Who Benefits from a Renewed Nuclear Arm Race?

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April 8, 2018
The Future of Democracy in the Age of Social Media
April 14, 2018

Who Benefits from a Renewed Nuclear Arm Race?

Hakan Cem Cetin, PhD


Senior Expert
Global Center for Security Studies

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on March 1, 2018 that the prospective new technology added to the strategic nuclear arsenal of Russia would surpass American missile defense system easily. Despite the fact that the weapons Putin mentioned in his address to the Russian Parliament are evaluated by experts as mostly “outlandish”, nobody claims the other ways that the nuclear arms race of Cold War era, long thought it would hardly happen again, seems to make a serious come-back after years of stagnation.

In the era of the Cold War, there were almost an equilibrium between the then super powers, the US and Soviet Union. This equilibrium had functioned near flawlessly to balance the US and Soviet Union, and therefore, prevent both parties from using of their nuclear stockpile against each other. In this way, the world had never experienced a potential nightmare, which would definitely have led to the total annihilation of the entire world.

At the peak of the Cold War rivalry, this fear of a possible nuclear catastrophe paved the way for opening of diplomatic channels between the US and the Soviet Union. With intense diplomatic negotiations and great efforts, two rival parties signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT) in 1972. Under ABMT, the US and the Soviet Union accepted on the limitation of the anti-ballistic missile systems. It was in force up until 2002, the year that the US withdrew from the treaty.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, other than Russia, the main heir of the Soviet Union, the Soviet’s nuclear arsenal was inherited by Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Of 35, 000 nuclear weapons, 3,200 strategic nuclear warheads were scattered in these three countries. The collapse of the Soviets was followed by a period of chaos, and the former Soviet Republics went into turmoil. In these circumstances, the US did need to come forward, and with passing the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction legislation from the Congress, helped Russia deactivate and dismantle all nuclear weapons within Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, as well as safeguard the nuclear arsenal in its own territory. This cooperation of the US and Russia on the efforts of securing the nuclear stockpile of the Soviet era eased nuclear tension between two governments and prevented any of these arsenals from getting into wrong hands, such as terrorist groups or rogue states. The end of the Cold War also ushered the way that the US and Russia cut down on their nuclear arsenal spending and thus, the world was relieved with the fact that the imminent threat of nuclear war between two rivals diminished significantly. Though subsequent developments in this area, especially the withdrawal of the Bush administration from the ABMT in 2002 affected this relief negatively and led to a real concern among the international community, after the Bush administration, the US and Russia came together and signed a new START Treaty in 2010, requiring for a fifty percent reduction of their strategic nuclear arms.

However, relentless Russian aggression against the West and its renewed imperial ambitions, which became apparent with its annexation of Crimea has changed the dynamics on the ground adversely. Although the President Trump himself has a high regard for Putin, the recent Russian nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter in the UK has driven the relations into historical deep.  The current developments-the severed relationship between the West and Russia, the erratic behavior of the American president, and Putin’s imperial dreams- have fueled the fear that a renewed nuclear arms race may start over between the US and Russia, as well as the other possible rivals, like China.

In the meanwhile, a number of experts assert that nonetheless a nuclear armament race between the US and Russia has already been smearing for quite some time, some claim that Russia is not the only culprit in this renewed race, where, quite the contrary, the US bears much of the responsibility for this, since it was not Russia but the US who unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. By forbidding wide deployment of anti-missile defense installments, this treaty had warranted mutual security based on principles of the parity and “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD), which means that both parties should gain almost equal nuclear arsenal and neither should endeavor for a first-strike superiority. Withdrawal of the US from the ABM Treaty nullified these principles and indicated the willingness of the US for nuclear superiority over Russia. After the withdrawal of the ABM, the US, under the NATO umbrella, has deployed a great number of missile defense installments around the world, including countries that have border with Russia. Notwithstanding the US declares that missile defense is not against Russia but only against Iran and other rogue states, Russia has never believed and seen this from the beginning as a biggest threat on its own national security.

Regardless of who is to blame for a nuclear tension between two rivals, the US and Russia, a renewed nuclear arms race could lead the world down a hugely dangerous path, which is too much at stake than in the past. It is both parties interest to put a brake on their nuclear arm buildup, as it has gained particular importance under increased concern over the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The world is not the same place as it was, and a renewed nuclear arms race is not the only alarming issue that should be dealt with, while there are so many other problems threatening the world peace and well-being of humanity.

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