Interview: US and Russia Have Entered a 'Phase of Enormous Danger'

The New START treaty is set to end in 2021, but no substantive nuclear arms talks are underway.

Russia has the power to destroy the US several times over, and unprecedented bipartisan hawkishness in Washington is driving the world to a precipice by blocking diplomatic talks, demonising Putin and delegitimising the system in Russia, says professor Richard Sakwa.

Sharmini Peries: It’s the Real News Network I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

On March 1, just 17 days before the presidential elections in Russia, President Vladimir Putin presented a two-hour State of the Union address to the Russian Congress, which drew a great deal of attention not only in Russia but around the world.

Part of the address focused on nuclear armament building, building weapons capable of penetrating the US weapons shields. A video that Putin showed during their address has gone viral, causing some euphoria in military industries who are anticipating lucrative business contracts. Now the question is, was that speech a provocation for sparking another arms race with the US or was it an attempt to get reelected, merely a campaign speech? On to talk about this with me is Richard Sakwa. He is professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent, and an associate fellow of Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House. He has written extensively on Russia. His most recent book is Russia Against the Rest: Pluralism and Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order.” Thank you so much for joining me, Richard.

Richard Sakwa: My pleasure.

SP: Richard, now, Putin dedicated much of the speech to expressing his disappointment with the lack of US adherence to international disarmament treaties. Let’s have a look.

Vladimir Putin: In 2000, the United States told us about its plans to withdraw from the ABM treaty. Russia objected to this categorically. We believe that the treaty, the ABM 1972 treaty, was a cornerstone in the international security architecture. According to this treaty both sides was entitled to have in just one area protected against missile attack. Russia deployed this system around Moscow, and the US around Grand Forks. We’ve signed the new START treaty in 2010 between Russia and the United States on further reductions of strategic offensive arms. Yet when implementing these plans to build the global missile defense systems, all the agreements that we achieved as part of the new START treaty were undermined and devalued. I will only say that all this work has been conducted by us within the limits of current arms control treaties. We’re not violating anything. And I’d like to emphasise specifically that this military power is not to threaten anybody. We have no plans, either we have ever had plans to be an aggressor.

SP: All right, Richard, so I guess the question is, how factual are these complaints that Putin has against the US and US not adhering to certain agreements and treaties? And then of course, then, what is the counterclaim he’s making, which is that Russia has not violated any of these treaties? Your take on all of this.

RS: Yes. I mean, it was quite an important speech. It was two hours long. The first two-thirds were devoted to domestic matters. Butter, if you like. But then the last third was talking about these amazing new weapons, these superweapons. Mostly nuclear, but also laser and some other stuff.

So his basic argument was that the United States left, it announced in December 2001 that it would be leaving the Antiballistic Missile Treaty signed in 1972. And in June 2002 the United States left it. So in that speech, Putin said, and in later interviews, he said there will be no new arms race, because Russia responded by it to this action by developing these weapons. According to him, most of them have been tested. Some of them, like the Salmat, which is this huge rocket which can, with its massive payload which is almost detectable, he argues, with a payload of 10 multiple independent missiles, each ten times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So they’ve got them, they say. There is no need to have an arms race.

He also argued that the United States leaving the ABM treaty was fundamentally destabilising because it was a cornerstone of deterrence. The idea is that no first strike would get away without a punishment, because obviously they goal for nuclear planners is to be able to deliver a devastating blow to which the enemy to which the enemy cannot respond. So Russia did respond. They’ve done it. So there’s no need to enter into another race.

More than that, he in later interviews, and fact in this one touched on it to say that the events in Ukraine, their taking over Crimea, was almost primarily connected with this action, the United States abrogation of the ABM Treaty. So this is enormous. So you’re absolutely right to be discussing it at this point. It means that we’ve entered into a whole new territory. That’s the Russian argument, that the United States that destabilised nuclear arms treaties and so on by doing, by withdrawing.

So on the other side, of course, the United States accuses Russia of having infringed the various agreements that, in particular, the 1987 intermediate nuclear forces one, though the United States has never actually identified or told publicly what they have in mind. There’s a number of candidates. So the debate continues, and all of that. I think the big picture is that we’ve now entered an epoch of nuclear instability. Nuclear deterrence has been a cornerstone in the Cold War of strategic stability. Now we’re entering a phase of enormous danger with the basic new START treaty which you mentioned, signed in 2010, due to end in 2021.

So I mean, it couldn’t be more dangerous. The United States has announced that under Obama and then confirmed by Trump a one trillion dollar modernisation of its nuclear weapons. So in short, we’re in a new nuclear age in which there is for the first time since the, well, certainly the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, in which there are no serious substantive nuclear arms talks.

SP: Speaking of nuclear arms talks, shortly after President Vladimir Putin won the election last Sunday, President Trump did phone him to congratulate him. And according to the White House he also mentioned needing to meet over nuclear weapons, and, and so forth. So do you think this is a good move in the right direction, and what might be of concern and on the agenda at such a meeting?

RS: As to him phoning Putin after his victory, it was exactly the right thing to do. I know this probably won’t be very popular with some of your listeners, but one has to say that in relations with Russia, Trump’s instincts are, or let’s call it intuition and instinct, are the correct ones. That between superpowers, especially the only one, Russia that is, with the power to destroy the United States several times over, that you have to maintain diplomatic channels. You have to talk. There has to be dialogue.

Instead of which, it seems that, let’s put it this way, that the traditional Republicans, the absolute hawks, the McCains, the Lindsey Grahams, all the others, Mitt Romneys allied with the liberal internationalists, the Clintonians, the Hillary Clintonians, and so on, are driving the world to the precipice, to unprecedented dangers, by blocking debate, by demonizing Putin, by delegitimating the system in Russia, by denigrating its actions and foreign policy, which each of, we can discuss them separately, have a logic and in many ways many people would actually say intervention in Syria and other actions are quite logical and the only sensible actions in the circumstance.

So Trump, in short, in telephoning to congratulate Putin showed a degree of statesmanship which is lacking amongst the traditional Republicans and in most part a large part of the Democratic Party.

SP: Now, Richard, you said something very interesting earlier in this answer, that Russia has the capability to destroy the United States several times over. Justify that remark.

RS: Well, just simply by the fact that even though the START treaty reduced the number of nuclear weapons, there’s vast arsenals on both sides, the United States and Russia, including the basic nuclear tour that Putin announced on the 1st of March, basically rendered the land-based, silo-based nuclear missiles the United States have, basically they are now useless. But they could be destroyed, easily. Obviously the United States has got submarine-launched weapons and aircraft-based ones. So obviously, China has obviously got nuclear weapons as well. But the U.S. and Russia have basically parity, an even number of weapons across all three major platforms.


SP: It’s the Real News Network. And welcome back to my conversation with Richard Sakwa. Richard Sakwa is Professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent and an associate fellow of Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House. He has written extensively on Russia, and his most recent book is Russia Against the Rest: Pluralism and Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order. Thanks again for joining me, Richard.

RS: My pleasure.

SP: Richard, James Cameron wrote in The Washington Post that some of the capabilities described in Putin’s speech newly unveiled in that video were somewhat outdated and unrealistic and exaggerated. That suggests that Putin is using this opportunity where he might have the world’s attention to promote Russian arms in order to support the Russian arms industry at a time when the Russian economy is struggling. Now, Russia is the world’s second-largest weapons exporter after the US, but how important is the arms industry to the Russian economy, and do you believe that Putin was actually trying to do that?

RS: No. I think the second part is completely false. I don’t think Putin needed to puff up the Russian defence industry. It’s the world’s second largest armament sales, but even that’s not so important. Last year agrifood exports were of much greater value than arms exports.

As for the first part, I think that Putin’s announcement certainly deserves to be scrutinised very carefully, because these weapons are absolutely amazing superweapons if they exist. Putin has been questioned a few times since then on these issues. He has made clear that these are not completely speculative, that work has been continuing since the US left the ABM Treaty in 2002. And of course, another thing which he’s talking is the attempt of the United States to build an antiballistic system, ballistic missile defence, in Poland, Romania, Alaska and elsewhere.

So these weapons, Putin is saying, they are indestructible. We do know that the Salmat missile, which is a huge missile to replace what the West called SS18s, the Satan missile, we know that it’s been tested 60 times and it’s been deployed. And this is one which is much lighter, it’s got a new type of fuel, and it goes so fast that it goes straight up into the stratosphere at hypersonic speed. And therefore when it comes back down it could hit ten different nuclear missile sites of the United States, quite apart from cities and so on.

So each of the specific items Putin mentioned needs to be examined, I think, quite clearly. But I think that only now some genuine expert nuclear scientists and so on in the United States, even they’re now beginning to understand that what Putin was talking about is a game changer.

But can I just, just one other thing. And it was in your clip that Putin says, this is not designed to threaten anyone. It’s not an attempt at blackmail, it’s not an attempt to be aggressive. In fact, quite the opposite. If you recall the famous phrase in his speech we tried to talk to you then. You weren’t listening. Now listen to us. So in other words, it was quite a pacific speech. It was a call for dialogue, a call for engagement, and even another terrible word in the Washington lexicon today, the word diplomacy.

I know that London and Washington have forgotten this word. But I think diplomacy is when you have differences with a protagonist, but you talk. And I will say, we now look back to the years of Nixon, I know not exactly the most popular US president, even Reagan, who understood the importance of engagement. Unfortunately, the only one who understands that today in Washington, it seems the only one, is Donald Trump himself. And of course we know the vast powers arrayed against him to block any dialogue, or any basically egging him on to even crazier activities, when I think sensible policies will say to talk, just to talk to Moscow, does not mean collusion, doesn’t mean that Putin has some strange magical hold over Trump. In fact, looking at all of this collusion talk over from the United Kingdom, it’s certainly, one has to say, what collective madness has seized so much of the US establishment.

SP: Richard, on that point about Putin’s repeated assurances that Russia is not threatening, this is not meant to be a threatening statement. In light of the fact that Russia is actually militarily involved currently in the Ukraine and Syria, in the Northern Caucasus. How could this be taken out of that context? Is he just referring to the United States and the West here in terms of not threatening, and excluding these other military involvements of Russia?

RS: Yes. So just take those in turn. There is so much myth about the war of 2008, the Russo-Georgian war. Don’t forget that Medvedev was the time. And he repeatedly warned Mikheil Saakashvili, the president, don’t attack South Ossetia.

And as you know, in the evening of the 7th of August 2008, 10000 Georgian troops entered South Ossetia and bombarded the capital. Russia then responded, perhaps disproportionately, in then occupying part of territory of Georgia, and then recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, just as the United States had done a few months earlier for Kosovo. So you could take new things out of context.

Second, Ukraine. Of course it’s tragic, the whole thing is tragic, no question about it. That it was a symptom, though, of the breakdown of a European security order. As I said, Putin said, our main reason to intervene was the prior United States leaving the ABM Treaty. So it’s tragic of course. Crimea, still, I’ve just come back from Moscow. People are saying that Russian intervention averted bloodshed and terrible, so which, obviously it would have been tough for Crimeans since 1991 and their referendum in January of that year. Clearly wanted to be a special status if not something more.

As for the Donbass, Russia intervened twice. This was at the Battle of Luhansk in August 2014, and then again in 2015 at the Battle of [inaudible]. Of course it’s supporting, helping the insurgents, the People’s Republic. So again, you have to see it in context. It’s nothing like the Baltic republics of 1940-44. And again, in Syria. United States policy was aimless. It was supporting the radical Islamic Sunni insurgency via Saudi Arabia and others supporting these people. So it was running with the hounds and running, walking with the forces, or what have you. It was a totally incoherent policy.

Russia intervened on the 30th of September 2015, and very shortly it’s achieving a solution. No good sides at all in this war, of course. But let’s put an end to, the Syrian people are suffering. I heard something even more disturbing the other day, that in December last year, December 2017, then a number of journalists were in Washington, and they couldn’t quite understand what the defence and other security people were saying. We now know that the United States will not allow Russia to have what would be a victory, or perceived as a victory, in Syria. In other words, to try to allow the legitimate government, however you may find it odious or not, the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad to try to stop places like Eastern Ghouta, shelling Damascus or western Aleppo, two-thirds remained in government, which were being shelled from eastern Aleppo, which Russia liberated, and I’ll use that word, a couple of years back.

Russia, then, has tried several peace projects. They started on negotiations. The United States has refused to help and endorse peace. Yes, it sent an observer at the beginning. In other words, not to allow Russia to be even seen to have a little victory the United States is willing to perpetuate a war of monstrous savagery in Syria. And therefore intermediately, then, supported the YPG. One-third of Syria, including the oil fields, have effectively split away. The battle at [inaudible] is all a symptom of this. Yes, I know on the ground there is some talk between the United States and Russia, and I’m glad to hear that.

But on the whole, strategically, the United States is willing to perpetuate the war in Syria another 5, 10 years. In other words, to make it another Afghanistan where, you know, there’s absolutely no sense of what the United States is doing. It had peace talks with the leader of the Taliban, and then 15 months ago that person talking was killed by the United States. When I asked U.S. officials, why did you do that? Well, we have the opportunity to do that. But you’ve just snatched away the possibility of peace. Of finally bringing a touch of peace to that terrible, terrible land where the United States has been waging a war for 15 years. Come on, 15 years. When will it end? When will the U.S. public, when will the people stand up and say come on, let’s find a way through it, and working with partners. The United States could not unilaterally impose anything other than war and destruction in Afghanistan, and it looks like it can do the same in Syria.

SP: Now, Richard, in your article in The Guardian from almost a year ago with the title ‘Russia’s 1989 plea for a new world order was rejected, and so Putinism was born.’ So here we are going to another into another phase of Putinism, another six-year presidency. And in that article you explain that US and NATO, by insisting on holding on to their hegemony, have pushed Russia into a position of resistance. Does Putin’s speech confirm your diagnosis further, and the situations you’ve just described in this interview confirmation of that?

RS: In my view, 100 percent. We had a unique opportunity in 1989 at the end of the Cold War to establish an inclusive, what Russia calls, Moscow calls, an indivisible security order, instead of which we had a system which, you know, had plenty of good sides to it. The Atlantic power system, the US-led liberal international order, you know, all these are important elements. But anybody who has studied international politics understands that any attempt to establish a single hegemony will provoke resistance.

Today we’re seeing the alignment of Russia and China. Not, it’s not, I hope, and I certainly argue against it being anti-Western let alone anti-American. No, that’s not the point. It’s simply saying that, you know, there has to be balance. The United States has to work with partners. As I keep saying, it used to be called diplomacy. Work with partners to solve problems, instead of which we have the United States still trying to cling on to its vision of a 1989 world where it was the single massive unipolar, unipower, hyperpower, as the French call it. Russia and China argued that this historical West could have been transformed by bringing Russia into it, and Russia’s membership of this community would have made it a greater West. A greater West in which Russia then would have worked in partnership to solve its domestic problems which, as you’ve alluded to, are huge. Economic governance, corruption, and so many issues which need to be dealt with. Instead of which we’ve ended up into a very divided world.

So I think my analysis, unfortunately, it’s clear with a difference now that this Russian-Chinese alignment, with Xi Jinping, set to rule beyond the normal two terms, there is a long-term power shift going on. And I’m afraid it’s not to the United States’s benefit. Though ideally, it should be not to its harm if policymakers in the United States could come, in my view, to their senses and try to find a more cooperative way of working.

SP: All right, Richard. I thank you so much for your analysis here. Very remarkable, the breadth of issues you dealt with in this interview. I thank you so much for joining us today.

RS: My pleasure, thank you.

SP: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.

This article originally appeared on the Real News