The United States has declared its intention to rescind unilaterally one of the landmark treaties that helped end the Cold War. The 1987 agreement with Russia, as the then Soviet Union, ended the deployment of medium to long range nuclear missiles by Nato and the Warsaw Pact in Europe.
Signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the treaty was symbolic as well as practical: soon the ideological war between east and west would also end, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of communism and the abolition of the USSR. It was an epoch-making accord.
Now it is to be torn up.
“Trust but verify” was the approach taken by the Americans at the time, especially by President Reagan. It was in fact an old Russian proverb, which, it was thought, would help endear the president to the other side if he adopted it as a sound bite. It also appealed to cautious defence hawks in congress back home. It was necessary because for four decades neither side believed a word the other side said, and with good reason. We seem to be back there again.
The problem with the INF treaty today is that there is so little trust left, and seemingly little agreed verification of either side’s activities. It may be true, as President Trump claims, that the Russians have been cheating, developing new nuclear missiles covertly. However, the correct response should have surely been to call that out, to push for proper international inspections and to engage in a more gradual escalation of threats. For what it is worth, the British should be restraining America, rather than standing “resolute” as defence secretary Gavin Williamson says.
If Russia is obliged to verify, then they should try and hold them to it first through tough diplomacy – not walking away. Best of all would have been to remind the Russians quietly that the west will always be able to outspend them in armaments, and probably possess an advantage in the quality and reliability of its technology.
After all, the Soviet Union essentially lost the Cold War and threw in the towel by signing weapons treaties simply because it couldn’t keep up with the US defence budget. The attempt to do so merely impoverished Russia’s citizens. The already inefficient Soviet economy was pushed to the brink of collapse as huge sums were spent on weapons and ever less on the welfare of the people.
It was a vastly wasteful economic war being waged on both sides, as well as threatening a third world war. It had to stop. In a new arms race, the west will win once again for the very same reason of economic superiority (although this time round the Europeans will pay more of the bills).
More worrying, trust between east and west has evaporated virtually everywhere.
As in the first Cold War, there is the enthusiastic pursuit of espionage. There is also a new willingness to interfere in other countries’ affairs, including elections. There are, once again, proxy civil wars fought by others on America and Russia’s behalf, or on behalf of their allies, in impoverished lands – Yemen, Iraq and Syria rather than Vietnam, Korea or Angola long ago. There is generally more hostile rhetoric and old style great power rivalry, bombastic inflation of events such as the Russian Olympics, the posturing at the UN and so on.
The Russians are engaged in a campaign of territorial expansion once more, pushing at the Baltic states and the EU where it sees weakness. The digital age has brought new channels of cyber warfare and surveillance. Russians now use the chemical weapons the USSR stockpiled on the streets of Britain.
At home, too, Russia has returned to an internal culture of repression and authoritarianism. It has not (yet) regressed to full-on paranoid Stalinism, but it is developing its own modern brand of near dictatorship, which we might term Putinism. It retains some of the trappings and features of democracy, and some of its reality, but there is no realistic challenge possible towards this regime. It is smarter and less brutal than its antecedents, but no less ruthless.
The only odd thing in this grim recession of international relations – the rebirth of history in Francis Fukuyama terms – is how it meshes with the notion that Donald Trump is supposed to be some sort of Russian stooge. It is a genuine puzzle, wrapped in an enigma. During his election campaign, Mr Trump happily declared that it was Hillary Clinton and not he who wanted to provoke war with Russia for no good reason. Then came the allegations of Kremlin collusion with the Trump campaign – plus lurid tales of “kompromat”. Trump was conjured as a sort of ultimate Russian agent of influence.
Now, though, President Trump seems to want to restart the Cold War that was won and ended by President Reagan thirty years ago. He seems far from tame. The American-Russian relationship is not only increasingly confrontational, as it has been slowly growing for many years, but simply impossible to fathom. Who would trust either side?
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies