Picture: 123RF/Ales Utouka
Picture: 123RF/Ales Utouka

Welcome back to the cold war. Russia announced over the weekend that it intends suspending its obligations under a Cold War-era nuclear treaty, a tit-for-tat response to US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s announcement that the US would withdraw from the treaty in six months if Moscow doesn’t destroy missile systems that US officials say are in breach of the pact.

The pact, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, was signed in 1987 by president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate all land-based ballistic and cruise missiles. In all, 2,692 missiles were eliminated and 10 years of on-site verification followed.

It was a landmark achievement underpinned by an economically weakened Soviet Union. The twist was that both sides maintained their sea-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) based on the notion that mutually assured destruction (MAD) meant that neither side would start a nuclear war. The result is a perverse nuclear truce, as long as neither side developed a mechanism to defend itself.

MAD did not, however, cover the use of tactical nuclear weapons in a conventional war. That’s why the INF treaty was necessary. It was backed by European countries since in a conventional war Central and Eastern Europe would likely be the battleground.

One other Cold War-era truth was that everybody lied and claimed the claims of their opponents were false, whether they were or not. This duplicity has returned. The US claims the Russians have violated the treaty by creating the RS-24 road-mobile ICBM and the RS-26 ICBM. The Russians counterclaim that the US plans for a missile defence system in Europe violate the treaty, as do drones like the MQ-9 Reaper.

The US complaints date back to the Obama era, but the Russians published the specifications of the RS-24 to try to put the matter to rest.

The problem is that Vladimir Putin is a militaristic, quasi authoritarian, Russia-first kind of leader, and Donald Trump a shambling, gung-ho, America-first kind of leader.

Would you trust either to be sensible and prevent a nuclear war? Not really. Which is why nuclear arms control experts, including George Shultz, the US secretary of state when the INF was signed, urged Trump to preserve the treaty. So did the signatory on the Russian side, Gorbachev. The decision to pull out was "not the work of a great mind", he said.

And the next step? Another Cold War throwback: a new arms race.