The new Cold War

Russia and the U.S. remain friendly, but are engaged in a Cold War-style arms race.

By Page Rockwell
Published March 3, 2005 10:00AM (EST)

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced Tuesday that Russia is developing nuclear missiles that no defense system in existence can intercept. Military analysts have surmised that this means the country has zig-zagging missiles. (Until now, missiles haven't been able to change course at hypersonic speeds without self-destructing.)

Ivanov's announcement isn't big news in and of itself -- the Russian government has been implying that its new nukes have had these capabilities for months. But the announcement is newsworthy in that it was, as the AP noted, "an apparent allusion to the nascent U.S. missile defense system."

In his statement yesterday, Ivanov also lumped the U.S. in with other nuclear armed nations, who are ostensibly looser cannons: "Russia is stretched across 10 times zones, we have many neighbors, and not all of them are as predictable as European states," he said.

Russia has long expressed concern over the U.S.'s missile defense program. When President Bush declared in 2001 that the U.S. would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Ivanov forecast Russia's counter maneuver: "If the policy of deploying a national missile defense is pursued, Russia will be forced to take adequate measures to protect its national security... [These measures] will concern improvement of strategic nuclear forces and other 'asymmetric' measures which reduce the effectiveness of the U.S. missile defense."

Seems like a lot of armament for two countries that profess a peaceful relationship. (Publicly, Presidents Bush and Putin have made much of their friendship and ability to let Cold War bygones be bygones; Putin pledged Moscow's support for the international war on terror in 2001.) The current U.S.-Russian rivalry is reminiscent of the very arms race that the ABM treaty was intended to curb. And because the U.S. was the country to withdraw from the treaty and resume the development of its missile defense system, most Russians fault the U.S. for the escalation. Russian military columnist Victor Baranets has opined: "I understand America's measures as a continuation of the arms race. With our slim budget we are making an effort to catch up with the rich American chariot."

Neither the new missiles nor the competitive climate necessarily mean that the U.S. and Russia are headed for a showdown. But Ivanov's announcement reflects the deteriorating trust between the two nuclear superpowers. The increasingly chilly relationship could hinder U.S. leverage in talks about other controversial Russian plans, such as its providing nuclear technology to Iran. This combination of a renewed arms race and the prospect of supplying arms to smaller nations has some folks recalling the Soviet era. One blogger at BOPNEWS remarked that recent events give him a serious chill: "If the definition of a Cold War is a nuclear proliferation positioning game played out in geostrategic terms [using] third party proxy nations then we are already back in a Cold War."

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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