There was a large element of posturing in the presentation that accompanied Vladimir Putin’s state of the union address last week, showing a mock-up missile seemingly heading for the coast of Florida. It is hard to know whether the weapons he boasts Russia has developed — including an “invincible” hypersonic missile, an underwater drone and a nuclear-powered cruise missile — really exist, or work as well as claimed. Even if they do, they would hardly change the balance of power. Yet this is still a dangerous escalation in both rhetoric and military strategy.
The Russian president was addressing a domestic audience in the run-up to an election intended to demonstrate the enduring appeal of his strongman rule. But he was also putting the west on notice, that Russia is back as a global power and determined to keep pace with the US in any efforts to expand and modernise nuclear capabilities.
Seen from Moscow, this is a reasonable response to western provocation. Mr Putin has never forgiven Nato’s encroachments on Russia’s sphere of influence. He is still bitter at George W Bush’s decision to pull the US out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, allowing it to press ahead with a land-based missile defence system that Russia views as a direct, deliberate threat.
Now the US administration has said explicitly that great power competition, rather than antiterrorism, will be the focus of national security. Donald Trump has pledged to spend freely on upgrading the US nuclear arsenal. Last month, a review of nuclear “posture” set out US plans to equip itself with new “low-yield” nuclear weapons and for the first time consider nuclear strikes in response to non-nuclear threats — such as a devastating cyber attack. Russia has long possessed smaller nuclear weapons, with a military doctrine that conceives of their tactical use to counter conventional threats. But this is a radical departure in US policy that could significantly lower the threshold for nuclear war.
This is all the more dangerous given the dismal state of US-Russian relations; Russia’s increasing international reach, in Ukraine, Syria and recent western elections; the growing number of third country nuclear forces; and the increasing risks of accidents or miscalculations given more frequent encounters between US and Russian forces.
It is worrying, then, that both Washington and Moscow show so little interest in maintaining and strengthening the arms control agreements that have helped to regulate relations between the world’s two main nuclear actors for the best part of 50 years.
Each accuses the other of violating the existing treaty governing intermediate range ballistic missiles. As Steven Pifer argues in a paper for the Brookings Institution, there are ways to address these concerns, but they rely on political will on each side.
Even if this can be rescued, the next question is what happens when the New Start treaty — the main framework for arms control — expires in 2021. At present, both sides appear prepared to meet its limits, which took full effect last month, but neither has shown any interest in negotiating its extension. Indeed, the US Congress has passed legislation to deny funding for an extension if Russia were in breach of other arms control agreements.
It would not be impossible to chart a way forwards. The experience of the cold war shows it should be possible to pursue dialogue in areas of mutual interest even if there is no hope of progress on difficult issues such as Ukraine and Syria. Mr Putin, however, is choosing to play on American fears about the loss of superpower status. The US must resist the urge to retaliate.