Cold War Redux?

The United States and Russia — still possessing by far the biggest arsenals of mass destruction — are both threatening to tear up the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. Both are threatening to pursue development and possible deployment of such missiles. In short, the kind of nuclear conflagration that hung so dangerously over both nations and the rest of the world for decades could now see a resurgence.

But why?

With INF and other treaties in place, there has been a welcome respite from the superpower tensions of the post-World War II period. Both sides have scaled down their nuclear forces significantly and have acted cooperatively to stem proliferation to other countries.

It seems like madness to start all over again. The Cold War was based on an historic struggle between the free world and the communist world. Ideological differences were real; the Soviet Union was in fact dedicated to world domination, and the West had to be prepared to defend its way of life.

Russia is no longer communist, and is no longer in a death struggle with the West over whose system shall prevail.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the weekend explained that the U.S. will formally withdraw from INF, effective in six months, because Russia’s “continued noncompliance has jeopardized the United States’ supreme interests.” Unless Moscow returns to “full and verifiable compliance,” a perilous new phase opens up.

For all its disharmony with Europe in recent months, this time they’re on the same page. The Trump administration has the explicit backing of NATO.

As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put it in a tweet, “Russia is in material breach of the INF Treaty & must use next 6 months to return to full & verifiable compliance or bear sole responsibility for its demise. NATO fully supports the US suspension & notification of withdrawal from the Treaty.”

The statement is surprising. One has come to expect only anti-American sentiment from Europe, evasion of Iran sanctions, and so forth. Especially because Europe is the region most at risk from deployment of these weapons, and would presumably be most eager to placate Moscow, such a forthright position makes Washington’s stance infinitely more credible.

On a diplomatic level that’s very useful, amid Russian denials of non-compliance and accusations that America has secretly been in violation of the INF. It’s not just Trump’s word against Putin’s word.

Why should Vladimir Putin want a nuclear arms race? It has been suggested that Russia has been violating the treaty because it can’t compete with U.S. naval and air forces, where restrictions like INF do not apply. So it seeks a way out in order to expand its land-based forces.

“Russia’s armed forces are, at heart, an artillery and tank force with limited capacity to field cruise missiles on ships or submarines and a shrinking strategic bomber force,” according to Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military. Like the United States, Russia is wary of other foreign powers, particularly China, that are unconstrained by the INF Treaty and growing their stockpiles of mid-range weapons.

Or Russia’s belligerence is a grandstanding maneuver by Putin to enhance his power and influence, with no real intention to revive the Cold War.

His pledge that “Russia will not station intermediate-range weapons in Europe or other regions until similar U.S. weapons appear in those regions” may be an indication of that. Not that we can believe anything he promises, but at least it offers some hope that he will not act precipitously.

In the meantime, there is a six-month window in which the United States and Russia can try to find a way out of this impasse. All realize the stakes involved, and there is reason to be hopeful that a way can be found.

Even in the event that the INF treaty is dissolved, that in itself would not mean disaster. These written agreements, however much painful negotiation and prestige were invested in them, are in the final analysis only as useful as the integrity of the signatories, and their goodwill in carrying them out. As the present situation shows.

If both sides are committed to maintaining the status quo, even without a formal treaty, that could suffice for an indefinite interim period.

Still, the dangers of an open-ended rift without any commitment, written or verbal, could plunge the world once again into the madness of a nuclear arms race — the madness of a Cold War without even a Cold War rationale.

But with knowledge that Hashem — not Donald Trump and not Vladimir Putin — runs the world, we can daven for His rachamim and a world at peace.