“We are moving in a minefield, and we don’t know from where the explosion will come.”
A warning from former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov delivered at this week’s influential Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington DC.
Former US senator and long-time arms control activist Sam Nunn echoed the sentiment. “If the US, Russia and China don’t work together,” he argued, “it is going to be a nightmare for our children and grandchildren.”
He urged the present leaders to emulate the approach taken by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev towards the end of the Cold War, and to rally around the premise that nuclear war cannot be won, and must therefore never be considered.
Mr Reagan dreamed of missile-proof ballistic missile defences, but also came close to negotiating a comprehensive nuclear disarmament deal with his Russian counterpart Mr Gorbachev.
His endeavours led to the Start Treaty, which scaled back the two nuclear superpowers’ cache of weapons.
Today the future of that treaty’s successor – the so-called “New Start agreement” – is in doubt. The intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty has collapsed, after the US and then Russia suspended participation.
US President Donald Trump insists that Russia has broken the agreement for years, and has now deployed battalions of ground-launched cruise missiles that breach its terms.
Russian President Vladimir Putin denies this, but Nato colleagues have backed Washington.
Nonetheless, many US allies are unhappy with Mr Trump’s whole approach to international affairs, as was apparent at the conference.
Germany’s ambassador to the US, Emily Haber, pointed to the “erosion of the system of rules” which had previously regulated the international system.
She noted the extensive use of economic sanctions to punish a country’s past behaviour rather than shape its future conduct, a reference perhaps to US sanctions against Russia in the wake of its 2015 seizure of Crimea.