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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

To Trust or Not to Trust

Trust, but verify." With these words, spoken in Russian, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan opened up a new era of arms-control agreements. At first glance, this phrase would also seem to sum up the connection between the agreements of this era -- which are notable for their exhaustively detailed verification procedures -- and the elusive and impossible-to-quantify quality of mutual trust.


However, Reagan also never tired of noting that governments arm themselves because they do not trust one another. It seems to me that now, when so many complications have arisen concerning the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe and when it is certain that the START-2 Treaty faces serious problems in the Russian parliament, we all need to remember a basic fact: The degree of mutual trust between Russia and the West is a crucial factor influencing the future of these agreements.


Unfortunately, that trust -- under the influence of the domestic political debates both in the United States and in Russia -- is almost visibly draining away. The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to block financial aid to Russia for the next fiscal year because of accusations that Russia, in violation of a 1972 agreement, has continued to develop bacteriological weapon


It is interesting to note that such suspicions have been raised almost every year since the agreement was ratified. The problem is that verifying this agreement is extremely difficult, if not impossible. If one side or the other wished to, it would only take a matter of hours to develop significant stocks of such weapons. As a result, bacteriological weapons as such do not exist in sufficient quantities to make inspections relevant. Verification depends on indirect factors, primarily the extent to which biological laboratories are protected and the presence of special apparatuses at military test sites.


Some Russian military experts believe that equipment at certain U.S bases indicates the possibility that bacteriological weapons could be created there. Obviously, analogous suspicions have been raised among American experts concerning Russian biological laboratories. Throughout all the years since the agreement came into force, an exchange has been going on through diplomatic channels on how to develop an effective verification system. But whenever the need arose to express distrust, the topic of bacteriological weapons was ready and waiting.


Now, the old bacteriological canard has appeared once again. In order "to pressure Moscow," the U.S. Congress intends to suspend the financial aid to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan that has been allocated for the realization of the START-1 Treaty. That money was to have been spent to transport nuclear warheads to Russia and destroy them. If the Congress goes ahead with this intention, Moscow will most likely not be able to meet its obligations under the treaty on time. And this will provide new fodder for further suspicion.


Now is precisely the moment to point out a clear contradiction within the complex of U.S.-Russian relations at present. On the one hand, in an effort to gradually and very carefully reduce their enormous strategic arsenals, Moscow and Washington have been forced to maintain the old structure of global confrontation. It is simply impossible to immediately get rid of the weapons accumulated over decades. However, as long as the confrontation remains, the danger of backsliding exists.


On the other hand, one of the main achievements of the end of the Cold War has been mutual trust. And I am not speaking simply of observing the letter of agreements, but of the agreements themselves which have been reached on the basis of significant compromises. Such compromises are impossible if either side seriously believes that its security depends on mutually assured destruction.


For example, when the START-2 Treaty is realized, Russia will control a smaller number of warheads and delivery vehicles than the United States. Moreover, Moscow will not have the money to build modern weapons to replace those liquidated under the agreement. The United States will be in a clearly advantageous position. Of course, in an atmosphere of mutual trust, such a situation is acceptable. But without trust, the same situation looks extremely dangerous.


The U.S. Congress is now demonstrating its clear mistrust of Russia. It has decided not merely to cancel funding for the destruction of nuclear warheads, but also for the construction of housing for soldiers withdrawn from the Baltic States and for a number of other programs.


Russia is not interested in the nuances of relations between the White House and Capitol Hill. After all, Russian legislators are also extremely inclined to use the ratification of START-2 as part of their own election campaigns. The House's decision forces them to doubt whether their partner will be able to fulfill the obligations that it has undertaken. And it encourages mistrust in general, whenever there are efforts to use established agreements to pressure Moscow on contested issues that are not directly related to them. Such pressure has been used, for example, to push Washington's case on Russian proposals to sell nuclear reactors to Iran and Cuba.


Such incidents present Moscow with some dangerous temptations. Unlike, say, China, Russia does not have any powerful economic leverage over the United States. The only area of sensitivity to the United States that Russia can affect is in the sphere of security. Russia can pressure Washington by threatening to reconsider arms-control agreements. This, in turn, would undermine the only concrete grounds for cooperation between the two countries yet established. The virus of suspicion, of course, has nothing to do with bacteriological weapons. But it is certainly capable of being transmitted from one legislature to another.





Alexander Golz is a political commentator for Krasnaya Zvezda. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.