Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) is now back in the spotlight as the main players of the Russian side (President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu) have met and openly discussed the issue. The publicity of the discussion leads one to believe that there is a lot of message sending (to Washington, the media etc.) going on at this meeting which begs thorough analysis in order to understand what the reaction from Moscow actually is and what important points can be read between the lines.
One of the most important statements made during the meeting came from Lavrov who said that according to Russian information…
“the United States has been violating the Treaty since 1999, when it started testing combat unmanned aerial vehicles that have the same characteristics as land-based cruise missiles banned by the Treaty.”
He went on to describe missile defense systems in Europe as a further and blatant violation. It must be noted that the US and allies have also accused Russia of violating the INF treaty. If both sides are telling the truth then this is yet another piece of evidence to support the argument that nuclear disarmament is a farce.
If two men were in a Mexican standoff like the kind in old Western movies where two gunslingers are standing face-to-face in the center of town with their fingertips on the handles of their revolvers there is no way to convince one of the parties that disarmament is somehow in their best interest. Because as soon as the one cowboy throws down his gun it essentially forces the other one to shoot as this will be his only chance to take the shot with no retaliation. This is the danger of nuclear disarmament, because a reduction in arms by one side leads the other closer to feeling that they may finally have the ability to make a first strike without retaliation. This temptation is irresistible and is the reason is why no one in Moscow or Washington should ever reduce their means of causing “mutually assured destruction” or they will be as dead as the cowboy who threw down his pistol first.
Nuclear arms reduction is not a step towards peace but a temptation to wage atomic war.
The next important point made in the discussion was also made by Lavrov…
“It all started with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, when the US decided to withdraw from it in 2002, as you know all too well.”
Very often the media portrays issues like what is happening with the INF as something completely unique and unprecedented when virtually nothing is “new under the sun”. So far we have seen the years 1999 and 2002 mentioned, which were highpoints for Russian weakness on the international stage. A contract between a powerful entity and a nearly helpless one will be enforced only so long as the powerful entity feels it is necessary. A weak Russia does not have the ability to demand the respect to keep the US/NATO in line like a globally influential Soviet Empire did. Russia has certainly made huge gains over the last 20 years, but judging by Trump’s actions is not seen as a truly equal among peers when it comes to treaties.
Lavrov continued his impactful statements…
“Apart from the INF Treaty, there is the Strategic Offensive Arms Treaty [START] that remains in force. It is also essential for preserving at least some measure of strategic stability and global parity.”
If he means that the only way to maintain global nuclear parity is for the United States to willfully restrict itself then Russia, China and anyone else who occasionally goes against the grain is in dire straits. To be a civilization of global importance one cannot rely on whining at the enemy to weaken itself. For those who joyfully see the US as the world’s rightful policeman and exceptional nation these words from Lavrov must be very appealing because he makes it seem as though Russia is very far away from changing this dynamic.
Later in the meeting Shoigu offered President Putin a set of retaliatory measures that in all likelihood Putin was already well aware of. Putin’s response to the offer was as follows…
“I agree. This is what we will do. Our response will be symmetrical.”
This statement is very much in line with the current Russian foreign policy status quo – reacting to threats rather than taking action that might stir them up. In many ways Russian foreign policy is far more pragmatic than in its Communist past being willing to work with anyone willing to work with Russia even if both sides in a conflict desire to do so. Israel and Iran are a good example of this.
Although this is respectable anyone who plays wargames knows that a passive/reactive strategy guarantees a loss against a strong opponent because by only reacting this allows the aggressor to set the course of all actions and possibly even provoke predicted and desired reactions from the passive side predictable reciprocal moves.
These words are not in any way a call for physical aggression. Since Russia is strong enough to be a threat to the US yet weak enough not to be treated as a peer much of this lack of respect in terms of treaties could all ultimately be a problem of public relations and perception. Even slightly more “folksy” PR could change the dynamic. Russia’s international relations problems have never been because of producing too many high quality weapons but instead due to it not being able to produce a single high quality motion picture that wins hearts and minds. Perception is a key cause in the INF breakdown. The worst case scenario for the future of humanity would be for Russia to be perceived as helpless when it is not. This would lead to the final temptation in the Oval Office to press that button. This PR problem could lead to Armageddon and should be a key goal for Russia on top of making enough fancy sounding weapons to maintain parity.