The remarks highlighted what appeared to be a rare and possibly ephemeral opening in a relationship that has all but shut down, owing to Russia’s intervention in Syria and Ukraine and its subsequent interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
For the past month and a half, Washington and Moscow have been touting nuclear weapons plans in what to many has seemed like a throwback to a bygone era, when they were in a race to develop the world’s deadliest weapons with few signs of limits.
Six weeks ago, the Trump administration detailed plans to introduce two new types of nuclear weapons to the U.S. arsenal in response to Russia’s nuclear force. At the time, the administration also affirmed a vast modernization of U.S. nuclear weaponry that President Barack Obama approved to the tune of an estimated $1 trillion over 30 years.
Putin responded a month later by announcing that Russia was developing its own weapons, including a nuclear-propelled cruise missile and an underwater nuclear drone. He boasted that the arms could penetrate U.S. missile defenses, which Russia has long derided as a threat to its ability to conduct a retaliatory strike in the event of a nuclear war.
Some interpreted Putin’s show as a veiled entreaty for new arms-control negotiations with the United States, talks that the Kremlin has long considered a calling card to revitalize relations with the White House. The Russian leader followed up by giving an interview to NBC’s Megyn Kelly in which he left no doubt that Russia stood ready to hold arms-control talks with the United States.
Trump has long been interested in participating in such negotiations, telling The Washington Post in 1984 that he wanted to be the U.S. point person in nuclear arms limitation talks with the Soviets.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders cautioned that no specific plans for such talks have been made, despite Trump’s statements that they would be forthcoming.
“But we want to continue to have a dialogue with Russia, continue to talk about some of the shared interests with them, whether it’s North Korea or Iran and, particularly, as the president talked about today, slowing the tensions when it comes to an arms race,” she said at a news conference.
It’s unclear how much substantive progress Trump could make with Putin on any arms-control agreement in an atmosphere in which the broader U.S. political establishment has grown to mistrust his interactions with the Russian leader, including his decision to congratulate Putin on winning what was widely considered an unfree presidential election.
Even before relations deteriorated, Obama had to sign off on a vast overhaul of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to secure approval from Republicans in Congress for the arms-control pact he brokered with Russia.
The United States and Russia could potentially benefit from a revitalization of arms-control deals that have frayed in recent years. Russia has been modernizing its nuclear forces and overhauling its military, but a sluggish economy has prevented it from substantively increasing its defense budget, which remains about 10 times smaller than that of the United States.
The Trump administration has bolstered military spending after negotiating an end to congressional budget limits, but a changeover of party control in the House or the Senate could reverse that trend and possibly roll back the nuclear overhaul. Already, prominent Democrats have questioned the addition of new weapons to the U.S. nuclear arsenal and elements of the modernization plan that Obama approved.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in testimony to Congress in February that the weapons the Pentagon is developing will give U.S. diplomats leverage in negotiating arms-control agreements with Russia, suggesting that the Pentagon also would like to see the burgeoning arms race curtailed.
“Arms control is a vehicle by which the United States and Russia can limit their competition and keep it within certain constraints,” said Steven Pifer, a retired U.S. diplomat specializing in Russia and Ukraine who is now a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “You want to keep the strategic nuclear competition within certain limits. An open arms race doesn’t benefit either side.”
Although Washington and Moscow may have reason to revitalize their arms-control commitments, any breakthrough could be stymied by high levels of distrust between the two governments, resulting from what the U.S. intelligence community called a Kremlin-ordered campaign to influence the 2016 presidential campaign in favor of Trump.
Years of accusations
For years, the United States and Russia have been pulling out of arms-control treaties and accusing each other of violating them.
In 2002, the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which limited missile defense systems, on account of the George W. Bush administration’s plans to step up missile defenses after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Putin has said that decision began the breakdown of arms-control agreements.
Five years later, Russia suspended the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, or the CFE Treaty, which limited the deployment of certain categories of military equipment by NATO states and Russia on the continent. Russia later stopped participating.
Since then, the United States and Russia have accused each other of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty, which bans the deployment of missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers.
The United States and Russia traded barbs over compliance with the Treaty on Open Skies, which governs military surveillance overflights, and NATO has said Russian military exercises are violating the Vienna Document, a pact that sets out transparency standards for military operations and exercises.
The only relatively recent arms-control breakthrough between Washington and Moscow came almost a decade ago, during the days of the “reset” in 2010, when the Obama administration negotiated the New START accord with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The treaty, which limits strategic nuclear arms, expires in 2021 but can be extended automatically for five years if the presidents of both countries sign.
When Putin brought up the idea of extending the New START accord during a call with Trump in the weeks after the inauguration, Trump lashed out at the pact, according to a Reuters report at the time. The U.S. president has said it is one of many bad deals the Obama administration negotiated for the United States, including the Iran nuclear pact.
U.S. officials said they wouldn’t entertain the idea of new arms-control agreements with Russia until two things happened: They wanted to roll out the administration’s new nuclear weapons policy and confirm that both Washington and Moscow had met the limits of New START. Both occurred in February.
Now the Trump administration must decide whether it’s willing to conclude any new arms-control deals with Russia, or extend existing ones, while Moscow is violating current treaties.
Some lawmakers and experts have said the administration should refuse to renew New START until Russia comes back into compliance with the INF Treaty. Others say Washington should agree to extend New START, regardless, if only to retain a last bedrock of arms-control framework and continue an inspections regime that the militaries of both countries find beneficial.
Trump could agree to the New START accord’s extension as a “low-hanging fruit” that satisfies both sides, said Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Everyone is in compliance with it,” she said. “It’s a great thing because it maintains verification mechanisms that we’ve had for decades.”
The administration could try to negotiate controls on in other areas, such as Russia’s supply of smaller nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Moscow has long refused to negotiate any arms-control agreement covering them. The Trump administration’s new nuclear weapons policy calls for the development of a low-yield warhead that can be launched from submarines.
The Trump administration conducted “strategic stability” talks with Russia last year that were designed to lay the groundwork for broader arms-control negotiations. But Russia postponed the most recent meeting early this month in retribution for the United States’ cancellation of talks on cybersecurity.
Trump’s commitment to Putin could restart those talks at a time when relations remain tense.
“If arms control is lost as a result of the downturn in this relationship, it’s going to cause greater problems for a long time to come,” Oliker said.
But she cautioned that it wouldn’t be a panacea for the broader relationship. “Counting on arms control to make us friends again? I wouldn’t.”