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No farewell to conflict

This article is over 21 years, 6 months old
Alex Callinicos looks at the US-Russian arms deal
Issue 1801

GEORGE W Bush said that last week’s agreement between the United States and Russia to cut the number of nuclear warheads they deploy would ‘liquidate the legacy of the Cold War’.

In fact the agreement is a relatively modest one. The US, against Russian protests, is reserving the right to store most of the 4,000 warheads it will remove from active use. This means they could be put back into service in future. The fact that Russian president Vladimir Putin accepted this agreement is an indication of the weak position he finds himself in.

As a Financial Times headline brutally put it, ‘Colin Powell Holds Whip Hand In Arms Talks With Russia’. Russia’s weakness was underlined on Tuesday of last week, when NATO foreign ministers agreed to set up a joint NATO-Russia council.

An earlier body created in 1997, the NATO-Russia Permanent Council, effectively collapsed because of Russia’s opposition to NATO’s 1999 war against Yugoslavia. The war reinforced the widespread view in the Russian establishment that profound antagonisms of interest between Washington and Moscow had survived the Cold War.

Shared fears of US dominance seemed to be pushing Russia and China, enemies since the 1960s, back together. When Putin visited China last year he and his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, set up the Shanghai Cooperation Council as a counterweight to the US.

Yet Putin reacted to 11 September by in effect abandoning this strategy. Russia did not attempt to block-or demand concessions in exchange for-US access to the Central Asian republics bordering Afghanistan in what was still regarded as a Russian sphere of influence.

Putin also muted his opposition to the Bush administration’s decision to denounce the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty and announce plans to build the Son of Star Wars missile defence system. Behind this lies Russia’s weakness. The burden of the arms race with the US helped break the back of the old Stalinist command economy back in the 1980s.

Writing in the Guardian, Martin Woollacott describes Putin as ‘the first Russian leader who truly understands the limits of Russian power-not only now, but even in a future where Russian military strength has been restored. Certainly his prudence means he has consistently avoided unwinnable confrontations. The arms treaty just signed with the US is another example of his determination to avoid unnecessary defeats, or at least unnecessarily public defeats.’

Putin’s calculation is that by firmly placing Russia within the Western camp he is likely to gain more than if he sought to build an anti-US coalition with China. Yet he is drawing close to NATO at precisely the time that the alliance’s influence is declining.

Certainly under Bill Clinton NATO was a key vehicle for US influence in Eurasia. The alliance, which should in all logic have been wound up when the Cold War ended, was revived and expanded into eastern Central Europe. The 1999 war was meant to be a test run for more ambitious ‘out of area’ operations by NATO.

Central Asia, with its vast energy reserves and strategic position on the borders of Russia and China, was regarded as a particularly important target for NATO expansion. The Bush administration is, however, much less interested in NATO.

The US State Department had been trying unsuccessfully for years to get the European powers to include counter-terrorism in NATO’s brief. Finally, after 11 September, the US got its way. NATO declared the attacks on New York and Washington as an attack on all its members. But the Bush administration brushed off NATO’s offers of help, preferring to go it alone in Afghanistan.

In part this reflects the perception in Washington that operating with allies imposes unnecessary constraints on US action. There were many complaints in the Pentagon about cumbersome NATO procedures during the Kosovo war.

But, in any case, the US is now in Central Asia without NATO’s help. After 11 September a string of US military bases has spread over the region. So Putin is hoping to increase Russian leverage in Washington by placing Russia firmly within the Western alliance at a time when the Bush administration thinks its allies don’t really count for much.

If he doesn’t get much in exchange for his concessions his political enemies, for example in the Russian military, will extract a high price. Competition between the Great Powers since the end of the Cold War has been very fluid. There is no sign that it has reached equilibrium yet.

Alex Callinicos is the author of The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx and a contributor to Marxism and the New Imperialism. Both are available from Bookmarks- phone 020 7637 1848 or go to


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