Nuclear Habits Die Hard

The New Nuclear Arms Race Started 30 Years Ago

Nuclear weapons are perhaps the most destructive thing created by humanity to date. The history of nuclear weapons is short, yet the effects of it will remain to diffuse the radioactive effects into our global atmosphere for centuries to come. Starting with the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the testing of any nuclear weapons was banned, this included tests in the atmosphere, outer space, and under water. Although tests underground had not yet been banned, the treaty had prohibited nuclear detonations in the environment, if they had caused “radioactive debris to be present outside the territorial limits of the State under whose jurisdiction or control” it had been conducted in (U.S. State Department). By taking this first step to limit nuclear activity, the U.S. and then Soviet Union worked together towards a unifying goal. This goal being to ultimately end the radioactive disease that plagues humanity’s environments.

Ever since then, a series of legally binding arms control initiatives for the proliferation of nuclear weapons have been created, negotiated and violated, thus leaving us with a rapidly deteriorating situation in nuclear arms control. This is due to the constant conflict in the Middle East, paired with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) aggression in Eastern Europe and the constant violation of treaties, forcing a geopolitical balancing act between the two powers (U.S. ,Russia). Given the already hostile tensions in our geopolitical sphere an arms race is imminent as the thought of nuclear proliferation becomes a frightening reality. This will no doubt be brought before the United Nations (UN) and the respective specialized committees like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Security Council (SC). This will allow the revisiting of older treaties and perhaps the renegotiation or even forging of new ones.

Nuclear Negotiations

During the Cold War the creation and implementation of the nuclear arms control initiatives led to the normalization of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both sides had come to accept that nuclear weapons were in fact the greatest threat to society. This realization did not happen overnight and took several dangerous close calls like the “Cuban missile crisis” in which Soviet nukes were placed on the island of Cuba within extreme proximity to the United States, at the ready to fire at any moment. This created the need for a legally binding framework to prevent nuclear wars from occurring and to limit the stockpiles held by the Soviets and Americans.

The goal of these agreements was not to eliminate nuclear weapons from the geopolitical sphere completely but to install verification provisions and keep them in storage as a tool for continued diplomatic dialogue and cooperation between states as a sort of leverage. This built further trust between states and slowly but surely eliminated the practicality of nuclear warfare in the eyes of the public, policy makers, and high-ranking military personnel. In short, humanities deadliest weapon became a catalyst for cooperation and stability after the late 1960’s.

As tense as the Cold War was, policy makers at the time conducted their political strategies with great care and understanding. This is a polar opposite to today’s nuclear spectrum as leaders tend to be reckless, hubris driven, and degrade the very agreements that had brought so much stability and bilateral cooperation between states. For example, Vladimir Putin had unveiled a new arsenal of nuclear and non-nuclear weaponry in early March of 2018 at the Annual Presidential Address to the Russian Federal Assembly.

The New Hypersonic missile Sarmat

Theoretically, these next generation weapons displayed at the address would be able to bypass any current defense system and are similar to weapons being developed by the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Putin has insisted time and time again that the new threats these weapons pose would force Washington to listen to Moscow’s needs as Putin stated “nobody wanted to talk to us about the core of the problem, and nobody wanted to listen to us. So, listen now.” To further prove his point, Putin presented a visual representation of the path of a hypersonic missile before reaching the target, that being the state of Florida. The message Putin was sending is clear and evident of Russia being a technologically advanced state and a force to be reckoned with. This means that their propositions must be heard and their integration into international politics is necessary, adding on that Russia will remain as a major constituent of all geopolitical events.

A short video showing new nuclear arsenal (Russia Today)

This however, created a negative reaction by the international community and the media were quick to point fingers and condemn the Russian actions in provoking an arms race. In reality, the United States of America is equally to blame for these developments. In December of 2001, President George W. Bush unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty or ABM. The terms of this treaty negotiated by the Nixon and Brezhnev Administrations in 1972 focused on the United States and the Soviet Union agreeing that each state is to have only two areas that deploy ABM’s. These two areas are so “restricted” and are to be located in such a manner that they are unable to provide statewide ABM defenses or are able to become the foundation for building one. In that sense, each state can check the other. This treaty also grants the basis for each state to have one limited ABM system to protect the capital in an event of an attack and another to protect an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile launch area (ICBM). The two locations the states choose to protect must be at least 1300 km apart in order to prevent the development of a defense zone or statewide system.

Radioactive Relations

For over 30 years the ABM Treaty functioned as the pillar of the nuclear weapon limitation process yet, Bush saw it was necessary to withdraw from the treaty to protect the United States from missile attacks from “rogue states” and so called “terrorist” organizations. To further escalate the situation, Bush had also devised a plan to add a missile defense system (MDS) in Poland and the Czech Republic. The excuse being that the defense systems would intercept missiles from Iran. For Russia, that made absolutely no sense and the Kremlin did not buy it. In practical terms, an MDS would make more sense in Turkey or Azerbaijan as proposed by Russia, both states are geographically in a better position to stop missiles from Iran.

Unfortunately, Moscow was in a weakened state and were in no position to call the United States out on its bluff and negotiate a different situation. Less than a decade later President Barack Obama followed through with Bush’s plan and placed downgraded MDS’s in Romania and Poland and NATO were also on Russia’s doorstep. This was seen by Russia as a way to delay their response against a potential NATO invasion and limit their counter attacking force. This move by the United States also disrupts the Mutually Assured Destruction Doctrine or MAD. This is based on the theory of deterrence and encompasses the threat of using “strong” weapons such as nuclear missiles against the enemy prevents the use of those same weapons. Once armed neither side has any incentive to initiate a conflict or to disarm. Basically, if both sides have nuclear weapons, the threat of using them diminishes because if one side were to initiate a nuclear attack, the other side would respond immediately and that would spell annihilation for both.

NATO Defenses against Russian Nuclear Launch

However, when Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty and Obama placed MDS in Poland and the Czech Republic the Russian policy makers warned that it would lead to a new arms race. Although the effects were not felt immediately, it has come to slowly but surely make its presence known. Putin responded to Obama’s actions by the commencement of a new program that focuses on development and deployment of new ground launched Cruise missiles that are superior to existing American ballistic missile defense systems. These actions by Moscow violated another treaty, that being the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987. This obligated the belligerents of the treaty to eliminate intermediate range and shorter-range land-based missiles such as Cruise missiles and Ballistic missiles ranging from 500 to 5500 km, along with establishing intrusive and thorough inspections.

The Russian response to NATO expansionism eastward and American hard power pushed them to place an arsenal of land-based missile systems closer to their adversaries. Especially with the annexation of Crimea and the progress made in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea was another firm power move by the Russian Federation to show that if their needs continue to be ignored, the Russians will retaliate with force. The operations in Donbass and the Middle East area are also examples of what happens when you neglect the Russians. As the U.S. placed troops in Poland and Finland, the Russians were mobilizing their own forces in Syria to support Bashar Al Assad and the Islamic Republic of Iran against Israel and the United States. The Eastern Ukraine continues to be occupied and soon more troops and missile systems will be placed in the region. This allows the Russians to be more flexible when it comes to responding to threats from the United States and its allies. The foothold in the Middle East with Iran gives it a new base that is closer to the Mediterranean along with an opportunity to establish military bases in Syria and construct land-based missile sites.

Atomic Adversaries

Moscow and Washington are locked in a stalemate, the Pentagon has expressed no interest to renegotiate the ABM Treaty and the Kremlin openly question the INF Treaty and its importance and have threatened to withdraw from it. Moreover, current U.S. President Donald J. Trump had refused an offer made by Putin to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years. This treaty aims to reduce the nuclear missiles and bombers capable of delivering such weapons by half and further implements additional inspection regiments; this is set to expire in 2021.

This is the largest and most complex nuclear treaty in history and most lawmakers in the U.S. express no interest to renegotiate or extend START. Some Republican lawmakers even argue that the U.S. should withdraw from START due to the Russian violation of the INF Treaty. In the same sense the Russians are not willing to negotiate the INF Treaty since the U.S. had broke the ABM Treaty and pursued aggressive military behavior on Russian border states. For example, imagine if the Russian Federation put troops, ABM’s and mobilized a similar NATO force on the Mexican-American border? The United States’ citizens and lawmakers would be calling for war.

The matter of the fact is while both sides argue over technicalities this stalemate undermines the nuclear arms control initiatives put in place by past administrations. As the ABM, INF and START treaties continue to deteriorate, it certainly begs the question, does Washington really want any arms controls? If you ask the lobbyists for the military industrial complex, an arms race sounds quite interesting and profitable. Some American officials even argue that the new hypersonic missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV’s) don’t fall under the parameters of Ballistic missiles and opens up lucrative opportunities for the defense industry.

These two states must glance to the past and learn from the mistakes of the Cold War in order to avoid a colder future. With that being said, both states, now more than ever, must renegotiate current and past nuclear treaties, including the INF, ABM and New START treaties. The Americans must also realize that constant NATO aggression will only continue to provoke Russia and must reassess their European strategies; as the old saying goes -a cornered animal, is the most dangerous one. If Russia continues to be pushed to the limit, they have no choice but to either yield or retaliate and the latter is much more likely than the former. As the old Cold War saying goes “If you don’t take care of nuclear weapons, they will take care of you.”