USA Foreign Policy First Look

Why Mikhail Gorbachev is worrying about US-Russia nuclear war

In an opinion piece for Time, Mikhail Gorbachev expressed concern about increasing militarization and called for renewed political dialogue between the United States and Russia.

In this photo taken Friday, Dec. 9, 2016 former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev speaks to the Associated Press during an interview at his foundation's headquarters, in Moscow, Russia. In an opinion piece for Time on Thursday, Gorbachev expressed concern about the increasing militarization of politics and called for the US and Russia to take the lead in ensuring global security.
Ivan Sekretarev/AP/File
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The threat of nuclear war is a familiar one to Mikhail Gorbachev. And in today’s world, he sees many of the same challenges that confronted the US and the Soviet Union during the cold war.

In an opinion piece for Time on Thursday, the last Soviet premier described the “new arms race” as the most urgent problem facing the world today. He writes that the "world is preparing for war," and as in the past, Europe is becoming increasingly militarized, while politicians and pundits employ divisive rhetoric that only heightens tensions. Mr. Gorbachev also lamented another parallel: while military spending rises seemingly without limit, countries are cutting essential social services that many citizens rely on.

But if the problem is the same as during the cold war, Gorbachev suggested history may also provide the solution: dialogue between the two countries. Improving relations between the US and Russia might not only defuse a complex and high-stakes political situation, but also make it easier to address other global challenges.

“One of the main freedoms is freedom from fear,” Gorbachev wrote, quoting President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Ridding the world of this fear means making people freer.… Many other problems would then be easier to resolve.”

During the late 1980s, Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan worked together to reduce the two superpowers’ nuclear weapon stockpiles and limit the possibility of nuclear war. That cooperative effort allowed for a drawdown in nuclear weapons, to the point that 80 percent of the warheads accumulated during the arms race have now been decommissioned and destroyed, Russia and the United States reported to the Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

As relations have cooled in the ensuing decades, Gorbachev has repeatedly called for reviving the same approach that made that drawdown possible. In 2014, with tensions running high over Ukraine, he advocated that US and Russian leaders hold a summit to “unfreeze relations.” In October, for the 30th anniversary of the Reykjavik Summit with President Reagan, he called for the two countries to “renew dialogue.”

In today’s political context, the lessons of the cold war seem particularly relevant. On Thursday, scientists from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reset their symbolic “Doomsday Clock” to 2.5 minutes before midnight, the closest it has been to midnight since 1953 (the year the arms race began).

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin share much of the responsibility for improving relations, Gorbachev wrote, a view shared by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. And dialogue may have potential, some Russian observers suggest.

“I can't tell you how many times over the years I've heard Russians say that our two countries are the world's biggest, and if they could just get together we could solve all the problems,” Russian broadcasting legend Vladimir Posner recently told The Christian Science Monitor’s Fred Weir.

The two countries’ leaders, however, haven't yet shown much interest in taking lessons from the past. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in December, Mr. Trump suggested that he would increase the United States’ nuclear weapons arsenal, saying, “Let it be an arms race.” And unlike Soviet leaders during the last years of the cold war, who actively sought to improve relations with the US and Europe, Mr. Putin “seems to favor maintaining a certain level of tension,” Matthew Evangelista, a professor of history and political science at Cornell University, previously told the Monitor.

Trump and Putin may find common ground in the fight against Islamic terrorists, such as ISIS. In fact, Moscow seems to be keeping a seat open for the US at the table of the latest effort at Syrian peace talks. But Gorbachev's says that's not enough.

There is a view that the dialogue should focus on fighting terrorism. This is indeed an important, urgent task. But, as a core of a normal relationship and eventually partnership, it is not enough.

Gorbachev’s favored approach – a bilateral dialogue across a range of issues – may not come to fruition. But calming the bellicose rhetoric of politicians on both sides might be a first step toward countering fear and improving relations.

“I cannot hope for [a] real 'reset'" now,”  Ivan Kurilla, a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg who focuses on Russian-American relations, told the Monitor in October. “But I do hope that the dangerous 'Cold War style' rhetoric will give place to realistic exchanges.”

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