This post has been updated.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech Thursday in which he praised his country's military operations on behalf of the government of Syria and made a case for how Russia could become stronger.
“We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces,” he said, according to an Agence France-Presse translation, “especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems.” In other words, Russia needs to ensure that its arsenal of nuclear weapons can avoid interception by the enemy.
The primary enemy that might intercept those missiles is, of course, the United States and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The language echoes old Cold War rhetoric: Our missiles must be able to serve as a deterrent to usage, by existing as a threat to enemies. If NATO and the United States felt confident that Russia’s incoming nuclear weapons could be stopped before reaching their targets, the weapons do not hold the same power for Russia.
You can’t have a new nuclear arms race, of course, without someone to run against. Enter President-elect Donald Trump.
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted about how he “met some really great Air Force GENERALS and Navy ADMIRALS,” a conversation during which the subject of nuclear weapons may have come up. It seems more likely, though, that Trump or someone on his team saw the Putin speech or was briefed on it, and Trump chose to respond with the comment above.
The trend since the late 1980s has been in the opposite direction, winding down the stockpiles of weapons held by the United States and Russia.
(That chart excludes further reductions that started in 2011, following the ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 2010.)
Trump’s and Putin’s comments suggest a possible reversal of that direction, but it’s not entirely clear what Trump mean with “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Perhaps it means: As long as Russia is revamping its own arsenal.
When he met with The Washington Post’s editorial board in March, Trump expressed concern about the use of the bombs, saying, “I think our biggest form of climate change we should worry about is nuclear weapons.” Trump has repeatedly indicated, though, that he saw room for the nuclear arms race to heat back up — this time with more players. In an interview with the New York Times that same month, Trump said that Japan and South Korea might need to be armed with nuclear weapons as a counterweight to North Korea’s development of them. He repeated that argument a week later.
As always, it’s fraught to take one Trump tweet as a descriptor of where his presidency might be headed. (He has, for example, also tweeted that he never argued for other countries to get nuclear weapons, which is false.) It’s also not clear that “strengthen and expand” means more actual nuclear warheads. (The United States will spend an estimated $1 trillion over 30 years to modernize its weapons stockpile, in part because aging nuclear warheads require significant maintenance.)
The Trump team later said that when he spoke of an expansion of U.S. nuclear capability, he was actually expressing a desire to keep those weapons from spreading elsewhere. “President-elect Trump was referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it — particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes,” transition communications director Jason Miller said in a statement. “He has also emphasized the need to improve and modernize our deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength.”
But Trump’s initial tweet stands in stark contrast to what President Obama said in May, at the site of the first atomic detonation in history. In Hiroshima, Japan, Obama called for “a world without nuclear weapons.”
Allowing Trump access to the country’s nuclear arsenal was a key rhetorical point used by those who opposed his candidacy. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) repeatedly said that Trump was too “erratic” to be allowed access to the nuclear codes. Hillary Clinton used the same point in an attempt to leverage voters’ concerns about Trump’s temperament to her advantage.
That’s the risk of Russia and the United States having more robust nuclear arsenals, of course: that those weapons might some day be used.
“Look, nuclear should be off the table,” Trump said during a town hall on MSNBC earlier this year. He then added, “But would there be a time when it could be used, possibly, possibly?”
As Gizmodo’s Matt Novak noted on Twitter, a recently declassified 1982 briefing given to President Ronald Reagan estimated that 80 million Americans could be killed in a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union.