MOSCOW — One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest associates warned in an interview Wednesday that the U.S. and Russia are approaching a new arms race — the latest sign that geopolitical tensions are undermining nuclear arms control.
Sergey Chemezov, a top figure in Russia’s arms industry, said he didn’t believe that the New START accord limiting the number of nuclear weapons deployed by the two countries could be renewed in the current political environment.
“How can we talk about further negotiations about arms reductions when we don’t trust each other?” Chemezov said in the interview with The Washington Post.
Chemezov is one of the most prominent Russians to express skepticism in recent weeks about the prospect for new nuclear arms talks with the United States. With Russian hopes dashed that President Trump would improve relations with Moscow, the Russian elite increasingly appears unsettled by his more muscular approach.
For Russians, a new warning sign came earlier this month with the release of a U.S. Defense Department document recommending the development of new nuclear arms to counter Russia.
“It will lead to another arms race, because we will have to do the same as the Americans,” Chemezov said, referring to the Defense Department’s Nuclear Posture Review. “And then a mere spark will be sufficient. With the number of weapons in the world today, there will be no winners; the world will be destroyed.”
Chemezov heads Rostec, a state industrial giant that makes small arms, helicopters, radar systems and other weapons, and that controls Russian arms exports. He is also one of Putin’s key associates at the intersection of business and government and a longtime friend. The two served together in the KGB in Dresden, East Germany, in the 1980s and shared an entryway in a six-story apartment building.
Chemezov is under U.S. sanctions imposed by the Treasury Department. It referred to him as “a trusted ally of President Putin” when it announced sanctions against him and several other Russian officials in response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Late last month, Treasury listed him as one of Russia’s “senior political leaders.”
“They think that people on the list will start getting upset and come to the Americans and say, ‘Yes, we are with you,’ and ‘Let’s overthrow Putin together,’ ” Chemezov said, referring to the sanctions list. “On the contrary — it had the exact opposite effect. All the people who are on the list support Putin.”
Echoing senior Russian politicians, Chemezov said he had been expecting a friendlier U.S. policy toward Russia after Trump took office. Loosened sanctions, Chemezov said, would have allowed his company to deepen its business ties with American companies such as Boeing, with which it already works to produce titanium airplane parts in Russia’s Ural Mountains.
“Maybe he will gain the strength to create some opportunities that will allow him to change something regarding Russia,” Chemezov said of Trump. “We were expecting normal relations to be reestablished, as things were under George W. Bush.”
Instead, Russian officials see the Nuclear Posture Review as the latest sign that Trump is failing to deliver on his promise of improved relations. Writing for the Valdai Discussion Club, which is close to Russia’s foreign-policy establishment, international relations specialist Dmitry Suslov said the new nuclear policy could not only bring about a new arms race but also “a dramatic military crisis fraught with a direct military clash between the US and Russia.”
The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said Russia will “take measures to enhance our security” on the heels of the U.S. nuclear plans.
Russia is already modernizing its nuclear arsenal, with upgrades to its bombers, missiles and submarines capable of delivering nuclear warheads.
As tensions with the United States rise, Russian politicians and media personalities have said Russia’s nuclear arsenal ensures that the country will be taken seriously.
“Under Obama, all these games by Russia around nuclear weapons were not seen with great pleasure, but also without much alarm,” Russian military analyst Alexander Golts said. “Now the situation has changed, and the endless Russian threats seem to be taken seriously.”
Russian officials are still working to digest the Nuclear Posture Review and to divine Trump’s interest in arms-control negotiations.
For Moscow, a key question is how Trump will proceed on the New START agreement, which expires in 2021. The treaty, which President Barack Obama negotiated with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads by each country to 1,550 and institutes an extensive verification regime.
The compliance deadline for the New START agreement was Monday, and both Moscow and Washington said they complied with required reductions. The treaty can be extended automatically for another five years if both presidents sign. The United States is concerned that Russia is violating other agreements, most notably the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and some U.S. officials doubt that Washington should sign an extension if other agreements aren’t holding.
“It’s in Russia’s interest to maintain and extend the New START treaty after it expires,” said Igor Korotchenko, a Russian military scholar and a member of the Defense Ministry’s public advisory council. “If Trump wants to exit New START, then this would mean a new reality.”