Time to Reset the Doomsday Clock?

By Ioannis Saratsis, a research associate at the Hudson Institute and was co-director of the NATO workshop on nonproliferation in Moscow (THE WASHINGTON POST, 27/07/07):

Last month a group of international experts met in Moscow to discuss the successes and failures of past nonproliferation efforts.Tension was thick over America’s perceived unilateral nuclear foreign policy, and the Russian criticism was especially harsh.

The day after the NATO-sponsored conference ended, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited President Bush at his family home in Maine, aiming to calm relations between the two nuclear powers over the proposed ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Eastern Europe. Putin’s proposal that the control of such a missile defense system be put under the NATO-Russia council — elevating U.S.-Russian relations to a “genuine strategic partnership” — led the world to believe that strained relations between the two had been substantially reduced.

A couple of days after the meeting, however, Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s deputy prime minister and the man expected to replace Putin in 2008, threatened to point Russia’s nuclear missiles toward Europe if Putin’s counteroffers were not accepted. While this threat is not new, it added to the growing antagonistic rhetoric emanating from Russia.

On the one hand, Putin claims to want to work with the United States and Europe on security issues. On the other hand, his actual policies could lead to a nuclear escalation not seen since the end of the Cold War. Just last week Putin asserted his independence from the West by threatening Russia’s suspension of its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which, since its inception in 1990, has limited conventional military strength on both sides of the old Iron Curtain.

Under Putin, Russia can no longer be seen as a constructive partner in the nuclear arms-control game. In fact, many at the conference said that Russia no longer shapes its nuclear and foreign policy around the premise of a nuclear-free world. Instead, the anti-Western sentiment whipped up by Putin and his government over the proposed BMD placement in Poland and the Czech Republic has been complemented by a show of force, if you will, with the successful test of the new Iskander MIRV, toted as the ultimate “BMD Buster.”

Yet the “threat” that the BMD system poses to Russia is not about a threat to its nuclear deterrent forces; rather, it is a threat to Russia’s strategic interests. Despite his ‘positive’ proposals and desire to create a “genuine strategic partnership” with the United States, Putin’s actions in recent years convey an entirely different message. It is, in the end, the difference between a threat to “strategic deterrent forces” and “strategic national interests” that dictates Russian foreign and nuclear policy in the future, with the former used as an excuse to promote the latter.

As my colleague Andrei Piontkovsky has pointed out, Putin’s rhetoric is part of an “overall anti-Western propaganda campaign conducted with incredible intensity.” The goal, he argues, is for Russia to get back into Central Europe.

Russia, however, is not solely to blame for the current frosty relations. With America’s attention focused on Iran and Iraq, nonproliferation initiatives have taken a backseat. The perception of America’s unilateral foreign policy does not lend itself to negotiations; as President Bush said, either you are with us or against us. Even America’s intention to modernize its considerable nuclear arsenal, rather than decommission it, is seen as hypocritical.

With Russia and the U.S. playing a dangerous nuclear game of one-upmanship, hope for nonproliferation based upon the compliance and support of cooperating nations is diminishing. A nuclear expansion is on the horizon, despite the best efforts of nonproliferation programs such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, which seeks to prevent illegal transfers of nuclear weapons and materials. Given the political nature of nonproliferation and current strains between the two largest nuclear powers, flashback doomsday scenarios could be around the corner.