Reports of President Donald Trump’s congratulatory call to newly re-elected Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday rang strange to those who have been following the news: Trump said that the two had had “a very good call,” and that they would be soon be discussing “the arms race which is getting out of control.” In nearly the same breath, however, he said that “we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have,” referring to increases in U.S. nuclear spending. His remarks recall another baffling recent news item from the White House: the announcement that North Korea had agreed to talks with the United States, and that denuclearization was on the table. With relations with Russia fraying, is this latest news cause for optimism?
Just a few weeks ago, in his annual address to the Federal Assembly, Russia’s national legislature, President Vladimir Putin made a series of surprising announcements: he asserted that Russia has developed a range of new nuclear weapons, including an underwater drone and an unmanned cruise missile capable of flying indefinitely. Reactions in the U.S. and Europe have ranged from shock to disbelief, with many questioning if the weapons he describes are actually technologically feasible. Many others have wondered aloud how the international political climate could have deteriorated this much, this quickly.
With these announcements, we’re beginning to see the damage done by the aggressive stance taken in the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review at the international level. The NPR calls for two new nuclear weapons and pointedly and repeatedly names Russia as the United States’ main adversary. The president’s flippant insistence on this approach in statements to the press – “Let it be an arms race” – seemed to echo through Vladimir Putin’s speech as he described the new capabilities. Putin responded directly to the NPR’s statement that a nuclear strike could be considered in response to a cyber attack or a conventional threat, and affirmed that a nuclear attack of any size would be met in kind, “with all the ensuing consequences.” Though discussion continues within the United States about whether “escalate to de-escalate” accurately describes Russia’s nuclear doctrine, the speech brought a note of frightening realism to the notion that there could ever be such a thing as a “limited nuclear strike.”
It’s easy to see that these positions play on a profound sense of insecurity in both countries. But just as a policy decision that caters to insecurity and a twisted and dangerous version of national pride that excludes the possibility of international cooperation can encourage other countries to take similarly defensive and destructive steps, the only way to dial back tensions at the international level is for one party to make it a priority first, without waiting for the other to back down. It’s telling that a significant portion of the Russian media’s coverage of the speech was devoted to documenting reactions in the West, and that many of these highlighted the fear (or “hysteria”) it inspired. The U.S.’s reaction matters, and a move toward transparent, mutually respectful relations is still possible.
There is still time to move toward negotiating an extension to New START, the nuclear arms reduction treaty limiting the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 strategically deployed nuclear weapons each, and a follow-on to the treaty could provide a basis for a transparent and mutually acceptable verification regime that includes new weapons, if and when they are built and introduced. Russia’s decision to postpone strategic talks that were set to take place in early March shows that an immediate move toward reconciliation is necessary to preserve the diplomatic links that remain between the two countries and provide a platform for further negotiations. In the current political climate, a treaty that represents an outstanding but very believable success of international diplomacy a few short years ago sounds nearly utopian now. But it’s the only way forward if we want to build a truly secure world, one unburdened by the constant threat of nuclear war.