Trump and Putin poised to begin new era of arms talks
The US withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty illustrates a reset in how nuclear agreements work between America and Russia, and also of course, to a lesser degree, China. It appears a restructuring to modernize is in play, while enhancing intermediate-range missile capabilities. This concept means perhaps more powerful nuclear weapons closer to one another in potential battlefields.
The 31-year-old nuclear weapons agreement that US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed is now gone. The treaty eliminated 500-1,000 km (short-range) and 1,000-5,500 km (intermediate-range) missile systems. It did not cover sea-launched missiles.
Other nuclear agreements with Russia are being ripped up, including the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In addition, US President Donald Trump pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that sought to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. That ongoing confrontation is obviously taking on a life of its own from the perspective of the US and Russia, and is not being allowed to intersect with the strategic restructuring of other nuclear weapons treaties.
In the days leading up to Trump’s announcement of the US departure from the INF, Putin’s astute aside about the US pulling out of the nuclear weapons agreement at the Valdai conference, which drew laughter, spoke volumes: “The aggressor must know that retribution is inevitable, that it will be destroyed. We are victims of aggression. As martyrs we will go to heaven. And they will just die.”
To be sure, America’s nuclear arsenal is dated and needs to be updated and remain superior in order to maintain a technological lead over peer competitors, who are already busy forming their own separate economic systems through “de-dollarization.” The statistics speak for themselves in terms of not only ballistic launchers, but also in terms of warhead development and miniaturization. Nuclear warheads have a particular age limit to them that naturally over time means they are replaced. America’s nuclear deterrent under the Trump administration is meant to demonstrate that the US seeks to maintain its superior edge.
America’s nuclear deterrent under the Trump administration is meant to demonstrate that the US seeks to maintain its superior edge
Dr. Theodore Karasik
Pulling out of the INF treaty is a case in point because Cold War-era arms controls do not work in our new geopolitical age. This decision brings a luster of new thinking in terms of how to best defend America. On Tuesday, US National Security Adviser John Bolton met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. After a 90-minute meeting, Bolton renewed US accusations that Russia is violating the INF treaty by developing a medium-range missile. Bolton said: “There’s a new strategic reality out there. This is a Cold War bilateral ballistic missile-related treaty — in a multipolar ballistic missile world.”
How the strategic picture unfolds is probably as follows: Once a new generation short or intermediate-range land-based nuclear weapon is developed, the push will be to redeploy it around Europe in a very forward posture. Moscow is busy expanding its stockpiles and performing large-scale war games, such as Vostok 2018, and is also busy throughout the Middle East. But, for the first time in decades, it is going to seek to move nuclear weapons back to its western borders. Once Russian missiles are in place, the Americans and the Europeans — and this is where strategy is key — will be forced to counter and deploy short or intermediate-range nuclear weapons in pro-US countries in Europe and point them eastward. Modernization and redeployment are being shaped for a new generation of weapons by all sides.
Clearly, If America supplies nuclear weapons to Europe, Russia will counter by deploying its own nuclear weapons in a defensive manner. Putin said any European countries hosting US missiles would be at risk of Russian strikes. However, NATO is unlikely to deploy more nuclear weapons to Europe should the arms control treaty between Washington and Moscow collapse.
It is important to remember the Polish offer for “Fort Trump.” Polish President Andrzej Duda asked Trump to build a military base in Poland and even offered to pay $2 billion for it. A permanent US military presence in Poland has been a top priority and Duda’s offer, including healthy imports of US-supplied liquefied natural gas, is helping to pave the way for a potent and symbolic move toward a new nuclear picture.
Naturally, China also seeks to increase its nuclear capability for forward projection of intermediate-range nuclear missiles. With the US pulling out of the INF, a unilateral withdrawal from the treaty has a multitude of negative effects on China’s interests.
In Paris on Nov. 11, on the sidelines of commemorative events marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Trump and Putin will meet to discuss a multitude of security issues, including the INF treaty and what comes next. The technology to bring about enhanced capability is quickly approaching, and a new style of arms talks is beginning.
• Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. He is a former RAND Corporation Senior Political Scientist who lived in the UAE for 10 years, focusing on security issues.