Trump, Putin’s perilous Cold War rhetoric

Tension is mounting in the global arena with the sabre-rattling by the United States President, Donald Trump, and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, over alleged violation of a nuclear arms proliferation protocol between their countries, which heralded the end of the Cold War. Reason should supervene for the two leaders to backpedal. A resumption of this seemingly benign but dangerous hostility will not only undermine their countries’ interests, but will be seen as a recipe for global instability.

Both countries had signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty in 1987, which outlawed all missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometres. The treaty was one of the laudable legacies of former Soviet leader, Mikail Gorbachev, and Ronald Reagan of the US.  The agreement was a big relief to Europe, whose cities would have been at the mercy of such missiles. The Guardian of London said the treaty helped to eliminate about 2,700 of such weapons.

Without any equivocation, Trump said this month that the US would no longer honour the accord, as Russia had for too long observed it in the breach. Under Barack Obama’s Presidency, Putin was repeatedly accused of infringing on the INF, with the range of its 9M729 missile system. According to Trump, the US “will outspend and out-innovate all others by far.” This is portentous. Trump’s hard-line posturing came amid Russia’s desire to roll out a land-based version of the seaborne Kalibr system equipped with long-range cruise missile between 2019 and 2020. The Russian Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu, said the weapon had shown good results in the Syrian Civil War.

After World War II in 1945, the US and Russia continued to flex muscles in covert forms – the Cold War. It was an age of unrestrained acquisition of nuclear weapons, waging of proxy wars in regions around the world, espionage, propaganda and even unhealthy rivalry in sporting activities. The global anxiety that went with it provoked some European and North American nations to come together and form the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – a military pact for their collective protection against the Soviet threat. The Soviet Union formed and led the Warsaw Pact of Eastern European countries to confront it. The role of Russia and the US in the current Syrian debacle mirrors that discredited epoch, which Trump and Putin are craving to revive.

But such recrudescence will be telling: reduction in social spending will occur to free funds for defence and re-armament; deterioration in quality of lives of the citizenry; and the frightening possibility of the nuclear button being pressed deliberately or by accident. For instance, “between 1948 and 1989 (the Cold War period), real military purchases cumulated to a total of $7.05 trillion,” for the US, according to Independent Institute. Therefore, world leaders, especially the United Nations, cannot afford to be aloof on this matter. The moral imperative of a shared humanity should goad the world body to action; more so that it initiated a 2017 treaty, which banned nuclear weapons totally. More than 100 nations embraced it.

Before these latter nuclear agreements, there were the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty I and SALT II, which attempted to curb the obsession with nuclear weapons accumulation by the US and Russia. To pull them from the edge now would require the adoption of Latvia’s remedial construct. Its Foreign Minister, Edgars Rinkevics, while bemoaning the latest threat, said there was the need for a new multilateral nuclear treaty because “there are now more countries that can produce such weapons than 30 years ago.” The fact is obvious. Israel, India and Pakistan are among countries that spurned the Non-Proliferation Treaty in the 1970s; North Korea pulled out from that league in 2003. Iraq’s bid to acquire the weapon is at the centre of its diplomatic stand-off with the US.

Apart from the INF, the US and Russia also have the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, due to expire in 2021. It was inked by the Obama administration. Russian authorities are also accusing Trump’s government of unwillingness to continue with START II. Active and retired warheads, waiting to be destroyed are about 15,000, says the BBC, quoting the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, as against 70,000 in the 1980’s.

The reduction is remarkable. But considering that utmost secrecy guides nuclear acquisition, this figure might well not be a true reflection of the reality on the ground. Trump’s indifference to the INF and START is exacerbated by the fact that China is not within the loop; this gives it the leeway to amass nuclear weapons. For this reason, China should be part of any planned new treaty.

Nevertheless, Putin’s intransigence has made him to forget “which century he is living” in, said Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine’s independence leader, shortly after Russia annexed his country in 2014. Besides the rearmament face-off, Trump’s earlier dismissal of NATO’s significance passed a wrong message to its member-nations. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, decoded it, evident in her reminder to her fellow European leaders that only Europe could defend itself.  She called for the setting up of a supra-national military force to deal with the issue. France’s Emmanuel Macron made a similar point.

If Merkel’s counsel is taken seriously, then Britain and France might as well scale up their nuclear stocks, while other nations hindered by international obligations from acquiring nuclear weapons, may be tempted to defy them. But at a time like this, statesmanship and responsible leadership can make all the difference.