Despite tensions over Ukraine and interference with elections, Russia and the US must lead on nuclear security
By Richard Weitz*
Having completed his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in talks that apparently focused on Syria and Korea, Donald Trump has now met with most of the world’s key leaders with the exception of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite all the earlier talk of bromance between the two leaders, a delay is not surprising in light of the controversy surrounding Russia.
When this meeting occurs, the discussion will likely focus on military and political developments in Syria, Ukraine and other regions. The two presidents might also discuss non-interference in national elections and promoting security in Afghanistan and Central Asia, where Washington and Moscow agree on the imperative of limiting Islamic extremism but differ on how to do so.
The most crucial issue for their first personal encounter will be arms control, nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear security – the three main dimensions of Russian-US strategic cooperation. The latter two issues have greater prospects, since Moscow and Washington agree on the need to deny North Korea, Iran, and other state and non-state actors access to nuclear weapons.
Neither Russia nor the United States wants North Korea to have nuclear weapons, test ballistic missiles or engage in WMD proliferation. US policymakers see these activities as direct threats to US security, while Russian leaders fear that they could cause conflict on their borders and strengthen US alliances in Asia, in addition to other problems.
The Trump administration has ordered a review of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Russia can help sustain what is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by pressing Tehran to limit its long-range ballistic missile development program as well as Iran’s confrontational regional policies. Moscow and Washington should also discuss directly, as well as with other parties, what nuclear activities Iran should pursue after the current nuclear deal expires.
Russia and the United States must renew their partnership for preventing, detecting, deterring and responding to threats of nuclear terrorism. For example, Moscow and Washington could take measures to make the global nuclear fuel cycle more safe and proliferation-resistant; consolidate, secure and minimize civilian use of highly enriched uranium; share best practices on responding to nuclear emergencies; and counter illicit nuclear trafficking. With strong Russian-US nuclear security leadership, the world’s nuclear future will be safer.
Despite the obstacles, Trump and Putin might even impart new momentum to Russian-US arms control, especially by breaking with outdated Cold War–era frameworks.
In a February 23 interview with Reuters, Trump referred to Moscow’s violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Forces (INF) Treaty as “a big deal,” one he planned to raise with Putin. He also called the Russian-US New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which limits the two nations’ longer-range strategic offensive systems, “a bad deal.” Media accounts report that Trump told Putin in their January 28 phone call that he would not extend New START after it expires in 2021.
On December 22, Trump also announced on Twitter that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” The next day, the president elaborated that, he would not shy away from “an arms race [since]… we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
Trump’s remarks are hardly definitive as his administration has yet to fill many of senior- and mid-level agency positions. Such officials would lead the impending comprehensive nuclear posture review and other national security assessments to generate options for future defense initiatives, arms-control policies and budget programs.
And Trump’s comments differ from the post–Cold War US policy of relying less on nuclear weapons and more on conventional arms and diplomatic tools. The improving precision and effectiveness of conventional weapons enable US non-nuclear forces to achieve missions that previously required nuclear weapons.
Still, Trump will likely continue Obama’s plans to develop the next generation of US nuclear forces, including a new intercontinental ballistic missile, strategic bomber and ballistic missile launching submarine. Since this modernization will take decades, the United States should want to continue START-like limits on Russian nuclear forces. For the next decade, Russia can more easily expand its nuclear arsenal due to its ongoing rearmament program, which has added dozens of new strategic delivery vehicles each year.
Except for calling for more military spending, Trump’s team has reversed campaign rhetoric about denigrating US foreign military alliances. This reversal is understandable. This network of security partnerships, while costly in terms of US defense spending and sometimes lives, provides unparalleled US strategic advantages over potential rivals with foreign military allies, forward operating and staging bases, diplomatic and intelligence assistance, and international legitimacy for even primarily US unilateral operations.
Yet, the United States must think creatively regarding how to give Russia a larger stake in the European security order to minimize tensions and costs for all parties. US officials should reassess Russian proposals for a new European Security Treaty if the process can truly renew commitments to Helsinki Principles or a version of the Adapted Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty that would provide more transparency and restraints on military activities in Europe.
Trump’s remarks on the INF Treaty are well-targeted. Russian officials have routinely dismissed US claims regarding Russian treaty violations as unfounded, hypocritical, part of a post-Ukraine containment strategy or most recently as “fake” news seeking to sabotage efforts of the new administration to improve Russian-U.S. relations. Until the allegations of Russian cheating are resolved, the US Senate is unlikely to ratify another major bilateral arms-control treaty.
More generally, Russian behavior regarding the INF Treaty and the growing reference to nuclear weapons in Moscow’s discourse have led to declining support for arms control among US political leaders. Trump could make resolving the INF dispute a central driver of renewed Russian-US ties and the two countries’ joint contribution to global security.
Washington and Moscow made an unsuccessful effort to induce other countries to adhere to the INF Treaty a decade ago. Now with Trump threatening to allow New START to expire and engage in an unbridled nuclear arms race, other countries might be more willing to adopt some restraints on their own weapons.
One deal might be that, in return for a US promise not to withdraw from New START and consider extending the treaty after expiration in 2021, Russia would acknowledge that it has an INF-covered system and eliminate the missile, its launchers, and related research and development infrastructure in a verifiable manner as well as stop further development, testing, production and deployment of INF-banned missiles.
If Moscow refuses to eliminate the contested missile, the Trump administration might instead allow Russia to count INF-range missiles within Russia’s New START limits in exchange for a similar waiver for some US strategic system.
The Trump administration could even seek a more comprehensive arms-control deal that would encompass more weapons types, such as non-strategic tactical nuclear weapons, non-deployed and reserve warheads, space-based weapons, long-range conventionally-armed hypersonic glide vehicles and ballistic-missile defenses. Trump is unlikely to make unilateral concessions, so any constraints must be equivalent if not identical.
To address concerns about the capabilities of the other nuclear powers, Trump and Putin might jointly approach China, Britain, and France to accept unilateral limits, make their nuclear activities transparent and join in multinational confidence-building measures.
With the new US administration open to rethinking Russian-US relations and nuclear security, the time has come to reconsider old truths and seek new paths to a more secure nuclear future.
*Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia and East Asia as well as US foreign, defense and homeland-security policies. He would like to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for supporting his research and writing on nuclear non-proliferation issues.