Several parts of the U.S.-Russia arms-control and nonproliferation architecture are cracking due to a combination of Russian misbehavior and American neglect. The question is whether the Trump team has the will and skill to repair those cracks before that structure comes crumbling down.
Complicating the effort is the fact that U.S.-Russia relations are at a historic low point, following Russian interference in our presidential election, the Russian intervention in Ukraine and an escalating cycle of sanctions and diplomatic retaliation. The arms-control community is urging the Trump administration to work with Russia to address big problems with our cooperation before it’s too late.
Some Republicans in Congress, however, are eager to confront Russia on arms control, ramp up U.S. retaliation and even push for withdrawal from these agreements. For President Trump, who views the agreements as bad deals struck by his predecessors, saving them is a hard sell. But he should carefully consider the benefits of these deals before throwing them away.
“The ongoing tensions with Moscow have increased the risk that the nuclear and arms control architecture built up by Bush, Reagan and Obama will collapse,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “We have to be careful not to cut off our nose to spite our face because we are upset with Russia.”
One such troubled agreement hit the newspapers last week when unarmed Russian air force jets flew over the Pentagon, CIA and other sensitive national security sites, alarming many Americans. Even in Washington, most are not familiar with the Treaty on Open Skies , which has allowed the United States, Russia and 32 other countries to fly over each other’s territory since 2002.
Russia has been violating the treaty for years, according to the State Department, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the Senate. Russia doesn’t allow flights over key parts of its territory and takes other steps to keep the United States and other countries from realizing their treaty rights.
Some in Congress want the U.S. government to place tit-for-tat restrictions on Russian flights. Some military leaders would prefer to see the treaty go away altogether, because of the information Russia is able to collect, given technological advances.
“I would love to deny the Russians having that capability,” Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a House committee in March.
Trump administration officials are looking at the Open Skies Treaty as part of their overall interagency nonproliferation policy review. They should keep in mind that it provides transparency on Russia not just for the United States but for America’s allies as well.
Congress is also planning to soon confront Russia on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or the INF. Russia has been violating the INF for years, according to the U.S. government, by developing and deploying a new cruise missile that violates the treaty’s range limits, threatening Europe.
Both the Senate and House versions of the defense authorization bill would provide tens of millions of dollars for the United States to develop its own new cruise missile, potentially putting America in violation. Senate Democrats are planning to fight that provision when the bill hits the Senate floor next month.
In November, Barack Obama’s State Department met with Russia on the INF treaty. The talks were fruitless, but now efforts to reestablish U.S.-Russia negotiations are underway. Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Ryabkov in Washington on July 18 and agreed to hold “Strategic Stability Talks” in the near future.
Thomas Countryman, the State Department official responsible for the issue until January, told me that if Congress put the United States in violation, or if Trump pulled out of the treaty, the country would lose out.
“For the United States to terminate the treaty would do nothing to enhance our national security,” he said. “It would be a public relations victory for Moscow, and we should do everything possible to pursue a less radical solution.”
Shannon and Ryabkov also pledged to continue consultations under the New START treaty, which limits deployed long-range nuclear weapons. That agreement, up for extension in 2021, is also at risk. Agreeing to extend it now would bolster long-term confidence in the treaty and help to stabilize the relationship, Countryman said.
In their first phone call after Trump’s inauguration, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed a New START extension but Trump refused and called it a bad deal, after he paused to ask his aides what it was.
Our current low point in relations was not caused by Russian misbehavior on arms control; it was caused by Russia’s interference in our democracy. But dealing with arms-control issues using tough diplomacy in conjunction with allies could provide Trump a way to achieve what he claims to want most — a path toward improving relations. In the process, he could also avoid another arms race.