When the world came to its closest point of nuclear annihilation in October 1962, the leaders of the two superpowers, the US and the former Soviet Union, realised that steps had to be taken to eradicate the threat of igniting a nuclear Armageddon by either of them.
Despite averting the threat in 1962 after the 13 days of the Cuban Missiles Crisis which had seen the Russians placing nuclear missiles in Cuba only 40km from American shores, the nuclear arms race did not stop there but continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s until US president Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 1987 that banned the deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles from the European theatre by the US and the former Soviet Union.
The treaty represented a cornerstone of European security as it helped to diffuse the tensions in Europe between the US and its European allies and the Soviets and their Eastern European allies.
More recently, US President Donald Trump has been complaining about this treaty, claiming that the Russians, the successors to the former Soviet Union, have been breaking it for years and that they and the Chinese have not signed updated treaties with the US.
If they do not do so, Trump has said, the US will withdraw from the INF Treaty and vastly increase its nuclear arsenal.
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin has called Trump’s bluff and stated that if the Americans withdraw from the treaty and redeploy their nuclear missiles in Europe, the Russians will do the same and could even take harsher measures.
This exchange of threats could not have come at a worse time in the world’s already tense political and economic climate.
Trump, well known for his unscripted statements that are later diluted and re-explained by his aides, has been direct this time in his threats.
He has previously pulled the US out from a number of other long-standing treaties, including membership of the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal.
Accordingly, the chance of Trump’s pulling out from a nuclear deal with Russia is perceived to be large, and it constitutes a much larger hazard than withdrawing from the previous treaties combined.
The Russians still control one of the world’s largest and most devastating nuclear arsenals, and this has the capability of reaching any point on earth and delivering a payload that would bring about nuclear annihilation.
The threats made against the Russians by Trump have not fazed the Russian president, however, who has welcomed the challenge. Prior to Trump’s speech, Putin spoke about the Russian “code of ethics” in using nuclear weapons and reaffirmed his country’s commitment to never launching an attack on any country unless Russia was attacked first.
In making this statement, he was referring to what the US has labelled “first-strike capability”, a notion that concerned Reagan when he initiated a nuclear race with the former Soviet Union to lure it into military overspending and financial ruin.
This goal was attained, and it left the Soviet Union economically shattered and divided into 15 countries, with Russia being the main successor state.
While Trump is not wrong about the threat of Russia rebuilding its SSC-08 intermediate-range missiles, thus breaching the treaty, threatening to withdraw from it entirely without negotiation is not going to work in the US’ favour.
The picture is different from what it was in the 1980s, even as Trump has been boasting about the financial capabilities of the US and its ability to produce new nuclear weapons.
In fact, the US is facing financial hardships and is experiencing its worst-ever financial deficit, amounting to nearly $800 billion in 2018. These numbers will not support Trump in presenting his vision for a nuclear arms race when the country is descending ever deeper into debt.
Initiating a nuclear arms race at this time would be to commit the same mistake that the Russians (Soviets) once did, bringing about their own ruin while trying to match the US. This leaves the option of direct negotiations as a way of getting out of this dilemma.
US national security advisor John Bolton has recently visited Moscow and submitted an invitation to Putin to visit Washington with this apparently in mind.
It is unclear if Putin will accept the invitation in the current hostile circumstances, but this move is maybe Trump’s way of softening his earlier statements.
Trump may think that he is bluffing the Russians into getting into a nuclear arms race that they will lose, but in reality he may be falling into a trap that Putin has set, with the latter watching in amusement at how times have changed since the Reagan period.
It is now the Russians who are dictating the rules of the game and developing their SSC-08 missiles along with a new arsenal comprising RS-28 Sarmat missiles that are designed to evade US anti-missile systems, avant-garde hypersonic missiles, Poseidon underwater nuclear-capable drones, and Kinzhal hypersonic missiles.
With some of these due to enter service by 2020, the Russians are already set for further confrontations, and the Americans will need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in research to counter these new technologies if they decide to enter an arms race with the Russians.
The Americans still maintain their air, ground and sea superiority in terms of numbers and state-of-the-art military equipment, but they fall short of maintaining the same in regard to ballistic-missile superiority which is the key to many conflicts.
This will force the Americans to overspend to bridge the gap, meaning reversing Reagan’s strategy of baiting the Russians to overspend as it will be the Americans who will be overspending and thus falling into Putin’s trap.
Moreover, the rules of the nuclear arms race have changed since the 1970s and 1980s, as now the world is different from what it was at the end of the Cold War in 1991.
The rise of the European Union, China, and nuclear-capable India and Pakistan provide a different setting, and there are new challenges for any arms race should one occur.
The Russians are also readier this time round with their own set of modern nuclear weapons that surpass others in terms of speed, manoeuvrability, and payload.
The Russians are well aware that the Soviet era has passed and that the Europeans, while still wary of their power, are more willing to negotiate for peaceful coexistence than be part of a nuclear race led by Trump.
At the same time, Putin has issued clear threats to European countries willing to host the US nuclear arsenal and stressed that such countries will be targets for Russian missiles should an attack on Russia occur through them.
Putin could be expecting dissent within NATO about the US withdrawal from a treaty that is very important to European security and thus could be considering the possibility that some NATO allies may not follow Trump’s plan for escalation, driving a wedge within the NATO alliance in Russia’s favour.
Putin is well aware that despite their animosity towards Russia, the Europeans and Americans would rather not get back into an arms race, with all the consequences that this would entail for their livelihoods, economies, and security, all of which are more fragile now than they were decades ago.
The world as a whole can also certainly do without a new nuclear arms race and the dangers that it would bring to the survival of the human species.
* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: New rules for the nuclear race