Nuclear Weapons

The resurgence of a nuclear USA and Russia

Rising tensions as Obama reverses his stance on disarmement

March 6th 2015 | Pittsburgh | Will Tomer

Photograph by Jewel Samad

“It is now three minutes to midnight.”

So began the most recent press release, dated Jan. 22, 2015, from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists regarding the latest adjustment of the historic Doomsday Clock. The symbolic clock represents humanity’s proximity to total extinction. Midnight represents a global catastrophe caused by either nuclear war or climate change.

Dating back to its origin in 1947, the closest the clock has come to midnight was three minutes to midnight in 1984, when the United States deployed large numbers of missiles to Western Europe, further intensifying the arms race between the US and Soviet Union. Now, humanity has once again found itself nearing the brink thanks to the resurgence of nuclear weapons.

Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, cited recent efforts by the US and Russia to modernise their nuclear arsenals as the reason for the clock’s adjustment. She stated that “global nuclear weapons modernisations and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity”.


Obama’s stance on the issue

In the eyes of many, the blame for this push toward human annihilation is the fault of 2009 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, President Barack Obama. When Mr. Obama was given this award six years ago, just months into his presidency, the Norwegian Nobel Committee highlighted how his “vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations”.

At the time, the committee had every reason to believe this was his true vision. After all, Mr. Obama had given a speech in Prague about six months prior in which he expressed “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Now, with the end of Mr. Obama’s presidency on the horizon, America finds itself in the midst of its most intense attempt to advance its nuclear weapons supply in decades. The Obama administration has initiated a program to modernise the almost 2,000 aging weapons of mass destruction that the United States can launch from an array of missiles, submarines and bombers.

According to a report released by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the plan will cost the US $1 trillion over the next 30 years, returning financial expenditures on nuclear weapons to Reagan-era peaks.

Jeffrey Lewis, a co-author of the report and member of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, told the New York Times that Mr. Obama’s plan is fiscally unrealistic. “There isn’t enough money,” he said. “You are going to get a train wreck.”

For many supporters of disarmament, this incredible reversal in President Obama’s policy is not only a disappointment, but an outright betrayal. In an interview with the New York Times, Sam Nunn, a former United States senator whose writings regarding nuclear disarmament influenced Obama’s previous stance, expressed his confusion.

“A lot of it is hard to explain,” said Nunn. “The president’s vision was a significant change in direction. But the process has preserved the status quo.”


Russia as a military threat

The factor responsible for this plan of nuclear modernisation that most analysts point to is Russia’s renewed interest in nuclear weapons. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin recently bragged on state-run television that US missile defense systems “cannot stop” Russian ballistic nuclear missiles. He went on to assert that Russian technology “shows that neither the current, nor even the projected American missile defense system could stop or cast doubt on Russia’ strategic missile potential.”

This posturing has been dismissed by many as merely being hegemonic rhetoric meant to deflect views that the country is becoming weak under a failing economy. “If you’re Vladimir Putin and you’re trying to cling to and portray an image of Moscow as a superpower”, said former US ambassador Steven Pifer, “nuclear weapons is the only thing you have left to cite since the economy is suffering badly”.

Photograph by Getty Images

With the price of oil falling from over $100 a barrel at the end of 2013 to under $50 a barrel today, the Russian economy is struggling mightily. A recent series of studies conducted by the Economic Expert Group, a Russian consultancy, show that a $1 drop in the oil price per barrel leads to a massive loss of $2.3 billion in budget revenue.

Furthermore, the Russian annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in the Donbass region of Ukraine have exasperated feelings of a “new Cold War”. Recent headlines have even featured mention of Russian spy rings being caught on American soil.


The world’s nuclear future

Sarah Lain, a research fellow and expert on Russia at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, believes that Russia’s behavior is bringing about Cold War-esque relations through aggressive attempts to assert dominance, not only internationally, but also domestically.

“A lot of the information and claims from the Russian government are in some ways more directed toward the domestic audience” she says, “given the economic issues, demonstrating strength when there is weakness in domestic management”.

With Cold-War era relations returning to prominence and countries’ reliance on the power of their nuclear weapons arsenals increasing once again, it would seem the world is ticking quickly towards midnight.

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