NATO’s New Cold War: A Nuclear Arms Race in US-Russian relations

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is the world’s most effective collective defense alliance, playing a fundamental role in the structure of transatlantic security. For the United States, NATO ultimately proved triumphant when the Cold War ended with the collapse of Communism in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. As a result, Russia declined as a global power over the next 25 years. In recent years, however, Russia has reemerged resurgent around the world. Russia views NATO’s enlargement and expanding role as a geopolitical threat, culminating in its confrontation with the European Union over control of Ukraine. In 2014, NATO adopted a more mobilized posture against Russia in Eastern Europe, as part of what has come to resemble a new Cold War. U.S.-Russian diplomatic engagement declined as a result of the geopolitical proxy conflict that has spilled over into the Middle East and elsewhere. Furthermore, the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the United States 2016 Presidential election has overshadowed the US-Russian relationship.

Image courtesy of Tetracarbon (c) 2017

However, the Trump Administration has pursued overall continuity in foreign policy on NATO by reaffirming the U.S. commitment to upholding Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and by designating Russia as a ‘great power’ and ‘strategic competitor’ in both the National Security Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review. Russia’s response to these announcements has further reinforced the tensions of this new Cold War environment. But, despite U.S. official policy on Russia, President Trump has continued to signal that he is open to cooperation with President Putin. Therefore, President Trump has created an ambiguous atmosphere where the actions of the President and the actions of his Administration are in conflict.  This situation can have catastrophic consequences unless the United States implements an updated coherent and comprehensive strategy and foreign policy toward Russia.

President Putin was re-elected for a fourth term on March 18, 2018, on the four-year anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. NATO-Russian relations have dramatically deteriorated since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, with the United States leading in imposing a series of economic sanctions and increasing NATO’s defenses in Eastern Europe. In response, Russia ceased cooperation with Europe and instead pursued a Eurasian strategy. Since 2015, Russia has involved itself militarily in the Syrian Civil war and strengthened its strategic alliance with Iran, challenging US interests in the Middle East and around the world.



President Putin’s antagonistic approach toward the United States was recently exemplified in his March 1, ‘State of the Nation’ speech. In it, Putin pledged to continue elevating his country’s global role while emphasizing the new “invincible” nuclear weapons that would allow Russia’s strategic arsenal to “render US missile defenses useless.” This speech is considered to be a response to the latest Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released on February 2, 2018.

Overall, the 2018 NPR is a continuation of U.S. policy from previous Administrations, but it differs in its policies regarding nuclear disarmament, encouraging an arms race instead. The Pentagon now believes that the United States needs to ensure a nuclear power balance with Russia, which, as the world’s biggest nuclear power, is naturally emphasized in terms of strategy throughout the NPR:

“Russia now perceives the US and NATO as its principal opponent and impediment to realizing its destabilizing geopolitical goals in Eurasia. Most concerning are Russia’s national security policies, strategy, and doctrine that include an emphasis on the threat of limited nuclear escalation, and its continuing development and fielding of increasingly diverse and expanding nuclear capabilities”

The Trump Administration’s new nuclear approach may be the bedrock of a more strategic foreign policy that aims to push back on a resurgent Russia within the context of great power geopolitics while seeking cooperation on common counterterrorism interests and whenever possible partnering to enforce a multilateral framework for global peace and stability. Thus, the strategy outlined in the NSS and NPR would create a more coherent and comprehensive U.S. foreign policy on Russia, notwithstanding the two President’s views of each other.

Recent events suggest there may be hope for a more coherent U.S. policy on Russia: In response to the March 4, 2018, incident in the United Kingdom, where a British former Russian spy was poisoned – NATO members including the United States have increased sanctions and reacted by expelling Russian diplomats across Europe, resulting in the biggest retaliation of this sort against Russia, since the end of the Cold War.  In addition, on March 13, 2018, President Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and named CIA Director Mike Pompeo as his replacement. This drastic move could result in an opportunity for the Trump Administration to develop a more effectively coherent and comprehensive strategy regarding NATO in the context of this new Cold War environment.

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