, basically they are now useless. But they could be destroyed, easily. Obviously the United States has got submarine-launched weapons and aircraft-based ones. So obviously, China has obviously got nuclear weapons as well. But the U.S. and Russia have basically parity, an even number of weapons across all three major platforms.