The U.S. has pulled out of a major arms control treaty amid tensions between Washington and Moscow. Weapons treaties are out of favor — but they matter.
By Charles Aldinger
When U.S and Russian warships nearly collided in the Philippine Sea recently, the world received a stark reminder of the growing military tensions between superpowers. These tensions have been sparked in no small part by crumbling arms control agreements.
After the Russian Destroyer Admiral Vinogradov and American guided missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville came within about 150 feet of each other on June 7, each country blamed the other. Last-minute evasive action was the only thing that prevented a catastrophic crash.
This incident was reportedly the second recent close brush between Russian and U.S. forces. On June 4, the American 6th Fleet claimed that a Russian Su-35 fighter jet flew directly in front of a U.S. Navy P-8 Maritime Patrol plane over the Eastern Mediterranean.
These incidents come at an important time: when cracks in U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control are widening, when Russian and Chinese navies are taking on growing international scope, and when Moscow and Beijing are developing virtually-undetectable “Hypersonic” strategic missiles.
‘Trust, but verify.’
These events also beg major questions — especially for young people who are already concerned about matters affecting their future, such as global warming.
Should they care that White House staffers reportedly suspect, without giving proof, that Russia is conducting low-level nuclear tests in violation of their nuclear test ban treaty?
Should they be worried that the United States has pulled out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty? Or that the United States has not scheduled talks to discuss returning to it?
Arms control over the decades has provided stability, balance and confidence among the world’s superpowers. Even if it has not resulted in the elimination of thousands of nuclear warheads, arms control has ensured that no country forges ahead with arms development in an effort to dominate other countries.
Arms control can work. I’ve seen it work, up close and personal.
In effect, it entails following former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s famous maxim, borrowed from a Russian proverb, that we must “Trust, but verify.”
A vial full of pellets from a Russian sub
This worked on a snow-blown day in April 1995. Then-U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry visited a former Soviet nuclear missile base in Ukraine to watch a fearsome SS-19 intercontinental missile be plucked from its concrete silo and get cut up for scrap metal. I was with Perry, reporting for Reuters.
Perry flew to the Pervomaisk Base on a Russian-built helicopter to witness the removal of the 65-foot rocket. The rocket had once contained six warheads aimed at the United States.
Its subsequent removal was one step in Kiev’s promise to become a non-nuclear state by the end of 1996. Pervomaisk had at one time been the site of 176 multi-warhead missiles. All of them were scrapped and their warheads sent back to Russia.
Four days later, at Engels Air Force Base in Russia, Perry watched old bombers get chopped up. This operation fulfilled terms of the U.S.-Soviet Arms Reduction Agreement. I was there for that, too.
And I was also there when Perry visited a Russian submarine base to watch nuclear subs get scrapped. On my bookcase in Washington, I have a Russian gift vial full of tiny, shiny copper pellets from a sub that had hundreds of miles of copper wiring and tubing.
Things are different today.
Perry was a champion of arms control.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, he stepped into territory normally controlled by the State Department and almost personally negotiated agreements with Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus. These agreements ensure their inherited nuclear weapons were sent back to Russia, where they would be under tighter control.
These are happy bits of arms control history. But that was 24 years ago, and things are different today.
The Cold War has again raised its ugly head over military power. The United States and Iran are nose-to-military-nose over an agreement to stifle Tehran’s nuclear program. And always-present tensions between India and Pakistan, which are both nuclear powers, have again flared over the tinderbox issue of Kashmir.
Given all these factors, you should watch closely. And, perhaps, be ready to raise your voice about arms concerns on behalf of your generation and the world’s future.
Charles Aldinger worked for four decades as a journalist, culminating with 23 covering the Pentagon, U.S. military affairs and international conflict and weaponry for Reuters. He reported from more than 60 countries traveling with U.S. defense secretaries. His UPI and Reuters experience included postings in Buenos Aires and Hong Kong. He reported on 1960s racial strife in the United States, revolutions, hurricanes, earthquakes, the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Congress.