Yesterday’s op-ed in the New York Times by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Secretary of State George Schultz (“How to Build on the START Treaty”) is an example of how arms control thinking can run amok. The two former U.S. government officials start by proposing some logical, if controversial, goals for the next round of talks: significantly greater arms reductions, reductions in tactical nuclear weapons and dismantlement of some fraction of the weapons currently held in reserve.
But, there is a problem. According to the two authors, “…our discussions with Russian colleagues, including senior government officials, suggest that such a next step would be very difficult for them. Part of the reason for their reluctance to accept further reductions is that Russia considers itself to be encircled by hostile forces in Europe and in Asia. Another part results from the significant asymmetry between United States and Russian conventional military forces.”
This is stunning news. Nearly twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, thirteen years after being invited to join the G-8, more than a year into the Obama Administration and in the aftermath of the signing of a new START Treaty, Russia considers itself to be encircled by hostile forces! Of whom are they fearful? European NATO, that spends on average 2 percent of GDP on defense and would freeze in the winter without Russian natural gas? China, with whom Russia formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and to whom Moscow has sold billions of dollars of weapons systems? Iran, the country that continues to benefit from Russian nuclear know-how? Japan, which constitutionally constrains the offensive role of its Armed Forces? Or perhaps Canada, who might launch an invasion of Siberia across the increasingly open waters of the Arctic?
As the two authors know well, the encirclement thesis is an old Soviet era myth intended to justify the militarization of the Russian economy and the repression of the Russian people. It is not surprising that a government still headed by Vladimir Putin, who once described the fall of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, would feel itself in need of resorting to this hoary canard. Rather than being threatened by other countries, it is Russia that is doing the threatening. In recent years, Moscow has sent strategic bombers to penetrate NATO airspace, nuclear submarines to patrol off the U.S.’s eastern shores, and missile-armed warships to Venezuela. It is Russia that has sought to undermine the stability of its neighbors be it Kaliningrad, Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltic states or Kyrgystan.
What is even more stunning is that these two U.S. senior statesmen think that it is important for the United States to act as if the paranoid utterances of Russian officials were valid. They write that “For these reasons, we believe that the next round of negotiations with Russia should not focus solely on nuclear disarmament issues. These talks should encompass missile defense, Russia’s relations with NATO, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, North Korea, Iran and Asian security issues.” So it’s back to the Cold War world in which the two superpowers negotiate the fate of all the other nations. Except, of course, there is only one superpower and one “sick man of Europe” trying to steal back its lost power by an attempt at blackmail.
What they fail to appreciate, or chose to ignore, is that Moscow sees its nuclear weapons as a trump card that will earn back that country’s erstwhile superpower status. In effect they want to permit Russia to determine the global security architecture in return for dismantlement of a few nuclear weapons. Secretaries Perry and Shultz are being played and have bought into Moscow’s con game. We can only hope that the current secretaries of defense and state are less gullible.
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