The need for international law

With both Russian and American nuclear arsenals being "modernised," international agreements and norms are now more important than ever. 

Xanthe Hall
19 January 2015
No nukes

Obama and Putin need to listen. Flickr/Matthias Lambrecht. Some rights reserved.Long before the crisis in Ukraine began to unfold, the way back to Cold War was being paved by those who profit from arms racing. This past year has been full of accusations, flying back and forth between the US and Russia – who shot the demonstrators; who is to blame for shooting down a plane; is Russia orchestrating and providing military assistance for the ongoing civil war in East Ukraine; has the United States provoked Russia with threats and military exercises, NATO expansion and missile defence? And so on, endlessly.

All the while both the United States and Russia have been building up their nuclear forces. Not in numbers, but in their combat capabilities. While the US justifies its modernisation plan with the need to make their ageing arsenal safe and reliable (with the emphasis on reliable, meaning that they would work if used), the Russians say they need to improve the capability of their arsenal to overcome US missile defence, to offset US conventional military superiority provided, and to defend its long border with China.

Neither spins are convincing. On both sides, market forces are central. Staggering amounts of money are being spent on maintaining nuclear research and development complexes and production facilities. While more is publicly known about corruption, head-hunting and overpayment in the US nuclear weapons labs, in Russia the veil of secrecy was only lifted for a short time during Gorbachev's Perestroika and then the nuclear weapons complex became, more than ever, obscured from public scrutiny.

Europe’s balancing act

Europe sits in the middle, tugged back and forth between the need to live and trade with Russia, and the fears of the states on the eastern front-line of Europe that they could be overrun again by an expansionist Russia. Chancellor Merkel is on permanent shuttle diplomacy, assuring the Russians they are not the enemy while making clear that she will not put German trade interests above NATO solidarity. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is also busy defending his own company: Gazprom, the Russian gas giant. There are thinly-veiled accusations in the US that Merkel is working too closely with Russia – perhaps explaining why the National Security Agency is keen to monitor her communications. There is a deep underlying American (as well as British and French) distrust of Germany's attempts at mediation, while domestically the German government is under pressure not to be too pro-American, not to get dragged into any more wars because of NATO membership and to get rid of US nuclear weapons, or at least not allow the deployment of new ones.

Against this backdrop, the Russian Bear is stirring – visibly. Echoes of the Soviet Union sound in reports of new nuclear missile trains, like in the Cold War era. Putin and his cohorts are very fond of macho “don't mess with us” threats, parading new mobile and submarine ballistic missile tests in the media. An article in Pravda crows endlessly about Russia's military superiority in just about every sphere, giving the lie to their spin of needing nuclear weapons to defend against an aggressive, militarily superior United States. Despite assurances from many experts that Putin's regime needs to show muscle to maintain his domestic power, all these threats and developments have the effect of also bolstering the hawks in the US.

Escalating tensions

The consequences of all of this sabre-rattling and nuclear muscle-flexing are now taking shape. Alleged violations of the Treaty on Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) by the Russians prompted Congress, now under Republican majority, to pass a law on December 18th that includes a dangerous ultimatum. Either the Russians desist in their development of a Ground-Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM R-500) that allegedly has a higher range than the permitted 500 km, or the US must take countermeasures. In a hearing of two Congress subcommittees on December 10th, some of those countermeasures were openly stated – others were held back for closed session. At best, according to Brian McKeon, Under-Secretary of Defence for Policy, the US will improve its missile defence to cover INF-range missiles. At worst, it will leave the INF-Treaty and/or deploy ground-launched Cruise Missiles of its own in Europe.

Russia has 90 days to respond and then Obama is required to act. To be fair to his administration, both Brian McKeon and Rose Gottemoeller, Under-Secretary for Arms Control at the State Department, argued vehemently for staying in the INF-Treaty and continuing on a diplomatic path. Gottemoeller cited Russian violations of the ABM-Treaty at the time of the Reagan presidency, when diplomatic efforts continued for five years and were eventually successful. McKeon pointed out what the world looked like without the INF-Treaty – and made clear that no-one wanted to go back there.

And yet it seems that there are people who do want to go back there. Watching the video of the hearing was disturbing because of the sheer nastiness of the bullying by Republican Congressmen of the administration officials, who were desperately trying to defend arms control and international law. In response to a full-frontal attack by Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) who asked, given Russian actions in Ukraine, “At what point in time does international law mean anything as long as we allow them to continue violating international law?” Gottemoeller responds by saying: “The structure of international law provides for global security and stability overall and because there are violations out there, as in the case of the Crimea (…) doesn't mean that we do away with OSCE principles or the UN Charter”. She maintained that it is important to keep the system of law in place so that “we can go after” countries that violate international law.

Although this might be seen by many as being hypocritical coming from an official of a country that has itself repeatedly violated international law by infringing on the sovereignty of other countries and invading or bombing them – while at the same time not recognising the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court – it is comforting to know that the Obama administration at least understands the arguments as to why international law is so important for world peace.

At the same time, Russia has its own set of accusations about US violations of the INF-Treaty, involving the use of mid-range missiles in the missile defence system planned for Europe and the potential for Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV, also known as drones) to be used as an intermediate range delivery system. Both of these accusations have some merit, but are strongly refuted by US officials. Yet it is clear that both countries are operating in a very grey area of restricted development. McKeon even admits that although the US has no mid-range GLCMs deployed in Europe at present because of the treaty, it would be an option, suggesting that they are already in possession of the means to do so.

The INF-Treaty has fallen into disrepair, in the same way the CFE-Treaty has – an equally important treaty for the maintenance of peace in Europe. The Special Commission on Verification of the INF-Treaty has not convened since 2003. On-site inspections were abandoned when the START 1 Treaty expired, and mechanisms for dealing with alleged violations are increasingly limited, as are joint US-Russian projects on non-proliferation. 

Europe has an important role to play in offsetting a new Cold or even Hot War. The weakened Obama administration is fighting a battle at home with defence contractors and their paid Congressmen who want more money for new land-based missiles. At the same time, Putin is fighting his own battle to stay at the helm of his oligarchy. And yet both insist they are true upholders of international law who seek world peace. In this time when we all mourn the dead in Paris and seek to be united in the face of all criminal and barbaric acts, we need international law to provide that structure for global security and stability – now more than ever.

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