WASHINGTON — It has the makings of a new Cold War, or worse.
The deep chill in U.S.-Russian relations is stirring concern in some quarters that Washington and Moscow are in danger of stumbling into an armed confrontation that, by mistake or miscalculation, could lead to nuclear war.
American and European analysts and current and former U.S. military officers say the nuclear superpowers need to talk more. A foundational arms control agreement is being abandoned and the last major limitation on strategic nuclear weapons could go away in less than two years. Unlike during the Cold War, when generations lived under threat of a nuclear Armageddon, the two militaries are barely on speaking terms.
“During the Cold War, we understood each other’s signals. We talked,” says the top NATO commander in Europe, U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who is about to retire. “I’m concerned that we don’t know them as well today.”
Scaparrotti, in his role as Supreme Allied Commander Europe, has met only twice with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian general staff, but has spoken to him by phone a number of other times.
“I personally think communication is a very important part of deterrence,” Scaparrotti said, referring to the idea that adversaries who know each other’s capabilities and intentions are less likely to fall into conflict. He added: “It doesn’t have to be a lot.”
The United States and Russia, which together control more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, say that in August they will leave the 1987 treaty that banned an entire class of nuclear weapons. And there appears to be little prospect of extending the 2010 New Start treaty that limits each side’s strategic nuclear weapons.
After a period of post-Cold War cooperation on nuclear security and other defense issues, the relationship between Washington and Moscow took a nosedive, particularly after Russian forces entered the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2008. Tensions spiked with Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and its military intervention in eastern Ukraine.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview Friday that Russian behavior is to blame for the strained relationship.
“It’s very difficult for us to have normal relationships with a country that has not behaved normally over the last few years,” Dunford said.
Moscow says it is ready to talk.