- - Sunday, June 14, 2015

It is unrealistic at the moment to expect a speedy improvement of U.S.-Russia relations. This is regrettable, but it is a fact: The relations between the two countries today may be even worse than during Soviet times — a really disturbing development.

Russians and Americans alike are aware that their leaders are facing off on the political, economic and informational fronts, but they are also confronting each other in another area only followed by a narrow circle of experts. Tension there, though, bears directly on the most important security issues facing the whole planet.

The reference is, of course, to major arms control treaties. These took many years and tremendous efforts to negotiate, and yet they now dissolve one after another. Washington and Moscow keep accusing each other of violating and abrogating these treaties and plan new and often drastic retaliatory countermeasures.

Russia complains that 2002 saw a dramatic turn for the worse when the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, becoming the first nation since World War II to exit a major arms control agreement. This move was followed by the development of the U.S. Missile Defense System in several countries in Eastern Europe right near the Russian borders.

Moscow also repeatedly airs grievances regarding NATO. Despite the dissolution of the Soviet-era military Warsaw Pact, NATO, far from following that example, has expanded its membership from 12 nations to 28 and does not want to stop there. The United States continues to maintain significant nuclear arsenals in some European countries even though NATO has an overwhelming superiority over Russia in terms of conventional weapons in Europe.

Washington in turn accuses Moscow of numerous violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. This is a very important treaty signed in 1987 by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev. It led to the destruction of 2,692 such weapons, 846 by the United States and 1,846 by the Soviet Union. Under the treaty, both nations are also allowed to inspect each other’s military installations, which definitely adds to mutual security.

In response to the lack of progress in U.S.Russia missile defense talks and America’s definite intention to ignore Russia’s concerns, Moscow announced it will no longer abide by the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). As the next step, it is seriously considering withdrawing from the INF Treaty as well.

Despite certain budgetary and technological constrains, some American defense experts now suggest that Washington should also exit the INF Treaty and begin a crash program on its own to develop new missiles to confront not only Russia’s but also China’s growing military ambitions. All of this adds up to the beginnings of a new and incredibly dangerous arms race with totally unpredictable consequences.

The most logical way out of this nightmarish scenario would be direct negotiations or at least discussions between American and Russian experts in search of mutually satisfactory solutions. This, however, has not happened.

When Barack Obama came to the White House in 2008 and announced his now-defunct reset policy, a total of 21 bilateral government groups were formed to deal with almost all imaginary issues ranging from science, medicine and human rights to space, climate control and security. Some groups were to deal with the issues like arms control, international security, cybersecurity, defense and military cooperation, military technical cooperation, nuclear security and several other related subjects.

Later, however, President Obama with the support from Congress, following some logic that is hard to comprehend, ordered the work of all these groups to be frozen as a symbolic gesture to punish Russia for invading the Crimea and Ukraine. Regardless of one’s feelings about what is going on there, this seems irrational in light of the real dangers such negotiations were set up to avoid.

Scientists in both Russia and the United States are worried about the track the two governments seem to be headed down. Sigfried Hecker, former head of Los Alamos Laboratory, and many other top American nuclear scientists insist “U.S.Russia cooperation is absolutely essential when dealing with some of the lingering nuclear safety and security issues, like the threat of nuclear smuggling and nuclear terrorism, and to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.”

The Russian and American people should be demanding that their governments abandon symbolic brinksmanship in favor of serious negotiations and policies designed to protect their citizens and the world from future catastrophe. No one in either country contemplates a nuclear confrontation, but if comparatively minor differences are allowed to escalate through inattention, no one can predict what might happen in 10, 20 or more years into the future. The discussions that were taking place within the bilateral working groups set up to deal with arms control and nuclear security should resume as soon as possible.

Surely this is the only right move in a situation that is daily growing more dangerous.

Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow and professor of world politics at Moscow State University.

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