History Could Repeat As The U.S. & Russia Face A Nuclear Arms Stand-Off

President Donald Trump has declared his intention to withdraw the United States from a cold-war era missile treaty with Russia, sparking fears he's opened a Pandora's box of international relations.

Since announcing the decision over the weekend the U.S. has sent its National Security Adviser John Bolton to Moscow to discuss the withdrawal.

Unsurprisingly the decision has drawn criticism from Russia,  with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov reportedly warning it would be a "dangerous step" that would draw criticism from the global community.

But on Monday, Trump reiterated his intent to withdraw the United States from the 1987 treaty and threatened to build up its nuclear arsenal to pressure  both Russia and China.

The conflict has drawn U.S-Russia relations back into the spotlight and even raised fears the two military super powers could be squaring to face-off on another nuclear arms race reminiscent of the Cold War era.

But an expert has warned that an arms race in a modern era could have much more significant repercussions with the U.S. and former Soviet power no longer the sole contenders to become the world's nuclear powerhouse.

A Russian Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile driving through Red Square in Moscow in commemoration of the end of WWII. In 2010 the new US-Russia nuclear pact establishes a 'legally-binding' link between offensive strategic weapons and missile defence systems, the Kremlin said. (Image: Getty)
What Is The 1987 Treaty?

The  Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was signed by US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington.

The agreement came about during the Cold War in 1987, an era of political history marked by a tense stand-off between America and the Soviet Union with the looming threat of nuclear conflict.

The treaty banned nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges of 500 to 5500 kilometres, as well as their launchers.

President Ronald Reagan throwing a football from his desk in the Oval Office. (Photo by Mary Anne Fackelman-Miner/White House/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

As Associate Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies at Curtin University Dr Alexey Muraviev explains, the treaty effectively specified parameters on the range of land based missile systems that could be deployed by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Muraviev told ten daily the significant outcome of the agreement was that Western Europe was no longer the potential target of Soviet missiles and ensured the heartland of the Soviet Union was also out of reach to the United States.

"It also provided a pathway to further mutual arms reductions," Muraviev said.

Gorbachev, who signed the initial agreement has reportedly also waded into the debate, saying a plan to withdraw from the treaty would be a reversal of efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament, the BBC reported.

General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (left) and US President Ronald Reagan (right) sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Washington, White House, December 8, 1987. (Photo by: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)
The Blame Game

Muraviev suggests there are two major explanations for why Trump has decided to threaten withdrawing from the treaty now.

The U.S. and Russia have both accused each other of violating the treaty's provisions for a long time.

"They've been violating it for many years. And I don't know why president Obama didn't negotiate or pull out," Trump told reporters over the weekend.

"We're not going to let them violate a nuclear agreement and go out and do weapons, and we're not allowed to."

Russia on its part has claimed that a NATO missile shield in Romania could launch nuclear missiles at any time.

A split, 2017, image of then US President-elect Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Trump, in an interview at the time suggested he may try to strike a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his nuclear arsenal. (Image:Getty)

Over the weekend a Russian Foreign Ministry source reportedly told the state news agency TASS that the US had wanted to take the step "for many years" and had been "intentionally and gradually eroding the contractual base".

According to Muraviev, Russia has also been insisting the provisions of the treaty have been outlived for several years.

Bringing In China

Another strong element that likely spurred Trump's announcement was the pressure the U.S. faces from the growing threat of China and it's super power economy.

Muraviev said this also explains why Trump called out China when he announced the U.S. may develop it's nuclear arsenal earlier this week, considering the Asian super-power was never privy to the initial treaty.

"Americans are seriously concerned by China's capability to undermine their own  missile capability," Muraviev told ten daily, attributing China's rapid development of land and cruise-based missiles.

"China is not restrained by what it can develop and deploy."

Muraviev also warned that underestimating Russia's rapid development of lethal weaponry and China's domineering economy could push Russia and China closer together.

"The circumstances have changed and what it can create is more problems for the Trump administration given that it's locked itself in fairly problematic relations with both Russia and china," Muraviev said.

"We've already seen a creation of some sort of informal alliance between Russia and Chinese when it comes to security... and this was manifested by China's involvement in Russia's strategic war games last month."

European Intervention

Any escalation of conflict between Russia and the United States is of course also cause for concern for the rest of Europe and has already sparked tension among European leaders.

The UK for it's part has said it stands "absolutely resolute" with the U.S. but German powers have criticised the move saying the U.S. should consider the international implications of such a move.

A government spokesperson reportedly described the agreement as “an important element of arms control that especially serves European interests.”

Muraviev said this was a clear example of that there is no unity amongst the U.S-European alliance and said the UK was not "doing itself any favours."

A Bulava missile launched by the Russian Navy Northern Fleet's Project 955 Borei nuclear missile cruiser submarine Yuri Dolgoruky from the White Sea in north-west Russia

"The UK government may show its solidarity with the US but the withdrawal from the treaty would have a detrimental impact on UK security because they would once again become  a target," Muraviev said.

"Europeans don’t want to live through the nightmare of a surprise nuclear attack from Russia which they lived in throughout 1970s up until late 1980s They understand that they would be the victim.

"The Europeans don't want to become the wasteland of tensions between the United States and Russia."
History Repeated?

While it's too early to tell what will come of the negotiations between the U.S. and Russia, Muraviev suggests the former Soviet Union will look to ensure any renegotiation of the treaty would include new military powers as well because of a change in strategic circumstances.

"Russia also stands in the position that both Moscow and Washington are nuclear superpowers they carry an extra degree of responsibility for international security, so they need to act responsibly," he said.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin at an arms conference in 2013 where he announced 22 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles would be added to Russia's nuclear arsenal in 2014 (Image: Getty)

Muraviev suggested any renegotiation would also have to be on par with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty which is set to expire in 2021.

He said it would also need to incorporate other countries with lethal weaponry capabilities including Iran, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea because otherwise it would give this club of other nations the "unrestrained" opportunity to develop these weaponry systems.

"One of the rationals for signing the 1987 treaty was to create the sense of a buffer zone to give the other party enough time in case of an unprovoked attack to make informed decisions and not have a knee-jerk reaction which increases error of judgement," Muraviev said.

"By scrapping this treaty we are potentially going back to the situation where no buffer zone will be present once Russia starts making military growth if the U.S. retreats."

Muraviev said this would increase nervousness and leave the world open to face another repetition of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

He said there was also no consensus domestically in the U.S. on Trump's intention and said it was "unclear" what the president was trying to achieve.

"Effectively Trump is opening a serious Pandora's box because it’s not just about having more problems with Russia and China," Muraviev said.

"It's also about how you are going to convince your own legislative power to approve, and about considering the potential consequences of going up against China's economy and Russia's lethal military expansion."

"This may well become a recipe for a potential disaster."

Contact the author: vgerova@networkten.com.au