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Trump Needs to Put Up or Shut Up on Russian Arms Race

President Trump heads to Helsinki next week to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a summit that has drawn the ire of his critics and faint praise from his supporters. There is no doubt that this meeting is timed to stick a thumb in the eye of Robert Mueller, Congress, and a skeptical media, all of which have genuine concerns over the role played by Russia in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

It is doubtful that Trump will raise the issue of Russian electoral interference in any meaningful way, despite bipartisan pressure to do so. The United States has already ceded Syria to Russia and the Assad government, perhaps to gain Moscow’s support for minimizing Iran’s influence in that region. And while the Ukraine crisis will undoubtedly be discussed, Russia has made it clear that its absorption of Crimea is irreversible and non-negotiable, which makes the rollback of economic sanctions a virtual non-starter. Beyond reaffirming the bon homme that exists between these two leaders, the Helsinki Summit offers few opportunities for accomplishments of substance—unless one considers arms control.

Shortly after taking office, Trump made the first of numerous phone calls to Putin [1]. At that time, the Russian president raised the issue of extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) [2], an agreement signed by President Obama in 2010 to replace the Bush-era Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) [3], which expired in 2012, and continue the spirit of the Cold War-era START treaty [4]. That one expired in 2009. New START expires in 2021, and during the call Putin raised the prospect of extending it. According to a readout of the call, Trump had to pause and ask his aides what Putin was talking about, before coming back on the line to denounce the treaty [5] as “bad for America,” even though it caps the number of nuclear warheads each nation can deploy.

Besides exposing his ignorance of arms control history, Trump’s response seemed to dismiss the need to reduce the threat posed by America’s and Russia’s nuclear arsenals. Indeed, in February 2018, Secretary of Defense James Mattis released the current iteration of the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review [6] (NPR), which declared that “nuclear weapons have and will continue to play a critical role in deterring nuclear attack and in preventing large-scale conventional warfare between nuclear-armed states for the foreseeable future,” and noting that “ensuring our nuclear deterrent remains strong will provide the best opportunity for convincing other nuclear powers to engage in meaningful arms control initiatives.”


The 2018 NPR detailed a shopping list of new weapons and systemic upgrades that would cost the U.S. taxpayer some $1.2 trillion over the coming decades. In doing so, it fulfilled the promise then-president-elect Trump made via tweet [7] when he declared, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” When asked by MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski to expand on his tweet, Trump reportedly said [8], “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

An arms race is exactly what President Trump got. Back in March, Vladimir Putin delivered his annual “State of the Nation [9]” speech, where he unveiled a range of new Russian nuclear missiles designed to overcome U.S. defenses and provide the Russians with strategic parity, if not superiority. The strategic weapons the U.S. proposes in the 2018 NPR are largely conceptual, awaiting congressional funding and the development, manufacture, and fielding processes that follow. That means they won’t be fielded for decades to come (some well after a potential Trump second term). The Russian weapons Putin spoke of in his speech are being fielded now or will be over the next few years. The bottom line is that if the New START Treaty maligned by Trump expires without something to replace it, the “arms race” Trump so callously advocates will become a reality, with Russia several laps ahead.

The New START treaty contains provisions that allow it to be extended for five years with the mutual consent of both parties. While this option provides President Trump with an easy arms control “deliverable,” given the fact that Trump is on record maligning that agreement and has a track record of rejecting anything linked to his predecessor, it’s entirely likely that the president would seek to make his own mark on U.S.-Russian arms control.

Trump, the New York City real estate mogul, knows that before one can speak of how many floors a specific structure will have, there needs to be a foundation capable of supporting their weight. As such, before he thinks about his legacy, he will need to get back to basics. When it comes to U.S.-Russian arms control, this means addressing issues pertaining to the lapsed Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty [10], which President George W. Bush precipitously withdrew from in 2002 [11], and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty [12], which is today besieged by mutual accusations of violations that threaten its validity.

In his “State of the Nation” address, Putin cited the American decisions to withdraw from the ABM treaty and to develop and deploy a new generation of anti-missile defense systems as pointedly destabilizing actions that threatened Russian security. Indeed, it was the American desire to deploy a ballistic missile shield that prompted Russia’s decision to field new missile systems designed to defeat all defenses the U.S. could muster, both currently and in the future. George W. Bush gets credit for destroying the foundation of stability the ABM treaty provided (no defenses against missiles made all sides vulnerable to attack, and as such deter parties from launching ICBMs). But it was Barack Obama who sustained this legacy. Though Obama scrapped major aspects of the Bush-era missile defense plan [13] for Europe, he also deployed a modified system the Russians found just as alarming. Fixing that which Obama could not, or would not, may prove to be that which motivates Trump to meaningfully address this issue. The fact that Trump has soured on the trans-Atlantic security arrangement may add further inducement to reviving a modified ABM treaty. One thing is certain—without such, Russia will not agree to any significant reduction of its own nuclear arsenal.

Arms control requires trust and verification (keeping in mind Ronald Reagan’s famous maxim [14]). And yet the treaty that gave birth to the popular usage of that old Russian proverb today lies in ruins, stripped of its fundamental means of verification (on-site inspections, which expired in 2001, 13 years after it came into force). The United States has accused Russia [15] of flight-testing and deploying a ground-launched cruise missile, the 9M729, which the U.S. maintains meets the INF Treaty definition of a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers, and as such, all missiles of that type, and all launchers of the type used or tested to launch such a missile, are prohibited under the provisions of the INF Treaty.

Russia has countered by claiming that the deployment in Europe of the Mark-41 (Mk-41 VLS) system (also known as “Aegis ashore”) capable of launching Tomahawk intermediate-range, land-attack cruise missiles is likewise a violation of the INF Treaty. Meanwhile, both sides contend that their respective systems are compliant with the INF treaty. And both sides have cited the other’s alleged non-compliance as providing justification for the termination of this groundbreaking agreement.

Preserving the INF Treaty is in both America’s and Russia’s interests—it is a legacy agreement that facilitated the elimination, as opposed toharm reduction of two destabilizing classes of ballistic missiles (short- and intermediate-range). The INF Treaty contains a mechanism, known as the Special Verification Commission (SVC) [16], which is responsible for resolving disputes of this nature. To date, the SVC has met twice, but it’s acted as little more than a forum for embittered accusations and denials from both parties. On-site inspections are the heart and soul of any robust arms control agreement, and their utility in resolving the current dispute is absolute—the physical inspection of the items involved would allow for verification as to whether they are treaty compliant or not.

If in Helsinki, Trump and Putin could agree only to have the SVC conduct special inspections to resolve these issues, it would represent no small achievement. It would also pave the way for more meaningful arms reductions to come.

Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD. He is the author of Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War [17].

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Trump Needs to Put Up or Shut Up on Russian Arms Race"

#1 Comment By Kent On July 13, 2018 @ 1:38 pm

To a great degree the INF treaty only works with an ABM treaty in place. The only point of low-flying nuke tipped cruise missiles is to avoid ABM systems.

Once Bush abrogated the ABM treaty, there was no question the INF treaty would also go by the wayside.

And once we have easily transportable, nuke tipped cruise missiles, verification becomes impossible, forever. Bush’s decision effectively ended any capability to have enforceable treaties on nuclear weapons.

I don’t for a second think Bush understood that when he made his decision. He was certainly not smart enough. I’m certain the generals pushing it did though.

Any time you make a self-interested decision that you know will have negative effects on others, always know that they will react in some way that will have a negative effect on you. That’s the way the world works.

#2 Comment By Myron Hudson On July 13, 2018 @ 2:00 pm

It’s always good to see an article by Scott Ritter.

“The bottom line is that if the New START Treaty maligned by Trump expires without something to replace it, the “arms race” Trump so callously advocates will become a reality, with Russia several laps ahead.”

At least this would be consistent with prior performance. It’s too bad Trump doesn’t have someone ghost-writing his Presidency as was done for his books. It would be far more competent.

#3 Comment By Anonymous On July 13, 2018 @ 3:31 pm

Copyedit: “bon homme” should be bonhomie.

#4 Comment By Youknowho On July 13, 2018 @ 6:42 pm

I hope that you voted for Hillary – or rather against Trump. You did not need to like her, just recognize that summit diplomacy is not amateur hour.

Which is what we got. May God have mercy on our souls

#5 Comment By Whine Merchant On July 13, 2018 @ 8:07 pm

After his yuge success in cowing North Korea, Trump knows that Putin will cave on nuclear arms. He will threaten to send Pompeo to enforce CVID like he has been doing in Pyongyang.

Then Putin will counter with refusal to extend oligarch loans to the Trump Organisation and Jared, so they will have to call in Bibi to mediate and maybe broker some Saudi loans to shore-up the system.

All the while, Xi Jinping’s “One Belt – One Road” gets stronger –

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On July 13, 2018 @ 8:15 pm

Never going to happen. Preparations for nuclear war are just too insanely profitable for elites.

Maybe later, if anyone survives the radioactive rubble.

#7 Comment By john On July 13, 2018 @ 10:50 pm

I think the doctrine of MAD as awful as it is, is the only sensible solution. A paranoid Russian could easily believe that our stealth bombers and antimissile defenses are an attempt to create a winnable first strike scenario. This is a horrible mistake. There is no “winning” a nuclear war. We should be certain of assured destruction of Russia after their first strike and they should be assured of our destruction after our first strike, and then we are done.

#8 Comment By Mark Thomason On July 14, 2018 @ 5:36 am

The steady deterioration of the American relationship with Russia is a serious matter. It goes far beyond sticking a thumb in the eye of Trump’s critics. Trump has consistently said that relationship is important, and important to him. The response has been that he must owe them money. Yet that relationship has been important to every American leader since FDR. The willful sabotage of that for partisan purposes undercuts real American interests.

We might doubt Trump has the ability to repair this, and even blame his person as the cause of much damage. However, that repair is no less possible than a real arms control accomplishment. Not much more either, but Trump is constantly full of surprises, mostly bad but some good, as in talking to the North Koreans instead of nuking them.

#9 Comment By vpurto On July 14, 2018 @ 9:02 am

Kudos to Scott Ritter for his commonsense assessment of the most profound problem, which humankind still facing since Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear “test” in August 1945. As an unrepentant optimist living in this “Land of Braves” I hope that at least some journalists will be brave enough to stop their shameless logorrhea and fulfill their duty to inform people. The problems so well articulated by Mr. Ritter will lead to nuclear holocaust, which make pessimism senseless.

#10 Comment By b. On July 14, 2018 @ 10:42 am

“keeping in mind Ronald Reagan’s famous maxim”

That did not sound right. Thankfully there is a link provided to verify:

“As President Reagan is fond of saying, quoting an old Russian proverb, ”Trust but verify.””

This use – of this translation – by Reagan is attributed to advice by Suzanne Massie


Case closed? Trust is good, control is better: there are fewer claims that the proverb entered the political dictionary due to its use by Lenin than there are that the phrase was coined by Reagan, and that Gorbachev, not Massie, introduced Reagan to it. Surely, that has to be another Russian disinformation operation in their decades-long campaign to help us undermine our own values and institutions?

It does appear that the proverb has not been used in Lenin’s archived writing and recorded speeches:

I am tempted to start my own disinformation campaign: the Russians actually read about “checks and balances” and accountability in the Federalist Papers, and liked the concept so much, they coined a proverb. So really, it’s the Founders’ maxim.

Just like the US, the Russians like to apply it to other nations first.

#11 Comment By b. On July 14, 2018 @ 10:45 am

“It is doubtful that Trump will raise the issue of Russian electoral interference in any meaningful way, despite bipartisan pressure to do so.”

That is a self-justifying ambiguity.

“The United States has already ceded Syria to Russia and the Assad government, perhaps to gain Moscow’s support for minimizing Iran’s influence in that region.”

Trust but verify – source? I have seen no indication that Trump has asserted himself on the issue either way, and many indications that Mattis, Pompeo, Bolton et.al. have no intention of ceasing to make the Saudi-Israeli case.

#12 Comment By b. On July 14, 2018 @ 10:49 am

‘New START expires in 2021, and during the call Putin raised the prospect of extending it. [..] Trump [..] denounced the treaty as “bad for America”’

A few more incidents like Hawaii, and more fearmongering about North Korean nukes, and New START extension is a perfect issue to see whether The People have any clue about their own interests in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

Surely, Russian claims to be interested in an extension of New START qualify as major election meddling.

#13 Comment By b. On July 14, 2018 @ 10:57 am

“has a track record of rejecting anything linked to his predecessor”

Enough with this canard.

Trump is doubling down on Obama’s Follies just as often as he is trying to undo the transient “executive national order” that Obama was careful to not have backed by actual legislation while he could have (the word “protection racket” comes to mind – Obama was holding the Democratic Party hostage by depriving it of donors, and might well have tried to hold his voters hostage by avoiding to make any of that “change” lasting).

Yemen is one example.

Syria is another. The US has “ceded” Syria? Does Ritter believe the US, at any time, “controlled” Syria in any meaningful way? Did we actually, officially, contest ownership?

But Trump 1.2 Trillion reliably nuclear warmongering is just an “Obama Plus” version of Obama’s attempts to get Reliable Replacement Warhead under way, followed by his very own 1 Trillion Nuclear Triad upgrade.

This line about Trump and the implications about his motivations and criteria is so counterproductive and misleading, it has to be the product of Russian disinformation. Or maybe Democratic Party disinformation about Russian disinformation? It is so hard to keep track when one is so desperate to trust, especially in a nation founded on the idea that all power is to be distrusted, always, in direct proportion to the amount of power wielded.

#14 Comment By b. On July 14, 2018 @ 11:11 am

“Fixing that which Obama could not, or would not, may prove to be that which motivates Trump to meaningfully address this issue.”

FWIW, I completely agree that the US desperately needs a President that focuses on restoring the ABM treaty, attempts to save the INF treaty, and extends New START. I would go even farther: a US President with the interests of his nation at heart would approach Russia in a bid to reduce, if possible eliminate, land-based ICBMs, and attempt to eliminate first strike counter-force capabilities from both sides arsenals. Such an initiative, with the US leading by example, would serve to restore the commitments the nuclear powers agreed to under the NPT. The US could propose to Russia to involve China as a neutral party in New New START negotiations, and acknowledge China’s restraint and their “minimum means of reprisal” and refusal to maintain a “Launch On Warning” policy. While I am writing my letter to Santa Claus, let me add a unilateral commitment of the US to not use the NPT as a pretext for military acts of aggression, as part of an overdue Congressional Disavowal of the Bush Doctrine of preventive war, which might help convince not just China, but also North Korea, that the US is serious about denuclearization.

But to pin these hopes on Trump illustrates only just how desperate our situation really is. Given the evidence of the past year, “If only The Czar knew” will change Trump’s wanton executions about as much as it changed Obama’s. As long as we discuss our own survival in terms of appeals to reason to the Presidential Mind of each given year, past performance will predict future results.

#15 Comment By b. On July 14, 2018 @ 11:20 am

“If in Helsinki, Trump and Putin could agree only to have the SVC conduct special inspections to resolve these [INF] issues, it would represent no small achievement.”

Setting aside my distrust in Trump’s ability to recognize the merits, or even just an opportunity for 2020 (and a perfect sledgehammer to take to the Democratic Party warmongers and the neocons), using the SVC is really an excellent proposal.

But then, JCOPA had similar mechanisms for the US to try to force verification by providing evidence for concern, and it did not make a difference to Trump.

“it’s entirely likely that the president would seek to make his own mark on U.S.-Russian arms control”

At the risk over oversimplification of my own, maybe Trump’s attitude to negotiation is that any deal that did not involve him is inherently “bad”. That would go against INF and SVC.

#16 Comment By Michael Kenny On July 14, 2018 @ 11:38 am

The usual “let Putin in Ukraine propaganda” dressed up as “Putin will the war” and lent false credibility by being written by a former military officer.

#17 Comment By cka2nd On July 14, 2018 @ 3:35 pm

I almost couldn’t get past the imperial arrogance of “The United States has already ceded Syria to Russia and the Assad government” to read the rest of this generally sensible piece.

#18 Comment By [email protected] On July 15, 2018 @ 6:07 am

“It’s always good to see an article by Scott Ritter.”

—- echo —-

central is the matter of no inspections on site. when i consider how vast russia is compared to the us, i am forced to reconsider everything i ever thought about surviving nuclear exchange.


I would remind those who are seeking to place blame of the current president, nothing he has saiod or done has been as damaging as the persistent polity and foreign policy behavior engaged by the previous admin based on the foreign policy expertise of the sec clinton:

inciting revolution in democratic ukraine, libya, syria, continued operations in afghanistan, and we remain in iraq, suppoorting the yemeni war, and nearly eight years of constant saber rattling about russia threading the environment with russia spies with the current president as the manchurian candidate. all the while engaging hostile tactics against whistlebowers and citizens in an ever growing process of evesdropping, open war fare , i.e, irs tactics against nonprofit political organizations . . .

if the worst aspect is a new president asking his advisers about the finer points of nuclear treaties — i side with the amateurs. and as i am sure inspector ritter can fill volumes with what presidents and congress don’t know about the nuclear treaties or nuclear defence – who have been sitting on defense committees for ten to twenty years.

what i don’t believe — is that we have a sincere success rate of shooting missiles from the sky with other missiles. I won’t repeat what i think is the only real viable alternative.

#19 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On July 15, 2018 @ 1:55 pm

let Putin in Ukraine propaganda
Putin will the war
Not sure about Putin, Trump or any other president, but Michael Kenny certainly needs to learn a thing or two about the ways one should use verbs in English. His syntax is as much a disaster as a nuclear fallout. Don’t dare to even guess what he wanted to say in that comment.

P. S. They killed Kenny! Dastardly grammar rules!

#20 Comment By A. G. Phillbin On July 15, 2018 @ 2:58 pm

@Michael Kenny,

When you were in middle school, did a big kid named Vladimir, who looked vaguely like Putin, pick you up and dunk your head in the toilet, and then flush? Is this the origin of the only actual opinion you seem to have about, well, anything? Just wondering.

Sorry, folks — couldn’t resist! (-:

#21 Comment By BILLY BOB On July 25, 2018 @ 11:00 am

There are so many Establishment MIC goons trying to sell arms and generate conflicts around the World [inorder to sell more arms]. They should be rounded up, placed in fetters and fed eyeball soup, like Ivan Denisovitch.