Who Will Stop the US-Russia Arms Race?

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As Trump faces heat for reportedly ignoring instructions to not congratulate newly re-elected Vladimir Putin, professor Stephen F. Cohen asks if anyone in Washington wants to stop the dangerous US-Russia arms race

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AARON MATE: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

President Trump is drawing heat for congratulating Russian President Vladimir Putin on his re-election victory. During a phone call with Putin this week Trump reportedly ignored a written directive from his aides that instructed him, quote, do not congratulate. Speaking to MSNBC, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner echoed the outraged response from Republican Sen. John McCain.

MARK WARNER: I think John McCain put out a statement today, and his words were better than mine. He says, the leader of the free world doesn’t call up and congratulate a dictator over a sham election. And clearly that’s what happened today.

AARON MATE: News of the friendly phone call prompted former CIA Director John Brennan to suggest that the Russians could have compromising information on Donald Trump.

REPORTER: Why won’t the president confront Vladimir Putin, why won’t he read the cards and say the things that you say need to be said to Vladimir Putin? Do you believe he is somehow in debt to the president of Russia?

JOHN BRENNAN: I think he’s afraid of the president of Russia.

REPORTER: Why?

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, I think one can speculate as to why. That the Russians may have something on him personally that they could always roll out and make his life more difficult.

REPORTER: Do you believe Russia has something on him?

JOHN BRENNAN: I believe that the Russians would would not, they would opt for things to do if they believed that it was in their interests. And the Russians, I think, have had long experience with Mr. Trump and they have things that they could expose.

REPORTER: Something personal, perhaps?

JOHN BRENNAN: Perhaps. Perhaps.

AARON MATE: In his defense, Trump said on Twitter that President Obama had also congratulated Putin during his last win in 2012. And like Obama, Trump claimed he wants to cooperate with Russia on several issues, including the arms race. This comes weeks after Putin gave a speech unveiling a new nuclear arsenal and blaming the U.S. for the arms race. He later spoke to NBC News.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: If you were to speak about arms race, then an arms race began at exactly the time and moment when the U.S. opted out of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty.

AARON MATE: Well, why does Russia blame the U.S. for the arms race? And in this current political moment, can their differences possibly be resolved. Well, to discuss this, I spoke recently to Professor Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at New York University and Princeton. And I began by asking him what Putin is seeking in his relationship with the U.S.

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, let’s begin by saying that there’s hardly been a time when Putin did not call for good relations with the United States, even in the worst of times. And he continues to refer to American political leaders as ‘my partners,’ even in the worst of times. This, by the way, drives harder line, or harder line people in the Soviet security establishment up the wall. They say to him, why do you keep calling them your partner?

Putin is a guy who came to power with the hope and intention of a real, functional, constructive economic political relationship with the United States. And though he may have given up that hope, he still calls for it. The speech he gave that you’re referring to, the equivalent, I guess, of the state of the Union speech on March 1, was exceedingly important.

The first two thirds of it was essentially his electoral program. It dealt with domestic issues, what he hopes to do for the Russian people. It was very similar to speeches made here during our elections. He talked about education, he talked about infrastructure, he talked about pensions. He talked about health care. No American would be surprised.

[But the latter third. Putin called it historic, and I think it is. And we can explain this simply. Ever since the America and the Soviet Union acquired the capacity to put nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles, cross the seas and strike the other country, we have been in a strategic agreement called mutual assured destruction. And all that meant that if Washington launched at Moscow, within minutes Moscow would launch at Washington, and both countries would be grievously affected, if not completely destroyed. And this doctrine, called MAD, may seem frightful, but it kept the nuclear peace until the idea came up that you could build an antiballistic missile weapon, missile defense. It started with Reagan.

To prevent that, I think signed in 1972, was a treaty, the antiballistic missile treaty, which meant that the sides were prohibited from deploying antiballistic missile systems in order to preserve this mutual assured destruction so that neither side would be tempted to launch a first strike. Each side, America and the Soviet Union, was given one exemption exemption. Moscow put a missile defense system over, Russia did over Moscow. And I think we have our someplace in South Dakota for some reason, I’m not sure why. In 2002 President Bush left this treaty, nullified it unilaterally.

Ever since then we’ve been pushing missile defense installations toward Russia. I think there are 30 or 40. They range from, as I understand it, California to Alaska. But there’s one operating in Romania, one to open in Poland. But here’s the thing. we’ve figured out how to deploy them on ships. And so these anti-missile defense systems are sailing on ships in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea, right on Russia’s borders.

So what did Putin say? And it’s really, if if half of what he claimed for these weapons is true, and I’m sure more than half is true, he said, we have developed several weapons that do not lie at the ballistic level. That is, high in the sky and descend. They fly much lower, much faster, and they can allude any any missile system that you Americans have spent trillions of dollars on. So therefore, we have restored mutual assured destruction. He’s saying that you Americans, and it’s true some Americans did this, tried to develop missile defense so that you could threaten us wit,h or perhaps launch, a first nuclear strike knowing that your missile defense would protect you from retaliation. He said that was a fiction from the beginning. But we now have these new weapons which make it absolutely impossible. And so he ends by saying, therefore, having restored the balance of sanity, let us sit down and have major nuclear weapons talks again.

But again, Aaron, I mean, if it’s true, and I have no reason to think it’s not true, though the stages of development of these weapons is a little unclear, it’s true what Putin said about these four or five new weapons systems. We are now in a completely new era, because since the end of the Soviet Union the United States has tried to develop at least the capacity of a first strike capability at Russia using these missile defenses. That is over. It’s not possible any longer. Trillions of dollars have been wasted.

By the way, I forget which administration, Bush or Obama, made missile defense a NATO project. It started out as an American project. But it officially gave it to NATO. Why? Because where NATO goes, the missile defense installations go, and NATO has expanded right to Russia’s borders.

So this is an historic turning point, assuming what Putin said is largely true. Though you wouldn’t know it. I guess you had on professor Theodore Postol of MIT. And I mean, Ted is excellent on this stuff but you don’t get any of this in the mainstream media. Putin’s speech was read as an act of threatened aggression against the United States. It was just the opposite.

AARON MATE: Right. And you know, I think what we often forget, too, is that as this missile system , defensive missile system, whatever it’s called, was developed, especially under Bush number two, George W. Bush, it was billed to Russia for so long as being targeted towards Iran. Which seems like a pretty tough sell to accept when, when it’s actually being positioned so close to Russia.

STEPHEN COHEN: Look, it’s bogus. It’s fiction. It’s B.S. It’s disinformation. It’s American propaganda. The reality is this: Russia has been protesting about the, once we left, Washington left the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, Russia has been protesting what we’ve been building. We told Russia, why are you worried? It has nothing to do with Russia. This is all about Iran and, quote, rogue states, unidentified. Russia said, OK, in that case let’s build it together. We actually have better radar facilities than you have. We’ll build it, we’ll manage it together. We refused that systematically.

Every attempt Russian made to join in the creation of a missile defense system was rejected by Washington. Everybody, unless, you know, you believe in the Easter Bunny, I guess, that this system as it was expanded, increasingly, and it branched out, was directed at Russia. I mean, maybe it would have worked against Iran, too, but that was going to be a bonus. This was about Russia. The Russians knew it. You and I knew it. Everybody knew it. Do you know what is an indestructible weapon system?

AARON MATE: No I don’t.

STEPHEN COHEN: One funded in all 50 states. All right. That’s what this missile defense has been. They farmed out manufacturing of it everywhere from Paducah Kentucky to Israel. Everybody gets a piece of the action. Therefore you get no protest in Congress because it’s constituency politics. And that’s true of a lot of the weapons systems we make. They’re indestructible when all 50 states get a piece of the action, and that’s what you have with this missile defense stuff.

AARON MATE: OK, so, speaking of Congress. If there is to be any push for Trump to engage with what Putin said seriously and try to restart some sort of arms control talks, including the New START treaty, which Trump has indicated little interest in advancing, you’d think that it would be Trump’s opposition party who would be pushing him towards that.

Now, recently there were some Democratic senators to call for a new round of strategic arms talks with Russia. But I want to read to you a quote from the Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, where he is greeting the news of Mike Pompeo now being the secretary of state. And instead of pointing to Pompeo’s open disdain for the Iran nuclear deal and his hawkishness on things including Russia, this is what Chuck Schumer said. He said: The instability of this administration and just about every area weakens America. If he’s confirmed we hope that Mr. Pompeo will turn up we’ll turn over a new leaf and will start toughening up our policies towards Russia and Putin, unquote.

So Professor Cohen, as we wrap, that is the top priority from the leader of the opposition party Chuck Schumer, for the new nominee to be secretary of state to be tougher towards Russia.

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, but it’s not just Schumer. And Schumer is not to make this distinction as statesmen. He is a kind of local politician risen way above his pay grade when it comes to foreign affairs. It was outrageous what he said. But a lot of the Democratic leaders are saying this sort of thing.

I mean, let me make the point you made before. One reason this situation is so dangerous, Aaron, so dangerous, is that in the ’70s and ’80s, and I participated at a junior or younger level, the debate over Cold War or detente in the United States, that the pro-detente people, the anti-Cold War people had lots of very senior allies many in Congress. Even in the State Department. Even among presidential aides. It was always a fair fight.

There is no one today. Only the Schumers and the Pelosis. And they have become with this Russia gate stuff, claiming that Putin attacked America and it was like Pearl Harbor or 9/11. I mean I never call people names, but this is warmongering. That’s exactly what it is. If you claim Russia attacked America, the assumption is we have to attack Russia. And we’re talking about nuclear war potentially. So what kind of political leadership is, we have descended into a morass of degraded commentary on Russia that has never even when the Soviet Union existed, even during the worst days of the Cold War, we didn’t have this kind of discourse.

AARON MATE: We have to leave it there. Professor Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at New York University and Princeton University. Thank you.

STEPHEN COHEN: Pray a lot, Aaron.

AARON MATE: Will do. And thank you for joining us on the Real News.