In his interview with Reuters last week (the evening of February 23), Trump displayed the employment of an interesting tactic to the issues he was asked to comment on. The tone of the president’s answers had as a backdrop repeated mentions that he is just one month into his term and precious time was wasted by the previous administration in taking a stance on various very important dossiers, that there are things that must necessarily be done, but they are known only now when they are revealed by him etc.
The interview is full of phrases the likes of: “We’re very angry at what he’s done, and frankly this should have been taken care of during the Obama administration” (on North Korea and this state’s recent nuclear assertiveness); “Many things took place that should not have been allowed. One of them is the building of a massive, you know, massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea. And don’t forget I’ve only been here for four weeks” (on the South China Sea and the Chinese military assets deployed there); “We have the right to do a lot of things that I haven’t done yet. We have a lot of rights that people don’t know about and they never did know about until I came along”; (on building the wall on the border with Mexico); “The regulations in this country are out of control. And it makes it hard for businesses to even open in the United States. We’re going to get rid of a lot of the unnecessary regulations” (on corporate taxes) etc.
Such a tactical approach – “I have to do what wasn’t done” or “I must fix things that were done poorly” and “there are many things to fix and I’ve just took office four weeks ago” – must be accepted as being employed in what concerns the dossier of bilateral relations with Russia too. It’s just that, in this case, defined as being “bad” was the 2010 strategic arms reductions treaty, which formed the basis of the Obama administration’s “reset policy” which ended with the Ukraine crisis of 2013-2014.
And, from this standpoint, what catches the eye is the fact that D. Trump is referring to the thorniest issue in Russian-American bilateral relations, which for Moscow is the issue of strategic arms. At the end of March 2016, when John Kerry, the head of American diplomacy, was in Moscow, this issue raised by the Russians fell on deaf ears and remained unaddressed. On the contrary, the lifting of sanctions enforced by the U.S. and the West for Russia’s destabilisation of Donbass was found as the way to hasten a joint action to put an end to the civil war in Syria. Now, in Trump’s view, the nuclear parity dossier is the most important and Moscow’s expectations are thus answered.
As known, while signing the “New START” treaty in April 2010, Russia filed a written exception, namely that it considers itself not bound by the obligations of this agreement as long as the U.S. is building the anti-ballistic missile shield in states located close to its own borders and is threatening the strategic nuclear parity (the missile shield in Europe, including its elements in Romania, Moscow claims, could strike the Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles that would be launched toward the U.S. in case of nuclear war). To this exception, the U.S. responded by filing its own, also included in the treaty, namely that “New START” stipulations cannot prevent it from building the U.S. global anti-ballistic missile shield. So, it’s clear that, leaving aside other aspects of the bilateral relationship, such as the sanctions in the Ukrainian dossier or the short-term developments in the Syrian civil war, Trump is addressing the most sensitive issue of the relationship with Russia.
The issue of maintaining the strategic balance between the two great states is a very sensitive issue for Moscow, because this way it imposes itself as the equal of the U.S. in the overall international system, just like the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. That things are so is proven by the very recent fact that Russia took the initiative to deploy cruise missile systems (with nuclear warheads if needed) in locations not allowed by the 1987 treaty currently in force (so dating back from the Cold War), precisely to force a negotiation of the dossier in which it is vitally interested. And the signal sent by Moscow received the affirmative answer from Washington. In fact, Russia did not limit itself solely to the already mentioned diplomatic requests, as was the case in March 2016, but resorted to the solid argument of deteriorating the strategic stability in Europe by deploying ground-based launchers of cruise missiles (with a range of 5,500 km), which is illegal according to the agreements between Moscow and Washington.
The Soviet-American INF Treaty (1987), signed by R. Reagan and M. Gorbachev, forbids the deployment of ground-based cruise missile launchers, but allows the deployment of sea-based launchers in adjacent seas (such as the Black, Baltic, Mediterranean or Caspian Seas). Similarly, as a means of pressuring the U.S., Moscow raised the issue of abrogating this treaty, just as it did in October 2016, in the midst of the U.S. presidential campaign but also of an anti-Russia wave in the American public opinion, when Russian television broadcasters discussed with experts this crucial aspect of bilateral relations. NYT, which was the first to inform about the new Russian strategic cruise missile deployments, in an article published in February this year, pointed out that two Russian battalions equipped with such strategic arms carried by road-mobile launchers were identified (some of them difficult to identify because they use the same launchers as the Iskander missile systems, which are legal range-wise, having ranges up to 500 km).
According to the American newspaper, one of the locations is Kapustin Yar, near Volgograd, and another is in central Russia. Such developments are very dangerous for European strategic stability and require an American response to match it, and one of the proposals publicly heard in Washington consists of the rebuilding of the nuclear arsenal in Europe, today deemed insufficient (200 air-launched nuclear bombs). Such a response is costly and has the unfortunate consequence of relaunching the strategic arms race. We should add to this the fact that Moscow is asking for the negotiation of strategic stability in Europe while mentioning solely the U.S. as a partner, not the other nuclear powers on the Old Continent, something that is certainly perceived in the European capitals concerned.
As early as two years ago (2014), in the context of the accelerated developments in the crisis in Ukraine, U.S. Defence Secretary A. Carter warned about Russia’s violations of the 1987 treaty, informing Congress that these are closely linked to Moscow’s strategy aiming at the strategic balance in Europe, namely “of relying on nuclear weapons to offset U.S. and NATO conventional superiority.” European stability continues to be extremely important for global stability.
The nuclear competition between the two powers responsible with upholding global stability is extremely dangerous, and its peaceful solving requires extremely hard negotiations. Their result could be “deals,” which in Trump’s view could be characterised as “good” in contrast to previous ones, but what this would mean would not be known at all beyond the negotiators. Maybe they are what some analysts are calling a great “Deal” which is even thought to have already been concluded between Trump and Putin (Anne Applebaum). At any rate, the consequences of Trump’s signal that there is the need to correct what he labelled as being “bad” for the U.S. in the New START (2010) must be followed with utmost attention by all of Europe’s states.