In the past several days, ever since a firm date and location were announced for a summit between the US and Russian presidents, 16 June in Geneva, American political scientists and journalists have been working overtime to fill newspaper columns and broadcast time with speculation on what should, what could be the agenda for such a meeting. As we all know, meetings of heads of state must be programmed in detail in advance to succeed.
We have heard, read that possible agenda items will include global hot spots such as Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine as well as the management of the Covid pandemic and implementation of the Paris agreement on cutting greenhouse emissions, among others.
Indeed, the foregoing discussion points are “highly likely” to receive attention of the principals and of the task forces in their suites. We may even see some agreements reached on common positions when the leaders present their conclusions at the press conference following their talks. However, this type of discussion leapfrogs over the question which analysts should be asking first: why exactly has the Biden administration moved so quickly to schedule a face to face meeting with Vladimir Putin, whom the American president, as a leader of the Democratic Party, had vilified for the whole of the Trump years in office. Biden was one of those who insisted that the Russians had intervened in the 2016 presidential elections to do dirt on Hilary Clinton and help elect Donald. He believed the Russians were guilty of the Novichok poisoning of the Skripals in English Salisbury in 2018. In his programmatic policy article published by Foreign Affairs magazine at the start of the presidential race early in 2020, he detailed how the Russians had pursued malign policies in Syria and elsewhere.
Most recently, Biden was in line with fellow Democrats in condemning the Russian imprisonment of opposition activist Alexei Navalny. In short, the Democrats, and Biden at their helm, had made Russia into the great villain behind most every development domestically or internationally harmful to American interests. The culmination was Biden’s confirmation a little more than a month ago to a television reporter that Putin “is a killer.”
So why is Joe Biden pressing ahead with a meeting so early in his tenure in office? We are told that the objective is to achieve “greater stability” in bilateral relations. But I have not heard from our commentators what stability is to be addressed. In the brief essay which follows, I will attempt to fill that void. In doing so, I will ignore all the aforementioned agenda items, which I consider to be little more than a distraction to draw public attention away from the essence of the forthcoming meeting, from what is driving the American side since it is simply too embarrassing for hubristic American elites to swallow this truth.
In my reductionist approach, the summit has one driver behind it, namely to put a cap on an arms race that the United States is losing, if it has not already irrevocably lost, and to prevent the adverse shift in the strategic balance against America from getting still worse. The side benefit would be to strike down planned military expenditures budgeted for well over a trillion dollars to modernize the nuclear triad alone. This would thereby free funds for the massive infrastructure investments that Biden is presently trying to push through Congress.
In saying this, I am not guessing or engaging in wishful thinking. I am basing myself on facts that go back to March 2018. These facts are not being marshalled today by my peers, firstly because foreign policy commentators in the public domain tend not to have memories that go back more than a month or two, and secondly because the facts themselves were officially suppressed at the time and never appeared in the mainstream media. What publication there was occurred in the so-called alternative media, by the efforts of myself and a few other contrarians, as I will detail below.
The events I am alluding to relate to the dramatic disclosure of Russia’s latest cutting edge strategic weapons systems by Vladimir Putin in the last third of his lengthy address to Russia’s joint session of its bicameral legislature, what we commonly call his State of the Nation address. Putin described in detail the operational capabilities of new systems that were ready for release to the active military forces or were far advanced in the testing and production pipeline. These included hypersonic missiles flying at Mach 10 and more. He claimed that the new weapons systems marked the first time in history that Russia had moved ahead of the West in innovative, unparalleled performance of its arms, whereas in the Soviet past, from the end of the Second World War and advent of the nuclear age, they had always been playing catch-up. Moreover, he insisted that the new weapons systems signified the restoration of strategic parity with the United States.
Since the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2002 under George Bush, US policy had aimed at enabling a first strike knocking out Russian ICBMs and then rendering useless Russia’s residual nuclear forces which could be shot out of the air by U.S. anti-ballistic missile systems. Russia’s new, maneuverable and ultra-high speed missiles could evade all known ABMs. According to Putin’s text in March 2018, the new Russian strategic arms relegated the hundreds of billions that the Americans had invested in achieving superiority to the status of a modern day Maginot Line. Whatever Washington could throw at Russia, the residual Russian forces would penetrate American defenses and wreak havoc on the American homeland.
In the days following this “shock and awe” speech, the mainstream U.S. media reacted to Putin’s claims with incredulity. The notion that his relatively poor country could move ahead of the United States in strategic weapons, working from a budget 10 times less, seemed improbable to many. Moreover, skeptics pointed to the context of Putin’s speech, which was in effect his electoral platform for the presidential elections later in the same month. They argued that his grand show before parliament was for domestic consumption, to defend himself against Russia’s Liberals, who had made corruption and theft of state assets their battering ram and who argued, like Yabloko candidate Grigory Yavlinsky, that the country could never be a military match for the West given its low GDP and manufacturing industry.
However, in official Washington, and surely inside the Pentagon, there were those who did not let ubiquitous arrogance and supposed exceptionalism blind them to the facts Putin had produced. If his presentation were a bluff, it would put in jeopardy tens of millions of his compatriots and it was out of character for a leader who had always been restrained and consequential. Among those who were alarmed by Putin’s roll-out of the technical capabilities now possessed by the Russians were four U.S. Senators, three of them full-fledged Democrats and one Independent who otherwise ran as a Democrat when he sought the presidency. The two Senators I call particular attention to here were Dianne Feinstein of California and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the nominal Independent.
I mention Sanders, because he was one of the more visible Putin-bashers among the Democratic Party leadership when he ran for the presidency in party primaries. Feinstein is notable because at the time she was one of the longest serving members of the Senate Intelligence Committee where, from 2009 to 2015, she was the chair. Therefore, we may well assume that what Putin revealed at the start of March 2018 had not figured in the assessments of Russian military might by the whole U.S. intelligence establishment. This was an enormous intelligence failure, but it was not unique as regards U.S. understanding of Russia in those years. Time after time, the Americans had found themselves clueless about Russian demarches, including, for example, the Kremlin’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, the establishment of its joint intelligence command with Baghdad, its receiving overflight rights of Iran and Iraq to carry on its mission in Syria. These “surprises” had come despite the presence of thousands of U.S. intelligence officers in Iraq.
In an open letter to then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson published on the Senate website of one of the four signatories, Senator Jeff Merkey (D- Oregon) these four Democratic Senators called upon him to immediately enter into arms control negotiations with the Russians, notwithstanding all of the differences with the Russians in so many other domains.
I quote from the opening paragraphs:
“We write to urge the State Department to convene the next U.S.-Russia Strategic Dialogue as soon as possible. A U.S.-Russia Strategic Dialogue is more urgent following President Putin’s public address on March 1st when he referred to several new nuclear weapons Russia is reportedly developing including a cruise missile and a nuclear underwater drone, which are not currently limited by the New START treaty, and would be destabilizing if deployed.”
Specifically, they proposed that the new Russian weapons systems be brought into the SALT treaty, which they urged him to extend. This would ensure strategic stability.
I quote from their closing paragraph:
“There is no guarantee that we can make progress with Russia on these issues. However, even at the height of Cold War tensions, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to engage on matters of strategic stability. Leaders from both countries believed, as we should today, that the incredible destructive force of nuclear weapons is reason enough to make any and all efforts to lessen the chance that they can never be used again.”
This letter by four U.S. Senators published on the Senate website of one was picked up by the agency RIA Novosti, RBK and Tass within hours of initial posting, from where it went into mainstream Russian news. However, mainstream U.S. and other Western media did not give a single line of coverage to it and it disappeared in days as if down a black hole.
However, all traces of nervousness in official Washington did not end there. Later in the month, following the victory of Vladimir Putin in the elections which took place on the 18th , The New York Times carried on page one a report of Donald Trump’s remarks about his phone call to congratulate his Russian counterpart:
“We had a very good call,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “We will probably be meeting in the not-to-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control.”
Yet, even the words of a president led to nothing, and the issue of Russia’s possibly having achieved strategic parity with the United States and reinstated Mutually Assured Destruction was left without public discussion in Washington. The President called for and Congress reacted positively to raising the defense budget and in particular to funding a massively expensive modernization of the country’s nuclear weapons potential.
A year later, in his February 2019 State of the Nation address Vladimir Putin returned to the question of Russia’s new strategic arms and what they meant for bilateral relations with the United States. As he said explicitly now, the country’s new hypersonic weapon systems would enable Russia to reach targeted American cities within the same 10-12 minutes that the Americans would enjoy by lobbing their slower missiles at Moscow from perches in Poland and Romania. Still the United States did not react. America was very busy with its domestic political wars.
In 2020, Russia, the United States and the world at large were wholly absorbed in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. However, in 2021 the Kremlin has repeatedly called attention to those of its most advanced weapons that are now integrated into its armed forces and are fully operational. As Vladimir Putin remarked in an address to one professional organization a week ago that was covered extensively on state television’s evening news, the firings of its newest missiles have been followed closely by American intelligence. With more than a dollop of contempt for American pigheaded self-indulgence and denial of reality, Putin said that the Russians stood ready to share their telemetric recordings with the United States so that they could see better what they were now up against.
The caustic disdain for Russia’s ill-wishers implicit in that statement is fully symptomatic of the latest hard line that we see in Russian foreign policy ever since Biden assumed the presidency. Putin is not coddling Joe the way he did Donald. The Kremlin has no illusions about the Cold War mentality of its American and of its European adversaries, and it is responding in kind. This pertains to diplomatic expulsions, to economic and personal sanctions, to whatever slings and arrows come its way.
In recent weeks, we have seen how every affront to Russian national pride and to international diplomatic norms has been met by a Russian response that went one step further against “unfriendly states,” of which the United States is now listed officially.
In this highly charged atmosphere, we may assume that sober reports on Russian military capabilities have been fed to the President by senior Pentagon officials. While politicians have engaged in their blather, for many weeks these military men in the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been engaging their counterpart in the Russian military establishment, General Gerasimov, to keep the peace, avoid misunderstandings where U.S. and Russian forces act in close proximity and to maintain “stability.” It is a safe bet that their concerns are what is driving the agenda for the summit, and it is a safe bet that the Biden-Putin meeting will end in some agreement on procedures for negotiating a broader and deeper arms control treaty. Whatever else happens at the summit in Geneva will be cherries on the cake.
https://gilbertdoctorow.com/2018/03/02/missile-gate – lengthy analysis of the defense part of Vladimir Putin’s speech to the bicameral Russian legislature and of the reasons for the collapse of U.S. intelligence reporting on Russia over several decades