New Delhi: After the trade war with China and the tightening of the sanctions regime with respect to Russia, Donald Trump has shocked the two rival Major Powers to the United States by sending them notices that he intends to start the nuclear arms race once again. Last week, the US president abandoned the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty which was one of the low hanging fruits when Ronald Reagan decided to confront the “evil empire” helmed by the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev. Having criticized SALT II and seeking not merely limitations but dramatic reductions in nuclear weapons being seized with the fear of nuclear Armageddon, Reagan hoped to bludgeon the Soviet Union into submission with the blunt instrument of the Strategic Defence Initiative. The INF treaty was the most he could get for his labours and its durability was a testimony to its widespread acceptance till Trump stepped in to scrap it. With that, the last significant impediment to an expanded US nuclear programme has been removed, and Trump’s aim is not just to gain overwhelming superiority in nuclear weapons worldwide but to bankrupt China and Russia with the ensuing competition.

Donald Trump is correct that previous administrations did not act to counter expansions in Russia and China’s nuclear weapons programmes putting US security at risk. Not only was the US weapons’ programme not geared to modernization on scales set by Russia and China but the United States’ Major Power rivals were introducing weapons and platforms to cater to new doctrines of nuclear war-fighting. Russia saw strategic threats grow after the annexation of the Crimea and appropriation of eastern Ukraine. China felt the need to deter the United States and any coalition of states it could put together to challenge its claims to the South China Sea and the East China Sea and the islands within. Russia and China have both tested new weapons and platforms without overly worrying about the US reaction -- until now. Now they find their applecart upset. Moscow and Beijing have realized that Donald Trump is to be taken seriously and resisted where possible.

Trouble is resisting Donald Trump’s geopolitics is far from easy because he takes calculated risks. For example, instead of confronting China in the South China Sea with an armada, he has set in motion an arms race which would compel Beijing to take countermeasures at the cost of economic growth. The Chinese economy has suffered a grievous blow from the trade war with the United States with companies shutting down, layoffs rising, and markets tottering in the face of growing uncertainties. The Russian economy was never impressive and a nuclear arms race could throw it off the cliff. The shock could abruptly end Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship.

What terrifies Russia and China is the United States’ accent on nuclear war-fighting with tactical nuclear weapons. This pushes back deterrence by more than half-a-century and locates it approximately in the late-fifties and early-sixties when the likes of Henry Kissinger advocated “winnable limited wars” with battlefield nuclear weapons. While Kissinger was brought into government because of his hard line and analytical prowess, the concept of “limited nuclear war” never gained wide or sustained traction with arms control experts who challenged his understanding of nuclear weapons and deterrence mathematics. But most Cold War nuclear experts of that time have passed on with the exception of Henry Kissinger who surprisingly still gets about a lot. Unobtrusively, Kissinger is close to the Trump White House and lots of the Trump administration’s nuclear expansion policies could have originated with him. However, Trump is not a warmonger such as Henry Kissinger in his day. Trump is perhaps employing Kissinger’s deterrence philosophies but towards ends which would at least partly have satisfied George F. Kennan. Trump is practising neo-classical containment. His sequencing is inspiring. He has hurt the Russian and Chinese economies and thus rendered them incapable of sustaining the nuclear arms race for long. Russia and China would have to sue for peace but it is likely too late. US nuclear weapons were long due for modernization but the new doctrines that would underpin modernization could also spur new weapons’ developments, which would suck Russia and China into an unaffordable arms race. The end is nigh for Russia and China. India must re-evaluate relations with Russia and China with new spaces opening up for geo-economic competition with China.