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

If he doesn’t, the nuclear buildup he so callously advocates will become a reality, with Moscow several laps ahead.

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. At that time, the Russian president raised the issue of extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), an agreement signed by President Obama in 2010 to replace the Bush-era Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which expired in 2012, and continue the spirit of the Cold War-era START treaty. 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 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 (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 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, “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” 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, which President George W. Bush precipitously withdrew from in 2002, and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, 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 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). 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 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), 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.