A new Cold War era?

On March 1st Putin delivered his 14th annual state of the nation address to the Russian people, just ahead of the presidential elections next Sunday, where he hopes to be re-elected for a fourth term in office. Domestic and foreign policies were discussed at length, but one section of his speech stood out as considerably more jarring than the rest. Displayed behind the president was highly-detailed simulation footage showcasing the incredible abilities of Russia’s latest additions to its nuclear arsenal. Images of supersonic jets and underwater drones wowed the audience, but American powers perceived the slideshow as something more sinister – a warning.

Putin Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, 1 March 2018 /// Photo: kremlin.ru

Obama’s presidency saw a thaw in the famously frosty relationship between the US and Russia, and while Putin initially expressed his support for the new president shortly after Trump’s inauguration, a clash of personalities has caused the temperature of their relationship to drop rapidly. While Putin has dismissed Cold War comparisons as Western propaganda, President Trump has been characteristically forthcoming about the US’s ability to compete, claiming Washington would develop an arsenal ‘so strong and powerful it would deter any acts of aggression’ from Russia. The US has been updating its nuclear stockpile in line with Russian efforts, and recently released plans for new smaller atomic bombs, specially designed to deter Russia from nuclear action. Moscow responded by condemning the proposals as American ‘warmongering’ and released a quietly confident statement assuring ‘necessary measures’ would be taken to ensure Russian security.

President Obama and President Putin, 17 June 2013 /// Photo: Pete Souza

Such plans are not just in response to threats from Russia – US relations are also rocky with China, North Korea and Iran – but one American state feels especially victimised by Putin’s threats. In footage demonstrating how new Russian weapons would be used, one simulation appears to show missiles raining down on the unlikely target of Florida, the sunshine state. While this appears an unusual object of Russian aggression, it could hide substantial significance. Trump’s Floridian estate Mar-a-Lago houses several high-tech nuclear bunkers, one of which would likely shelter the president in the event of a detonation. Another potential target is US Central Command Headquarters in Tampa, which wields much military power and is responsible for high-profile operations in the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa.

Washington does not regard these videos as precise plans for war but recognises their desired function- Putin intends to send a message, and the US government has received it loud and clear. Despite this recent reignition of tensions, it should be stated that both nations already possess more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other multiple times over. A long history of enmity means the US reportedly has more than 100 nuclear warheads aimed at Moscow alone, and together the two states’ arsenals account for more than 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads. Pressure has been mounting since the beginning of the Cold War in the 1940s, and the accompanying arms race continues at full speed.

Photo: Voice of America

Potential aggression has thus far been kept under control by the New Start treaty- a strategic arms reduction agreement signed by Obama in 2011 which symbolised a partial defrosting of US-Russian relations. The deal cut Moscow and Washington’s nuclear stockpile by half, limiting each side to 800 deployed nuclear warhead systems and 1550 deployed warheads, as well as enhancing communication between governments to ensure all terms are being adhered to. This was a substantial move towards mutual disarmament but is only effective as long as it exists. The treaty is set to expire in 2021, and Trump looks reluctant to continue it- the importance of its renewal has been stressed by arms control experts, but the American president only wants a deal on his own terms.

Listening to Trump and Putin flaunt their nuclear prowess sheds light onto why some fear we are in the burgeoning stages of a second Cold War. Slick video footage of theoretical missiles hitting US soil is certainly startling, but it is in the threatening rhetoric of both leaders we hear echoes of when Kennedy and Khrushchev brought the world to the brink of nuclear war and only narrowly pulled it back. Washington’s nuclear arsenal may not have changed significantly since the Obama era, but the man in charge of it certainly has. Trump’s decision whether to renew the arms reduction treaty in 2021 will be crucial in predicting how their relationship will develop, and in either case the US and Russian government must start negotiating talks soon- they certainly have a lot to discuss.


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