Russia and the Impasse on Arms Control

The article published yesterday in Vzglyad ru on theatre nuclear weapons systems – ‘Kak predatel’stvo Gorbacheva porodilo unikal’nyi raketnyi kompleks’ – reminds us once again that Russia  pays excessive attention to matters military. It always has. The Soviet Union could never afford to outspend the United States in an arms race, as Mikhail Gorbachev found out to his cost; particularly now,  given the huge boost to US economic growth given by the Trump tax reductions and deregulation of business. In this sense America’s business is business (echoing the old adage that what’s good for General Motors was good for America). And, never forget, a businessman runs the country, fortified by a substantial electoral victory in the Senate (and it is the Senate along with the executive that is constitutionally responsible for foreign policy.)

But the long expected and long frustrated completion of Russia’s market reform program has not given Moscow the infrastructure and capital accumulation to underpin a successful arms race with the United States. It was something President Putin recognised before he became president, when he pinned all his hopes on Russia’s comparative advantage in its vast energy and mineral resources. Now, however, even that no longer gives it the edge in the balance of strategic economic power as the United States can effectively do without the rest of the world if push came to shove in respect of its strategic reserve in oil and gas supplies. And the sanctions imposed on Russia by NATO for annexing Ukrainian territory and invading Ukraine with mercenaries, although a gift to domestic agriculture, have further delayed progress for the economy overall. Russia remains, by default, the petrodollar economy par excellence. The sale of such resources, however, are fatefully dependent on prices dictated by an erratic world market; they run dry eventually, and at the very least became more and more expensive in squeezing the last drop of oil out of heavily exploited wells. And the Arctic is, literally, something of a pipe dream as the expense is mind boggling.

Yet geopolitical ambition, the achievements of which underpin much public support, has in recent years taken hold, as evidenced by events in the Near East. The dream of negotiating a deal with President Trump has dissolved in tears and its prospect of fulfiment is bleak without serious Russian concessions given sustained opposition within his own party, let alone the Democrats, on any terms Moscow thus far appears willing to offer.

In recent years Russia has looked to China. And even though China is now in direct conflict with the United States over its ingrained protectionist habits, thereby rendering itself painfully vulnerably to rising US tariffs, plus the provocation of blatant military expansion into the South China Sea  that brings closer the ever present threat of a military confrontation, Beijing is not exactly in a position, economically, to bail out Russia, or, indeed, do anything that further worsens relations with Washington. Rather the reverse. China has greater private and public debt even than the United States. Worse than that, it has wasted vast amounts of money on useless capital projects and has yet to make the consumer king of the economy. Burdened with debt and overextended militarily, China looks in little better shape for the immediate future than does Russia. The purported rates of economic growth are dictated by government before it knows the real rate and the falling stock market is propped up by massive state purchases even more than that in Japan. The other dubious friends Moscow has – Turkey, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba – are not themselves anything other than aggressive and authoritarian, though fragile, recipients of US hostility.

So this is probably not exactly the right moment for the Russians to whip up a fuss because the White House has denounced the treaty limiting theatre nuclear weapons systems that was signed in 1987. Not least because they have been breaching the terms of the treaty for some time (even President Obama called them out on that.) Instead, because there is little else that can be agreed upon, it might be more sensible for the Kremlin to re-open arms control negotiations on a new basis across the board. It would lead to more tension between Putin and the Defence Ministry. But it might be worth the cost and at least open a way ahead, economically and internationally.