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

With the New START treaty set to end in 2021 and no substantive nuclear arms talks underway, the United States and Russia have entered “a phase of enormous danger,” says author and scholar Richard Sakwa

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. And welcome back to my conversation with Richard Sakwa. Richard Sakwa 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, and his most recent book is “Russia Against the Rest: Pluralism and Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order.” Thanks again for joining me, Richard.

RICHARD SAKWA: My pleasure.

SHARMINI PERIES: Richard, James Cameron wrote in The Washington Post that some of the capabilities described in Putin’s speech newly unveiled in that video were somewhat outdated and unrealistic and exaggerated. That suggests that Putin is using this opportunity where he might have the world’s attention to promote Russian arms in order to support the Russian arms industry at a time when the Russian economy is struggling. Now, Russia is the world’s second largest weapons exporter after the U.S., but how important is the arms industry to the Russian economy, and do you believe that Putin was actually trying to do that?

RICHARD SAKWA: No. I think the second part is completely false. I don’t think Putin needed to puff up the Russian defense industry. It’s the world’s second largest armament sales, but even that’s not so important. Last year agrifood exports were of much greater value than arms exports.

As for the first part I think that Putin’s announcement certainly deserves to be scrutinized very carefully, because these weapons are absolutely amazing superweapons if they exist. Putin has been questioned a few times since then on these issues. He has made clear that these are not completely speculative, that work has been continuing since the U.S. left the ABM Treaty in 2002. And of course, another thing which he’s talking is the attempt of the United States to build an antiballistic system, ballistic missile defense, in Poland, Romania, Alaska, and elsewhere.

So these weapons, Putin is saying, they are indestructible. We do know that the Salmat missile, which is a huge missile to replace what the West called SS18s, the Satan missile, we know that it’s been tested 60 times and it’s been deployed. And this is one which is much lighter, it’s got a new type of fuel, and it goes so fast that it goes straight up into the stratosphere at hypersonic speed. And therefore when it comes back down it could hit ten different nuclear missile sites of the United States, quite apart from cities and so on.

So each of the specific items Putin mentioned needs to be examined, I think, quite clearly. But I think that only now some genuine expert nuclear scientists and so on in the United States, even they’re now beginning to understand that what Putin was talking about is a game changer.

But can I just, just one other thing. And it was in your clip that Putin says, this is not designed to threaten anyone. It’s not an attempt at blackmail, it’s not an attempt to be aggressive. In fact, quite the opposite. If you recall the famous phrase in his speech we tried to talk to you then. You weren’t listening. Now listen to us. So in other words, it was quite a pacific speech. It was a call for dialogue, a call for engagement, and even another terrible word in the Washington lexicon today, the word diplomacy.

I know that London and Washington have forgotten this word. But I think diplomacy is when you have differences with a protagonist, but you talk. And I will say, we now look back to the years of Nixon, I know not exactly the most popular U.S. president, even Reagan, who understood the importance of engagement. Unfortunately, the only one who understands that today in Washington, it seems the only only one, is Donald Trump himself. And of course we know the vast powers arrayed against him to block any dialogue, or any basically egging him on to even crazier activities, when I think sensible policies will say to talk, just to talk to Moscow, does not mean collusion, doesn’t mean that Putin has some strange magical hold over Trump. In fact, looking at all of this collusion talk over from the United Kingdom, it’s certainly, one has to say, what collective madness has seized so much of the U.S. establishment.

SHARMINI PERIES: Richard, on that point about Putin’s repeated assurances that Russia is not threatening, this is not meant to be a threatening statement. In light of the fact that Russia is actually militarily involved currently in the Ukraine and Syria, in the Northern Caucasus. How could this be taken out of that context? Is he just referring to the United States and the West here in terms of not threatening, and excluding these other military involvements of Russia?

RICHARD SAKWA: Yes. So just take those in turn. There is so much myth about the war of 2008, the Russo-Georgian war. Don’t forget that Medvedev was the time. And he repeatedly warned Mikheil Saakashvili, the president, don’t attack South Ossetia.

And as you know, in the evening of the 7th of August 2008, 10000 Georgian troops entered South Ossetia and bombarded the capital. Russia then responded, perhaps disproportionately, in then occupying part of territory of Georgia, and then recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, just as the United States had done a few months earlier for Kosovo. So you could take new things out of context.

Second, Ukraine. Of course it’s tragic, the whole thing is tragic, no question about it. That it was a symptom, though, of the breakdown of a European security order. As I said, Putin said, our main reason to intervene was the prior United States leaving the ABM Treaty. So it’s tragic of course. Crimea, still, I’ve just come back from Moscow. People are saying that Russian intervention averted bloodshed and terrible, so which, obviously it would have been tough for Crimeans since 1991 and their referendum in January of that year. Clearly wanted to be a special status if not something more.

As for the Donbass, Russia intervened twice. This was at the Battle of Luhansk in August 2014, and then again in 2015 at the Battle of [inaudible]. Of course it’s supporting, helping the the insurgents, the People’s Republic. So again, you have to see it in context. It’s nothing like the Baltic republics of 1940-44. And again, in Syria. United States policy was aimless. It was supporting the radical Islamic Sunni insurgency via Saudi Arabia and others supporting these people. So it was running with the hounds and running, walking with the forces, or what have you. It was a totally incoherent policy.

Russia intervened on the 30th of September 2015, and very shortly it’s achieving a solution. No good sides at all in this war, of course. But let’s put an end to, the Syrian people are suffering. I heard something even more disturbing the other day, that in December last year, December 2017, then a number of journalists were in Washington, and they couldn’t quite understand what the defense and other security people were saying. We now know that the United States will not allow Russia to have what would be a victory, or perceived as a victory, in Syria. In other words, to try to allow the legitimate government, however you may find it odious or not, the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad to try to stop places like Eastern Ghouta, shelling Damascus or western Aleppo, two-thirds remained in government, which were being shelled from eastern Aleppo, which Russia liberated, and I’ll use that word, a couple of years back.

Russia, then, has tried several peace projects. They started on negotiations. The United States has refused to help and endorse peace. Yes, it sent an observer at the beginning. In other words, not to allow Russia to be even seen to have a little victory the Unitd States is willing to perpetuate a war of monstrous savagery in Syria. And therefore intermediately, then, supported the YPG. One-third of Syria, including the oil fields, have effectively split away. The battle at [inaudible] is all a symptom of this. Yes, I know on the ground there is some talk between the United States and Russia, and I’m glad to hear that.

But on the whole, strategically, the United States is willing to perpetuate the war in Syria another 5, 10 years. In other words, to make it another Afghanistan where, you know, there’s absolutely no sense of what the United States is doing. It had peace talks with the leader of the Taliban, and then 15 months ago that person talking was killed by the United States. When I asked U.S. officials, why did you do that? Well, we have the opportunity to do that. But you’ve just snatched away the possibility of peace. Of finally bringing a touch of peace to that terrible, terrible land where the United States has been waging a war for 15 years. Come on, 15 years. When will it end? When will the U.S. public, when will the people stand up and say come on, let’s find a way through it, and working with partners. The United States could not unilaterally impose anything other than war and destruction in Afghanistan, and it looks like it can do the same in Syria.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Richard, in your article in The Guardian from almost a year ago with the title: “Russia’s 1989 plea for a new world order was rejected, and so Putinism was born.” So here we are going to another into another phase of Putinism, another six-year presidency. And in that article you explain that U.S. and NATO, by insisting on holding on to their hegemony, have pushed Russia into a position of resistance. Does Putin’s speech confirm your diagnosis further, and the situations you’ve just described in this interview confirmation of that?

RICHARD SAKWA: In my view, 100 percent. We had a unique opportunity in 1989 at the end of the Cold War to establish an inclusive, what Russia calls, Moscow calls, an indivisible security order, instead of which we had a system which, you know, had plenty of good sides to it. The Atlantic power system, the U.S.-led liberal international order, you know, all these are important elements. But anybody who has studied international politics understands that any attempt to establish a single hegemony will provoke resistance.

Today we’re seeing the alignment of Russia and China. Not, it’s not, I hope, and I certainly argue against it being anti-Western let alone anti-American. No, that’s not the point. It’s simply saying that, you know, there has to be balance. The United States has to work with partners. As I keep saying, it used to be called diplomacy. Work with partners to solve problems, instead of which we have the United States still trying to cling on to its vision of a 1989 world where it was the single massive unipolar, unipower, hyperpower, as the French call it. Russia and China argued that this historical West could have been transformed by bringing Russia into it, and Russia’s membership of this community would have made it a greater West. A greater West in which Russia then would have worked in partnership to solve its domestic problems which, as you’ve alluded to, are huge. Economic governance, corruption, and so many issues which need to be dealt with. Instead of which we’ve ended up into a very divided world.

So I think my analysis, unfortunately, it’s clear with a difference now that this Russian-Chinese alignment, with Xi Jinping set to rule beyond the normal two terms, there is a long-term power shift going on. And I’m afraid it’s not to the United States’s benefit. Though ideally it should be not to its harm if policy makers in the United States could come, in my view, to their senses and try to find a more cooperative way of working.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Richard. I thank you so much for your analysis here. Very remarkable, the breadth of issues you dealt with in this interview. I thank you so much for joining us today.

RICHARD SAKWA: My pleasure, thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.