WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump seems to be of two minds about nuclear weapons. He muses about how to eliminate them, but has also advocated a U.S. build-up, and bragged about his nuclear “button.”
In March, while the prediction of a face-to-face meeting on this subject with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump said in the same breath that an arms race was the “getting out of control” and that he would never allow a country’s weapons “, not even close to what we have,” though Russia is already doing.
How these apparently competing instincts out to play in his talks Monday with Putin in Helsinki can have a major impact on the direction of US defence policy.
To leave a NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday, Trump was asked by a journalist whether he would raise long-term U.S. allegations that Russia is violating a Cold War-era nuclear weapons treaty, and whether he favors extending a separate treaty, which he criticized in the past at the expense of the US.
His one-word answer to the question was “yes” — the first public indication that he wants to extend the New Start treaty, which expires in three years. Then on Friday, he vaguely talked about how “it would be a huge achievement if we could do something about the proliferation of nuclear technology.”
Still a Trump card of the administration has shown little interest in negotiating a further reduction of American and Russian strategic nuclear weapons. It is more focused on the formulation of a nuclear policy and on the fight against the nuclear threat of North Korea.
AMERICAN-Russian strategic nuclear weapons — those capable of beating each other’s territory — are governed by the New Beginning, which was negotiated by the Obama administration in 2010. It limits each country to 1,550 strategic warheads. President Barack Obama favorite further cuts, but the AMERICAN-Russian relations soured after Moscow 2014 annexation of the Crimea.
The New Start deal is set to expire in February 2021, unless both parties agree to extend it. The Trumpet administration is reviewing its position, so it is unclear whether Trump and Putin will do more than agree that their staff should study the possibility of an extension. Private U. S. arms control advocates are urging an extension, in part because they see the value in a treaty a provision that allows each side to check what the other is doing on strategic weapons.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, says Trump and Putin can instruct their employees to begin the formal work, over a period of five years renewal of the treaty, that would not require a renegotiation of the terms or the ratification by the legislative power of the government.
“If they do not extend New Start, there is a worrisome possibility that by 2021, there will be no legally binding limits on the two largest arsenals, and as a result of the difficult security challenges we have with the Russians in the future even more difficult to manage,” Kimball said.
Analysts have puzzled over Trump’s likely approach to an arms control meeting with Putin. The Russian leader said in May that the military would soon begin fielding a new generation of nuclear weapons, including a globe-circling ballistic missile that he said could fly over both the North or the south pole to strike targets anywhere in the world with more and more powerful and numerous nuclear warheads. Putin claimed he could evade a missile defense system.
Putin has also promoted Russia’s development of a nuclear-armed hypersonic vehicle, he said, is more advanced than anything in the US arsenal. Hypersonic flight is equal to Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. The US is working on super-fast rocket technology, but has said that the fears of falling behind Russia and China.
Trump and Putin seems to be little chance to get into this sort of detail, having regard to the fact that the control on weapons would be just one of the many topics, including the Syrian civil war.
Even Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, seemed uncertain how Trump would focus on arms control problems at Helsinki, but he predicted that they would discuss U.S. allegations that Russia is violating the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty.
That was the first superpower agreement to ban an entire class of weapons: land-launched, land-attack cruise missiles with a range of between 500 kilometers and 5,500 kilometers, or about 310 km and 3,400 km. Washington says Moscow is violating the treaty by testing and deploying of a prohibited cruise missile. Russia strongly denies any violation and has, in turn, charged that some elements of Washington’s missile defense system in violation of the treaty.
Stephan Sestanovich, a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, sees space for a Trumpet-Putin agreement to resolve the violation.
“You could have the verification of the visit of the two sides to address,” he said, suggesting physical inspections of perhaps the Russian rocket of the fuel tank. That might help in solving the question of how far the missile can fly, while also protecting against disclosure of sensitive missile technology information.
The list of AMERICAN complaints about the Russian behavior in the nuclear area has grown longer in recent years. This tension is captured in the Trump administration’s updated nuclear policy, which points to the Russian dependence on nuclear weapons as a justification for the deployment of new AMERICAN nuclear weapons.
He warned that the Russian strategy on the potential coercive and military applications of nuclear weapons, “to increase the prospect for dangerous miscalculation and escalation.”