US vs Russia: N-Arms Treaty & Venezuela: RSTV - The Big Picture


Anchor: Frank Rausan Pereira

Harsh V. Pant, Head Strategic Studies, Observer Research Foundation
Sheel Kant Sharma, Former Ambassador
Sreeram Chaulia, Dean, Jindal School of International Affairs

Why in the news?

  • In an escalating standoff over nuclear weapons, Russia and the United States have suspended compliance with the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, prompting fears of a new arms race that analysts and politicians say could push the world “much closer” to a nuclear war.
  • The long-running dispute between Washington and Moscow came to a head recently when US President Donald Trump accused Russia of violating the 1987 bilateral treaty with “impunity”, and announced his government was suspending its obligations under the landmark pact.
  • Pledging to “move forward” with its own military response options, Trump said the US will withdraw from the accord in six months unless Moscow destroyed land-based missiles allegedly deployed in violation of the treaty.
  • Further, in a tit-for-tat move, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was also suspending Moscow’s participation in the agreement.
  • Russia will start work on creating new missiles, including hypersonic weapons, he said, adding that Moscow will not deploy such weapons in the European part of the country or elsewhere unless the US does so.
  • The Russia, US standoff is developing on another front as well, in South America’s Venezuela. This edition of The Big Picture aims to analyse the escalating tensions between, Russia and the United States.  

Brief Background of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty:

  • The INF treaty has its origins in the Euromissile crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
  • The treaty was signed in December 1987 between then US President Ronald Reagan and his USSR counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev.
  • In specific terms, the treaty banned all nuclear and conventional missiles, as well as their launchers, with ranges of 500–1,000 km or (short-range) and 1,000–5,500 km  (intermediate-range).
  • Experts opine that this treaty was central to ending an arms race between the two superpowers (U.S. and the Soviet Union) during the cold war and protected America’s NATO allies in Europe from Soviet missile attacks. Further, it was designed to provide a measure of some strategic stability on the continent of Europe.

Analysis by the Experts:

What has led to the current tensions between Russia and the United States? Has irreparable damage been done?

Sheel Kant Sharma, Former Ambassador, weighed in with his points here.

  • This process has been undergoing over the last several years. Especially around the 2nd term of Obama in the year 2014 or so, after the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
  • Further, even the U.S. establishment, including both the Democrats and the Republicans, have a strong sentiment against Putin. Sometimes, they even have problems with the persona of Putin. They believe that someone other than Putin can be more amicable to work with, however, Putin is getting stronger by the day.
  • Thus, there is a buildup against Putin and Russia. The importance of the INF Treaty lies in the fact that it was one of the most comprehensive treaties. It has 3 components:
    1. The Treaty itself 2. The Memorandum of Understanding 3. The Protocol  
  • They provide for great details and they provide for a mechanism to sort out problems. Further, things are spelt out in a great degree of detail. Thus, the two parties can solve the problems within the framework of what the treaty provides.

However, they have not done it for the last several years. The two parties have been meeting, but they have been talking at each other.  

  • Now, it is important to note that the two sides have their own interests. Currently, Putin feels that he is not in the same position that Mikhail Gorbachev was in. Putin wants a different Russia to emerge.
  • Even from the American side, when we look at the Republicans, people like John Bolton never believed in arms control. Thus, in America as well, there is a body of opinion that feels that the INF is too constricting. As a matter of fact, they (the U.S.) want to build missiles now.  Further, we also find China to be a factor. It is the convergence of all these factors in the U.S. which has caused them to move beyond the INF.
  • On the other hand, the Russians also have ambitions. Putin wants to constantly reassert Russian might. What is scary at the moment is that in the 1980’s, for whatever it was worth, the Soviet Union believed in a ‘No-First-Use’ Policy. It was only NATO who followed a policy of ‘Flexible Response’. Today, both sides have ‘First Use’ as part of their doctrine and uncertainties abound.   

As far as Russia and the U.S. are concerned, are we back to the Cold War Era?

Sreeram Chaulia, Dean, Jindal School of International Affairs weighed in with his arguments here.

  • Well, there are certainly hardliners in the U.S. like John Bolton (who is the National Security Advisor), who come from the Cold War background and still think on those lines. For them, pushing back Russia, expanding NATO eastward- these are essential for containing what they still see as an expansionist Russia.
  • As a matter of fact, the whole expansion of NATO is very central to this whole question- this is because Montenegro was admitted recently, and currently with the deal between Greece and Macedonia, we find that Macedonia would possibly enter NATO.
  • As a result of all this, the Russians feel as though they are being hemmed in.
  • Also, the U.S. is encouraging this. It may not be Trump himself who is encouraging this as he has a very domestic agenda. Further, because of the allegations that Putin enabled Trump to win the U.S. Presidential elections, it is believed that Trump has a love-hate relationship with Russia.
  • However, keeping Trump aside, the US establishment (the Republicans and the Democrats, as well as the Pentagon and the military) wants an expansion of the NATO. The military is pushing for this as for them, this appears to be a windfall. Thus, the US establishment believes in the eastward expansion of NATO.
  • Also, the missile defence systems that the US has been installing in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, for example, are in the mind of Putin, something that directly threatens Russian interests. The Russians feel that their ‘sphere of influence’ is being compromised upon. Thus, all these developments come back to the insecurities that the Great Powers suffer from. The Russians think that whatever they think is defensive, while the Americans think that whatever they are doing is defensive in nature, however, the other side sees it as offensive. The Russians think that the other side is violating the INF, because missile defence shields are being installed, and as a matter of fact, these missile defence shields are being installed even in the Far East, in Japan for example. Thus, in a way, the Russians and the Americans are caught in a vicious spiral.
  • For Putin and the Kremlin to show strength is very crucial politically. Further, the two powers are also trying to find a way to sustain their influence in Europe. This is because Europe is currently weak and divided in the wake of Brexit. Thus if pressure is applied on Europe through the means of land-based short-range missiles, it would mean that the Germans and the French would now be directly in the line of fire. This would give Russia greater leverage and bargaining. Thus, in a way, the burial of INF is bad for regional peace and security both in Asia Pacific and in Europe.  However, it may be serving the interests of these two states (Russia and America) who feel that the usefulness of the treaty has been outlived.

Is this all being done to whip up a sentiment in the respective countries and keep the rhetoric up?

  • Harsh V. Pant, Head Strategic Studies, Observer Research Foundation, weighed in with his arguments here.

    The issue appears to be much broader. At the end of the day, we are living in a world that has been reconfigured beyond recognition as compared to the time when the INF was signed. It is important to note that arms control treaties are ultimately a reflection of great-power politics at that particular point in time. Thus, when the INF was negotiated, it was a different context in which the Americans and the Soviet Union came to an understanding that it was the best possible option for the two countries to keep a tab on their respective arms inventories (for ground-based missiles in the intermediate range) and besides it would also allow the two countries to manage their nuclear rivalry in a particular manner. The INF treaty shaped the context of the Cold War to a large degree- whereas today, the context is entirely different. The political context of Russia and the political context in America is very different now. Currently, the debate in America today is about China. Also, the Russian factor is being subsumed by the China factor.
  • Thus, the cold war today is actually with the Chinese. This is because they are the comprehensive power that can challenge America. Russia, on the other hand, is important in certain geographies, in certain issue areas, and the nuclear issue area being one. On the nuclear issue, Mr. Putin can sit with Mr. Trump at a table and negotiate as an equal, however, he can’t do so in other areas.  Militarily as well as economically today, the Russians are weak. The larger context is being shaped today by the rise of China. The focus in America at the moment is how to turn the screws tightly on China.
  • Thus, if we look at the Trade War, or if we look at how the curbs on high-end technology have come into place, and currently if we are looking at the nuclear arms control, one would have to look at it through the perspective of what the rise of China means for American policy makers today and how that is going to shape the global order in the coming decades.
  • Russia is becoming an important partner of China in certain geographies, and Russia is also needling the west on Europe. From a western European perspective (or from a NATO perspective), Russia is emerging as a very potent challenge militarily. Thus, it is important for America to stand up to Russia. What we are witnessing is a very interesting tapestry of the global order today than what was perhaps envisioned at the time of the INF.

What implications would the suspension of the INF pact have in the immediate neighbourhood and on the world?  

Sheel Kant Sharma, Former Ambassador, weighed in with his arguments here.

  • Over the past 50 years or so, because of the nature of nuclear weapons, there has been a certain track followed by the great powers.
  • Historically, in an effort to keep these weapons in some control and to ensure a certain cooperative relationship (because disarmament and arms control presages a certain cooperative relationship), an understanding was reached between the U.S. and the then Soviet Union.  
  • This was forged between the U.S. and the Soviet Union right after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and post this, it went through ups and downs. However, Ronald Reagan managed to take this to its culmination which was the breakup of the Soviet Union. That political entente or cooperation today is broken. There was a time when the only problem was nuclear proliferation and nuclear security. Today, the situation is different.
  • Thus we had Obama who had 4 summits, where he talked about nuclear security- the thrust of this was focussed on terrorists or unauthorized state actors getting access to nuclear material. The Americans were quite sanguine that there would be no problem. As a matter of fact, Obama, in his 2009 speech (10 years ago), said that he wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons.
  • It is important to note that Trump for his own problems has been trying to work with Russia, as he and his advisors believe that for dealing with China, Russia also has to be on their side. Thus, despite the establishment in the U.S. being against Russia, Trump has been trying to negotiate with Russia.
  • Also, Putin is very careful in plotting Russia’s next moves- he doesn’t want Russia to make a misstep like how it did when it came to Afghanistan for instance. Today, Putin holds the cards in Syria. Putin doesn’t want to get involved in Afghanistan at the moment at least.
  • Putin’s own area is the SCO region, i.e. Central Asia where Putin wants to be the master.

Has the INF Pact, 32 years after its signing, outlived its utility in the modern world?

Sreeram Chaulia, Dean, Jindal School of International Affairs weighed in with his arguments here.

  • Yes, we no longer live in a bipolar world, thus the Chinese ability to dominate the Indo-Pacific, has become the central question which would determine the fate of world politics. I feel that the Americans are tied down by that. The factor to consider is the changed global circumstances with the rise of China.
  • Also, Japan and Russia have also been trying to patch up and end their island dispute.  The idea behind this was for Russia to feel more secure in the Asia Pacific region.
  • Thus, there is no Russia-China axis per se; there are 4-5 actors in this extended region and each one is trying to promote their own self-interest and security.
  • Even the Europeans are caught in the middle and a lot of them like the Germans and so on, have been cautious about not upsetting the Russians too much.
  • However, the eastern Europeans are closer to the U.S. establishment as they believe that Russia is a big peril and must be countered at all costs, this is because Russia is right at the doorstep of the Eastern European nations.

Russia and the United States have also crossed swords at another place, i.e. in Venezuela. A whole new situation is developing here. How would you look at this?
Harsh V. Pant, Head Strategic Studies, Observer Research Foundation, weighed in with his arguments here.

  • The Venezuelan situation has been developing for some time now and the fact is that Mr. Maduro, the President of Venezuela has been an outcast for a while. Currently, he is trying to shore up his own legitimacy. Latin America is also special for the Americans for obvious reasons. However, the issue at the end of the day is whether other countries, extra-regional players can play a role that they are intending to play in America’s backyard?
    Russia is not a very important player in the Latin American geography, however, in Venezuela it has managed to do so because of American antipathy to Mr. Maduro. As a matter of fact, Mr. Maduro and Putin have been able to strike a relationship where there has been an understanding in areas such as energy and even defence.
  • Also, China has its own relationship with Venezuela. Russians have come out in strong support of the current Maduro regime in Venezuela, while the Americans are wanting to push Maduro out- this creates its own set of dynamics.
  • The presence of Russia and China in the region are giving the U.S. reasons to call this an external interference in the affairs of sovereign countries, and this is an important point which the Americans want to project on the global stage.  

Sreeram Chaulia, Dean, Jindal School of International Affairs weighed in with his arguments here.

The point around sovereignty and non-interference can be elaborated upon a bit. This is also part of the overall animosity between Russia and the U.S. This is because Putin, being a former KGB agent, has always been suspicious that the west has an agenda to overthrow him and other allied countries. This was further exacerbated when in 2016, Russia allegedly interfered and imposed its will on the U.S. elections. Thus, if we look at the dynamic, it is about regime and the perceptions of regime legitimacy. Despite Russia being in a difficult position economically, it has gone ahead and waved off many debts of the Venezuelan government. Also, Putin still believes Trump as an individual and he likes the fact that Trump is anti-establishment. Currently, we see that the deep state in the U.S. has its own agenda which is separate from that of Trump. This shows a kind of division within the U.S. state structure, which is refracting outwards, be it in Venezuela, or the overall relationship with Russia or elsewhere.

Sheel Kant Sharma, Former Ambassador, weighed in with his arguments here.


  • It is also important to note that Venezuela is home to a rich supply of oil. Venezuela is sitting on one of the largest reserves of oil. China and Russia are also looking at Venezuela from this angle along with the Americans.
  • Further, a certain section of the US body politic has stopped treating Russia as an equal. As a matter of fact, this has been the situation from the 1990’s onwards.   
  • Regarding the whole situation around arms control, the American position is reflected in the fact that the Americans don’t look at the other party as an equal at the negotiating table. Currently, the Americans are working on space-based weapons- this irritates the Russians.
  • However, Article 7 of the INF Treaty itself makes it very clear that the missiles which have been banned have nothing to do with any missiles that might be used as an interceptor. Thus, missile defence was ruled out from the text of the treaty.
  • Thus, the Russian argument of missile interceptors being used by countries (such as Japan), that allegedly amounts to a violation of the INF Treaty, has no ground.

Concluding Remarks:

  • The current relationship between the U.S. and Russia will play out the same way for the foreseeable future.
  • Also, Mr Trump’s political bandwidth to engage with Russia at a level where he can make certain decisive changes in American Policy is greatly lessened, given the alleged involvement of Russia in the elections of Mr. Trump.   
  • Currently, the traditional establishment in the U.S. has taken over America’s policy towards Russia. This traditional approach that America takes in its relationship with Russia will continue for the foreseeable future.
  • Whatever it is that the U.S. is trying to do, would have an “eye-on-China” perspective. 

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