Diary from Trumpland

Nuclear muscle flexing

Print edition : March 01, 2019

President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin at a joint news conference in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. On February 1, 2019, the U.S. government announced that it would withdraw from the missile treaty with Russia. Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times

The United States’ seemingly reckless withdrawal from a 1987 missile treaty with Russia, its push for a Space Force and the expansion of its military budget are part of a policy to exert power against the world.

RECKLESSNESS defines President Donald Trump. Only, those who watch the U.S. government closely yawned when Trump decided to walk away from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that has been in place between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, later Russia) and the U.S since 1987. That treaty aimed to eliminate all ballistic and cruise missiles that could be fired from land. It has not succeeded.

The U.S. says that Russia is in violation of this treaty and has accused Russia of placing intermediate nuclear forces in Europe. Russia has denied that it has any such missile battery inside Europe. Facts are irrelevant here. Trump is not motivated by them. It would be silly to spend time looking at maps and charts and Excel spreadsheets.

The U.S. and Russia have almost all the nuclear warheads (about 90 per cent of them) that exist in the world. Each country has nearly 7,000 warheads. The next country on the list is France with 300 warheads, followed by the United Kingdom and China with more than 200 each. Russian warheads are mainly on its own territory, since Russia has only two external bases (in Crimea and in Syria) and some small military facilities in the former States of the USSR, such as in Kazakhstan and Moldova. The U.S., on the other hand, has nuclear weapons stored not only on its territory but also at its military bases as far afield as Japan and through “nuclear sharing” agreements from Germany to Italy.

Withdrawal from any treaty raises tension. Already, both the U.S. and Russia have been developing a new generation of intermediate missiles, including hypersonic missiles, and a new generation of missile defence systems. Those who closely watch the U.S. and Russian military budgets have already seen an inflation in spending towards missiles. The publicly available U.S. military budget is now $686.1 billion, while the Russians spend $69 billion—the latter a tenth of the former. Russia, which had hoped to increase its own military spending in 2015, had to hold off on any expansion because of its economic problems (relating to collapsed energy prices and sanctions against it).

It is already clear that the U.S. wants to push for more spending not only on missile defence but on all kinds of new Star Wars systems that would outclass the Russian military capacity. In mid January, before the U.S. pullout of the missile treaty, the Russian Foreign Ministry cautioned against the militarisation of space. The Ministry said: “We are deeply disappointed that the United States has preferred returning to implementation of the next version of the Star Wars programme, instead of building up the meaningful dialogue on strategic stability matters and prevention of the arms race in space.” There was no response from Washington. The Trump administration wants to up the ante, to put military pressure on Russia at this crucial time.

The Russian shield

Why is the U.S. putting this kind of military pressure on Russia? The timing is important. In September 2015, Russian military forces entered Damascus. That intervention placed a shield around Syria. Western attempts to conduct regime change ended. The war continues, but the goal of overthrowing the government in Damascus had to cease. Russian air defence systems and the presence of Russian aircraft made the all-out bombardment of Damascus an impossibility. Without such a “shock-and-awe” bombing campaign, the government in Damascus would not have been weakened. Once this kind of bombing was out of the question, the regime change war had to change gears. Russia had built a shield around Syria.

When the U.S. bombed Iraq in 1991, the Iraqi leadership cowered in Baghdad and wondered in their conversations about the failure of Soviet intervention. Why was the USSR silent, asked Saddam Hussein. His closest advisers were as bewildered. The fact is that the USSR was near collapse. It had no stomach to create a shield around Iraq. From 1991 until 2015, the U.S. found that it had no military adversary in the world. The collapse of Russia after the fall of the USSR had a major impact on the balance of forces in the world. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, under U.S. tutelage, began to expand eastwards towards the Russian border, while the fact of U.S. military domination allowed the West to push for a trade and financial paradigm that suited Western corporations and banks. Russia gradually rebuilt its military strength. When the West threatened Russia’s two warm water ports (in Sebastopol in Crimea and in Latakia in Syria), Russia intervened hastily to defend them. These interventions took place in 2014 (Crimea) and 2015 (Syria).

Since 2014-15, the U.S. has tried to find a way to weaken Russia’s capacity to interfere in U.S. plots and plans. Most recently, the U.S. and Russia have clashed over Venezuela. The U.S. has, since 2002, tried to overthrow the Bolivarian government in Venezuela. A coup attempted that year failed. Since 2002, the U.S. has tried all kinds of manoeuvres to destabilise the government. Nothing worked until the oil prices tanked and pressure mounted on the finances of Venezuela. In 2014, the U.S. Senate censured Venezuela, pushing for a sanctions regime. The next year, U.S. President Barack Obama called Venezuela a “national security” threat. Trump has since deepened sanctions, egging on the opposition to destabilise the government. Over January and into February, the U.S. ramped up pressure to overthrow the government.

Into this situation entered Russia, first with a diplomatic shield around Venezuela and then with the anticipation of Russian military entry to defend the country from a U.S. attack and with some financial assistance that is necessary for the sinking economy. Over the course of the decade, Russia’s energy company Rosneft has made large investments in Venezuela to revamp Venezuela’s oil infrastructure. Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. Since 2006, Russia—and the Russian oil company—has made over $17 billion in loans to the Venezuelans. It would be as much an economic as a political loss to the Russians if the Venezuelan government is overthrown.

It is clear to the U.S. that Russia needs to be weakened if Trump’s policy of “Make America Great Again” is to become a reality. The withdrawal from the missile treaty, the push for a Space Force and the expansion of the U.S. military budget are part of a general policy to break any sense of parity between the U.S. and Russia. The U.S., under Trump, recognises that Russia has to be sent back to its borders or else it will not be able to shape the world according to its whims. Whether Russia is prepared to be intimidated is another question. So far, it appears that pressure from the U.S. has only emboldened Russia to act more forcefully on the world stage. But there are limits to this since Russia is itself struggling to find a way around the sanctions set in place by the U.S. and the European Union.

Trump’s recklessness is not entirely without a plan. His own personality seems to be defined by a short attention span. But this withdrawal from the treaty and this talk of a Space Force is entirely consistent with a broad strategic agenda to undermine Russian power. It is easy to be distracted by Trump. But in these respects, his reckless and mercurial statements are part of a coherent American policy to exert power against the world.