Towards a new cold war?

Hany Ghoraba
Saturday 10 Mar 2018

As tensions between the US and Russia continue, there is a real danger that the world may be entering a new period of cold war between the superpowers

The global struggle for domination between the US and Russia is not a novelty or a temporary state of conflict. This struggle has been ongoing for seven decades with short periods of dormancy.

However, strong words and the exchange of accusations between the two superpowers are now reaching alarming new heights, with Russian President Vladimir Putin bragging about the development of new Russian nuclear inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to counter the US redeployment of nuclear missiles in Europe.

Putin declared on 28 February that his country had tested an array of new-generation hypersonic nuclear ICBMs and cruise missiles called “Sarmat” and “Avantgarde”.

The cutting-edge Sarmat RS 28 missile, referred to by NATO as the SS-30 Satan 2, is capable of carrying 10 heavy warheads or 15 lighter ones with an “unlimited” range, according to the Russian president’s statement.

The new RS 25 “Avantgarde” nuclear missile is capable of travelling at speeds reaching Mach 20, or 20 times the speed of sound. It has been described as “unstoppable”, as it can render all known anti-missile defence systems obsolete since most of these respond to missiles of a maximum speed of Mach 8, as in the case of US THAAD defence system.

Other weapons announced by Russia include underwater drones capable of launching nuclear missiles.

The shocking development of these new weapons announced by the Russian president may ignite a new arms race similar to that between the US and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, but with even more devastating capabilities.

Putin’s speech was delivered in the same month as the US Pentagon announced a new nuclear policy that includes the introduction of low-yield nuclear weapons launched on ballistic missiles from submarines in an attempt to match Russian capabilities.

The Pentagon announcement said that “our strategy will ensure that Russia understands that any use of nuclear weapons, however limited, is unacceptable.”

The policy is an outcome of US President Donald Trump’s vow to develop a strong US nuclear arsenal to deter any future aggression.

The developments were exacerbated by a statement by the Russian foreign minister that the US military was preparing the militaries of the European states to use tactical nuclear weapons against Russia.

The two superpowers already possess 90 per cent of the known nuclear warheads in the world, with Russia having around 7,000 and America 6,800.

However, Russian delivery methods and capabilities excel those of the Americans in terms of speed and payload, while the Americans have excelled in their missile-distribution capabilities with the ability to launch them at Russian targets from countries including the US European and Asian allies.

Putin said in his announcement that the new Russian weapons did not violate any international agreements and that they had been developed in order to maintain the balance of power in response to US actions. But this does not stop a new arms race from looming on the horizon that has not been caused by such announcements.

The reason for this alarming news is that the US, which has the highest military budget in the world, is continuing on its path towards further military expenditure, with the US Department of Defense requesting the huge sum of $686 billion in the 2018 budget.

This is a whopping 4.7 per cent jump from the 2017 budget, and it is said that the extra expenditure will be focused on missile-defence systems and naval expansion.

The traditional response among US politicians to such alarming developments is to pass new bills calling for sanctions against Russia, even though these never actually work.

They rarely work against small developing countries, let alone against a nuclear superpower with devastating capabilities that match those of the US.

Instead of passing such new sanctions, the US would be better off developing more efficient negotiations with the Russians on how to stop the alarming nuclear arms race and simultaneously diffuse the escalating situations in the world’s conflict zones, where US and Russian interests are on a collision course.

These conflict zones include Syria, the Korean Peninsula, Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

The policies of both nations have exacerbated the above-mentioned conflicts in these countries, as the warring factions in them tend to fight proxy wars on behalf of their superpower masters, thus prolonging the conflicts.

While there is nothing new about the conflict of the superpowers, there is no prediction on how far these conflicts may develop in the future. Some pundits may argue that these developments are nothing but business as usual when it comes to the turbulent history of relations between the two countries.

However, the alarming announcement of further nuclear weapons development and testing may take matters to a different level should the countries’ leaderships refrain from restraint and engage in provocation.

Many Americans see Putin as their country’s enemy and hope for the day when he will be ousted or leave power, believing that this will make the world a better place.

However, this naïve hope could not be further from the truth, as should Putin leave office he will be unlikely to be replaced by a Russian liberal politician despite the hopes of many.

The chance that he is more likely to be replaced by a Russian having an ultra-nationalist military background is a real one, and such a president is unlikely to show the compromises or willingness to negotiate associated with the pragmatism of Putin.

With a lot at stake as a result of the recent developments, initiatives to de-escalate the situation between the two superpowers should be at the top of the world’s priorities, as the planet braces itself for further exchanges of threats and fear-mongering between the superpowers.

These threats are once again heating up a Cold War that lasted for decades, and action by other powers is now imperative to render it cold again.

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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