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A New Cold War? No, this is far scarier

[An edited version of this article appeared in The Daily Mail (2nd Fe., 2019), 26.]

The Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is viewed as the key moment in the end of the Cold War. But I would argue that actually happened two years earlier with the end of the nuclear arms race.

President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher united to persuade the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to scrap the Soviet Union’s land-based intermediate nuclear weapons with a range between 300 and 3,300 miles on either side of the Iron Curtain.

The 1987 INF treaty (Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty) lifted the threat of nuclear annihilation from Europe with which the continent had lived for forty years.

Yesterday, Donald Trump announced America was pulling out of that INF treaty because it believes Russia has cheated, developing smaller missiles, ostensibly for launching from submarines or warships (permitted under the treaty) - but which have been adapted to make land-based cruise missiles.

The US military destroyed its own versions 40 years ago so if conflict erupts on NATO’s eastern flank, the West might be outgunned if Russia had land-based mobile nuclear missiles.

Of course President Putin denies the existence of the new missiles, but few in the West trust his reassurances.

Russia has been reasserting itself on the global stage in recent years from seizing the Crimea to intervening in Syria (where it used a non-nuclear sea-launched version of the controversial Kalibr missile to devastating effect). America wants to reverse that trend.

It would, however, be a mistake to see Trump’s move as a simple step back to the Cold War era.

What is going on today is far more complex, less predictable - and so much more worrying.

The Cold War was a neat divide between Washington and Moscow. The two superpowers threatened each other but whatever they agreed held for the rest of the world.

Now there are other players in the game. China is busy expanding its military power - including nuclear missiles while India and Pakistan have growing atomic arsenals. These nations are not constrained by any arms control agreements.

In scrapping the INF treaty, Trump has two goals in mind. He’s signalling to Putin that America will respond to the Kremlin’s relatively small number of mobile medium range missiles by pouring money into building a lot more of its own.

But the US President also wants to be able to counter any threat from China, and of course Iran too (it doesn’t have nuclear weapons but has missiles capable of carrying them) by providing the US military with these kinds of missiles that can be deployed to hot spots quickly.

There are risks inherent in this strategy. Trump is not only raising the temperature in America’s relations with Russia but with China, too, with whom he’s embarked on a trade war. His stance on Venezuela is also opposed by China and Russia, uniting these two nations on yet another front. Russia even flew two nuclear bombers to Caracas in December to demonstrate its support for President Maduro - an echo of the Kremlin's deployment of missiles to Cuba in 1962.

And in such uncertain times, the proliferation of medium range nuclear missiles brings the hair-trigger risk of nuclear war that much closer to detonation because of the short warning time from launch which makes a decision for instant retaliation that much more likely, even if it turns out to be a false alarm.

The other problem is that President Trump is pursuing a bold deal with North Korea to persuade it to scrap its nuclear arsenal - a summit is planned later this month.

Will the North Koreans trust a President who is developing something of a track record in pulling out of treaties, not only this one with Russia but also the nuclear deal negotiated by President Obama with Iran, not to mention the Paris Climate Accord?

China is North Korea’s big patron, and like Russia, the Chinese might see no benefit for them in ending the tension between the USA and North Korea. Letting that problem fester might suit Beijing better, distracting Washington’s attention from its main rivals, China and Russia.

Today a multiple game of high stakes nuclear poker is being played out which makes me, a veteran analyst of international crises, nostalgic for the simple verities of the Cold War and two-sided standoffs such as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The new arms races in Asia and the Middle East as well as Europe is much more complicated. Like him or not, Donald Trump is playing our cards too at a crowded table. Let’s hope he really is the master of the art of the deal.

Mark Almond is Director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford

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