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Putin’s stern lecture to the US: you brought it on yourselves by pushing Russia around

In his State of the Nation address Putin criticises US conduct towards Russia, but says he remains open to compromise

On 8th February 2018 I wrote an article for The Duran discussing the US military’s recently published Nuclear Posture Review.

I said that this was a deeply pessimistic document, in which the US military admitted that the US’s ‘unipolar moment’ had passed, with the US once again and for the first time since the end of the Cold War facing Great Power challenges, this time from Russia and China, together with a nuclear arms race in which it is losing ground principally to Russia.

I also said in the same article that the Nuclear Posture Review shows that the US is now facing challenges not just from Russia and China – whose aggregate industrial, raw material and population resources are greater than its own – but challenges from lesser powers such as Iran, which threaten to leave its conventional military dangerously overstretched.

The result is that the US faces a looming commitments’ crisis, which is causing it to bring back low yield nuclear weapons to offset its pending inferiority in conventional forces in some theatres.

The result is a dangerous lowering of the nuclear threshold and a rapid deterioration in the US’s geostrategic position, with the US no longer facing a challenge from a single Great Power confined to a specific geographical area (north west Europe) as it did during the Cold War, but facing challenges which this time are truly global.

Lastly, I said that the US military – though lamenting the rapid deterioration of the US’s overall geostrategic position – like the rest of the US leadership, appears to be blind of the extent to which it is the US’s own actions which since the end of the Cold War have provoked the reactions from countries like Russia and China which it is now complaining about.

The result is that instead of the US looking for compromises with Russia and China, it is doubling down on the very same policies that provoked the challenges from Russia and China in the first place.

The second part of President Putin’s State of the Nation address should in fact be understood as a response to the US’s Nuclear Posture Review – Putin specifically alluded to it in his address – whilst also being a stern lecture to the US making precisely these points in an effort to try to get the US to understand where it is going wrong.

The most important section of the second part of President Putin’s address was not in his unveiling of Russia’s various new weapons systems – of which the US was already well-informed – but in his account of how things have got the point where Russia feels that it has no choice but to develop and deploy these weapons.

It is worth setting out this section of President Putin’s address in full

Now, on to the most important defence issue.

I will speak about the newest systems of Russian strategic weapons that we are creating in response to the unilateral withdrawal of the United States of America from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the practical deployment of their missile defence systems both in the US and beyond their national borders.

I would like to make a short journey into the recent past.

Back in 2000, the US announced its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Russia was categorically against this. We saw the Soviet-US ABM Treaty signed in 1972 as the cornerstone of the international security system. Under this treaty, the parties had the right to deploy ballistic missile defence systems only in one of its regions. Russia deployed these systems around Moscow, and the US around its Grand Forks land-based ICBM base.

Together with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the ABM Treaty not only created an atmosphere of trust but also prevented either party from recklessly using nuclear weapons, which would have endangered humankind, because the limited number of ballistic missile defence systems made the potential aggressor vulnerable to a response strike.

We did our best to dissuade the Americans from withdrawing from the treaty. All in vain. The US pulled out of the treaty in 2002. Even after that we tried to develop constructive dialogue with the Americans. We proposed working together in this area to ease concerns and maintain the atmosphere of trust. At one point, I thought that a compromise was possible, but this was not to be. All our proposals, absolutely all of them, were rejected. And then we said that we would have to improve our modern strike systems to protect our security. In reply, the US said that it is not creating a global BMD system against Russia, which is free to do as it pleases, and that the US will presume that our actions are not spearheaded against the US.

The reasons behind this position are obvious. After the collapse of the USSR, Russia, which was known as the Soviet Union or Soviet Russia abroad, lost 23.8 percent of its national territory, 48.5 percent of its population, 41 of the GDP, 39.4 percent of its industrial potential (nearly half of our potential, I would underscore), as well as 44.6 percent of its military capability due to the division of the Soviet Armed Forces among the former Soviet republics. The military equipment of the Russian army was becoming obsolete, and the Armed Forces were in a sorry state. A civil war was raging in the Caucasus, and US inspectors oversaw the operation of our leading uranium enrichment plants.

For a certain time, the question was not whether we would be able to develop a strategic weapon system – some wondered if our country would even be able to safely store and maintain the nuclear weapons that we inherited after the collapse of the USSR. Russia had outstanding debts, its economy could not function without loans from the IMF and the World Bank; the social sphere was impossible to sustain.

Apparently, our partners got the impression that it was impossible in the foreseeable historical perspective for our country to revive its economy, industry, defence industry and Armed Forces to levels supporting the necessary strategic potential. And if that is the case, there is no point in reckoning with Russia’s opinion, it is necessary to further pursue ultimate unilateral military advantage in order to dictate the terms in every sphere in the future.

Basically, this position, this logic, judging from the realities of that period, is understandable, and we ourselves are to blame. All these years, the entire 15 years since the withdrawal of the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, we have consistently tried to reengage the American side in serious discussions, in reaching agreements in the sphere of strategic stability.

We managed to accomplish some of these goals. In 2010, Russia and the US signed the New START treaty, containing measures for the further reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms. However, in light of the plans to build a global anti-ballistic missile system, which are still being carried out today, all agreements signed within the framework of New START are now gradually being devaluated, because while the number of carriers and weapons is being reduced, one of the parties, namely, the US, is permitting constant, uncontrolled growth of the number of anti-ballistic missiles, improving their quality, and creating new missile launching areas. If we do not do something, eventually this will result in the complete devaluation of Russia’s nuclear potential. Meaning that all of our missiles could simply be intercepted.

Despite our numerous protests and pleas, the American machine has been set into motion, the conveyer belt is moving forward. There are new missile defence systems installed in Alaska and California; as a result of NATO’s expansion to the east, two new missile defence areas were created in Western Europe: one has already been created in Romania, while the deployment of the system in Poland is now almost complete. Their range will keep increasing; new launching areas are to be created in Japan and South Korea. The US global missile defence system also includes five cruisers and 30 destroyers, which, as far as we know, have been deployed to regions in close proximity to Russia’s borders. I am not exaggerating in the least; and this work proceeds apace.

These words clearly show that development of the new weapons systems Russia is now deploying are specific responses to two US actions (1) the US’s unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002; and (2) the US’s deployment of anti ballistic missile interceptors in eastern Europe, the Korean Peninsula and on the territory of the United States.

Over and beyond this, President Putin complains that the US simply brushed aside all Russia’s objections about these anti ballistic missile deployments, and simply proceeded with them regardless.

As is the Russian way, President Putin avoided direct criticism of specific US leaders.  However for those familiar with the history, his anger about what the Russians feel was President Obama’s double dealing on the anti ballistic missile question is all too obvious.

When Barack Obama was elected US President in 2008 he told the Russians that he intended to scrap President George W. Bush’s plan to install anti ballistic missile interceptors in eastern Europe.

It was this assurance from Obama which led Putin to believe that a compromise on the issue was possible (“At one point, I thought that a compromise was possible, but this was not to be”).

Moreover on the strength of Obama’s assurance the Russians agreed to his proposal for further deep cuts in their offensive nuclear weapons capability as part of the New START Treaty.

In the event, contrary to Obama’s assurance, the US’s anti ballistic missile deployments in eastern Europe and elsewhere simply went ahead as if the assurance had never been made (“the American machine has been set into motion, the conveyer belt is moving forward”).

The result is that the entire logic behind the New START Treaty has been nullified

……in light of the plans to build a global anti-ballistic missile system, which are still being carried out today, all agreements signed within the framework of New START are now gradually being devaluated, because while the number of carriers and weapons is being reduced, one of the parties, namely, the US, is permitting constant, uncontrolled growth of the number of anti-ballistic missiles, improving their quality, and creating new missile launching areas. If we do not do something, eventually this will result in the complete devaluation of Russia’s nuclear potential. Meaning that all of our missiles could simply be intercepted.

In other words the Russians feel Obama tricked them, and they are furious about it, even if they principally blame themselves for believing him

……we ourselves are to blame.  All these years, the entire 15 years since the withdrawal of the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, we have consistently tried to reengage the American side in serious discussions, in reaching agreements in the sphere of strategic stability….In 2010, Russia and the US signed the New START treaty, containing measures for the further reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms…..

Beyond the question of Obama’s bad faith – the corrosive effect of which should not however be underestimated – there is the hardheaded understanding that it was Russia’s own weakness which invited the US to behave as it did

After the collapse of the USSR, Russia, which was known as the Soviet Union or Soviet Russia abroad, lost 23.8 percent of its national territory, 48.5 percent of its population, 41 of the GDP, 39.4 percent of its industrial potential (nearly half of our potential, I would underscore), as well as 44.6 percent of its military capability due to the division of the Soviet Armed Forces among the former Soviet republics. The military equipment of the Russian army was becoming obsolete, and the Armed Forces were in a sorry state. A civil war was raging in the Caucasus, and US inspectors oversaw the operation of our leading uranium enrichment plants.

For a certain time, the question was not whether we would be able to develop a strategic weapon system – some wondered if our country would even be able to safely store and maintain the nuclear weapons that we inherited after the collapse of the USSR. Russia had outstanding debts, its economy could not function without loans from the IMF and the World Bank; the social sphere was impossible to sustain.

Apparently, our partners got the impression that it was impossible in the foreseeable historical perspective for our country to revive its economy, industry, defence industry and Armed Forces to levels supporting the necessary strategic potential. And if that is the case, there is no point in reckoning with Russia’s opinion, it is necessary to further pursue ultimate unilateral military advantage in order to dictate the terms in every sphere in the future.

Basically, this position, this logic, judging from the realities of that period, is understandable…..

In other words, the US believed that following Russia’s collapse in the 1990s the US no longer had to take its opinions seriously, and felt that it could proceed with its plans to create an anti ballistic missile system – which it thought would lock in its military superiority over Russia and over all other potential future challengers forever – without taking Russia’s concerns into account.

As to the previous arms control treaties and promises it had given to Russia – such as the one about not expanding NATO into eastern Europe – those could be simply ignored.  The US would ignore the promises and treaties it had made with Russia just as it had previously ignored the promises and treaties it had once made with the Sioux.

Even those most hostile to President Putin should admit that he makes a compelling – indeed unarguable – case.

I would add that the reason for the vehemence of US hostility to him and to Russia is precisely because he and Russia have proved the US so completely wrong.  Contrary to US expectations, Russia is back, and it turns out that its opinions do matter after all.

The result in the US is hysteria (Russiagate) and denial (“Russia is a declining power/corrupt kleptocracy/mafia petro-state/gas station/doesn’t make anything”).

In fact the US’s treatment of Russia following the Cold War is a textbook case of how international relations should not be conducted.

The idea that a Great Power like Russia with its strong sense of history, its cohesive identity, its vast territory, and its boundless resources, could simply be trampled over indefinitely and treated as a defeated country when it had never been defeated, was staggeringly foolish and reckless, and a guarantee of future trouble.

If nothing else it disastrously misjudged the sense of pride and honour which forms such a strong part of Russian national identity.

Bismarck – a strong Russophile, who spoke Russian and knew Russia well – put it best

Do not expect that by taking advantage of any time of Russian weakness you will receive dividends forever.  The Russians always come for their money and when they do, do not think you can rely on any agreements you have during their time of weakness cheated or extorted from them.  They are not worth the paper they are written on.  Therefore with the Russians, play fair or not at all.

Since the end of the Cold War the US has not played fair with Russia.

It broke its promise to Russia not to extend NATO into eastern Europe.  It has even extended NATO into former Russian territory – the Baltic States – and is trying to extend NATO further into Georgia and Ukraine.

It also tried – and failed – to micromanage Russian domestic politics in its own interests, blaming Putin for its failure and calling him a dictator because of it.

It reneged on a key disarmament treaty – the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty – and compounded the offence by pretending for years that its anti ballistic missile programme was pitched against Iran (which has no nuclear weapons or intercontinental ballistic missiles) and not against Russia, as it obviously was (that pretence has now – without apology or explanation – been abandoned).

It then tricked the Russians into agreeing deep cuts in their offensive nuclear forces by pretending to them that the anti ballistic missile programme was being scrapped even as it was proceeding apace.

The result is a total collapse of trust, and its product is the new weapons systems President Putin has just unveiled.

These weapon systems have been discussed previously in open sources, and will have come as no surprise to the Pentagon.  However they explain the deep pessimism of the Nuclear Posture Review, with its lament that the US is losing its technological lead.

This is because – as US defence analysts admit – the new Russian weapons negate the effectiveness of the anti ballistic system in which the US has in place of offensive nuclear weapons systems invested so much.

Here is what Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a supporter of the US anti ballistic missile programme, has told CNBC

They didn’t sneak up on us.  This is kind of the state of play for the missile threat and missile defence challenge of the day.  Congress has already highlighted the Russia threat, and — guess what — Vladimir Putin today is confirming the rightness of that diagnosis.

[Still, Karako said, the weapons Putin described render NATO’s mostly U.S.-led missile defence systems useless].

Unfortunately, we are kind of behind the curve in terms of our cruise missile defense capabilities. This is why — I’m a broken record on this — this is why we have to open the aperture and look at the full spectrum of missile threat challenge. It’s not just about ballistic missiles anymore.

In other words reneging on the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty, cheating the Russians, and investing hundreds of billions of dollars in the anti ballistic missile, has achieved for the US the worst possible outcome.

It has antagonised the Russians and made the US’s military position worse than it was previously

Karako’s response to Russian weapons which he admits have rendered the US’s anti ballistic missile system useless is however all of a piece with the response to the deterioration of the US’s geostrategic position which can be found in the US military’s Nuclear Posture Review.

It is not to rethink the strategy, which is resulting in such disastrous outcomes, but to double down upon it by searching for new ways to counter the new Russian weapons.

That this will lead to a further spiral in the arms race, as the Russians – and the Chinese – counter whatever countermeasures the US puts in place apparently does not concern Karako or anyone else in the military leadership of the US.

This is so even though the US Nuclear Posture Review essentially admits that the only result of a renewed arms race will be a further deterioration of the US’s geostrategic position.

As for the only rational alternative: coming to terms with the Russians so as to bring the new arms race to a stop before it properly gets underway, that option is of course ruled out

Congress has already highlighted the Russia threat, and — guess what — Vladimir Putin today is confirming the rightness of that diagnosis.

This is a tragedy because a small window of opportunity for a rapprochement with Russia still exists.

Despite his obvious anger and disillusion, President Putin made clear in his State of the Nation address that he remains in Russian terms a relative moderate ie. someone who is still willing despite all that has happened to come to terms with the US

There is no need to create more threats to the world. Instead, let us sit down at the negotiating table and devise together a new and relevant system of international security and sustainable development for human civilisation. We have been saying this all along. All these proposals are still valid. Russia is ready for this.

Our policies will never be based on claims to exceptionalism. We protect our interests and respect the interests of other countries. We observe international law and believe in the inviolable central role of the UN. These are the principles and approaches that allow us to build strong, friendly and equal relations with the absolute majority of countries…..

Russia is widely involved in international organisations. With our partners, we are advancing such associations and groups as the CSTO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and BRICS. We are promoting a positive agenda at the UN, G20 and APEC. We are interested in normal and constructive cooperation with the United States and the European Union. We hope that common sense will prevail and our partners will opt for honest and equal work together.

(bold italics added)

From personal experience I can say that far from all Russians share these relatively moderate views, and the number of Russians who doubt that any agreement with the US is possible is growing by the day.

The US should not assume that once President Putin is gone whoever succeeds him will be more accommodating to the US than he is.  On the contrary my experience is that the opposite is more likely to be true.

However a small window of opportunity for a rapprochement remains.  Given Russia’s growing power, the only rational course is to use such time as is left to make the best use of it before it finally closes.

In the 2016 election the American people by electing Donald Trump showed that they are willing to give it a try.  It is not the American people but the US political and military elite who remain resistant.

I will finish again with Bismarck, who is arguably the single most successful European leader of the modern age, being the only European leader who in his lifetime can be said to have achieved all that he set out to do

The secret of politics?  Make a good treaty with Russia.

One wonders what has to happen before the US can bring itself to heed that advice.

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