Should a new Cold War be welcomed?


NATO is giving Russia a final opportunity to end what it claims is Moscow’s long-standing flouting of the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. The 1987 pact between the then Soviet Union and the United States and its allies banned missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Moscow’s 9M729 rocket system is alleged to be designed to carry nuclear warheads and reach anywhere in Europe.

Vladimir Putin is unlikely to back down on the missile program which has been in development for some years. Therefore, given President Donald Trump’s no-nonsense approach to international politics, he is almost certain to tear up the INF this summer.

Will the world thus become a more dangerous place? The existence of any nuclear weaponry, particularly in the unpredictable hands of the likes of Iran, North Korea and Israel is certainly a threat.

Most importantly it risks the principle of nuclear deterrence which throughout the cold War actually made the world a safer place. The theory that the existence of massive nuclear firepower on both sides made neither prepared to use these horrific weapons was proved entirely correct. As delivery systems became ever swifter and more deadly, the possibility receded that a First Strike could obliterate the enemy. It was certain that in the event of any nuclear launch, a devastating counterstrike would be underway within minutes.

So in this respect, a return to the Cold War status quo is almost to be welcomed. But Moscow is playing a rather different game this time. It knows that not all European states share Washington’s readiness to square up to the Russians.

Both France and Germany went into Wednesday's NATO meeting reluctant to call out Putin. German Chancellor Merkel reflects the widely-held opinion in her country that it must still be possible to reach an accommodation with Moscow that will avoid the expense of an arms race and the likely disruption of commercial relations with Russia. Of especial concern to Germany is the availability of Russia gas supplies, upon which it has become heavily dependent.

Moreover Germany, like most of Washington’s other NATO allies, with the principle exceptions of Estonia and the UK, has failed to meet its military expenditure obligations of two percent of their GDP. This has riled Trump, who has clearly not been convinced by promises to do better in future. He still believes that ever since the end of the World War II, most of Europe has been enjoying a free ride on defense, while the United States spends the big money and deploys the main weapons systems to guard the continent from attack from the East.

Apart from an instinctive distaste for a large-scale revival of German military power, the main calculation behind Merkel’s reluctance to up the stakes in a NATO confrontation with Russia is undoubtedly that Moscow needs its energy-export earnings to sustain its otherwise floundering economy. Despite Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and its continuing military meddling in Eastern Ukraine, she still believes that Putin has more interest in business as usual. With most European economies, including that of France, teetering on the brink of recession, the bills for major rearmament look daunting. Yet Trump will doubtless point out that as American found in 1939, a rearmament program can actually trigger strong economic growth.