- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
In a year-end speech to his top military officers on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin threw down the gauntlet, declaring that the Russian military, emboldened by recent adventures in Syria and Ukraine, is ready to defeat any country that dares challenge it. “We can say with certainty: we are stronger now than any potential aggressor,” he proclaimed. “Anyone.”
He also made a pitch for bigger and badder nuclear weapons. Putin said Moscow must “strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defence systems.”
Putin’s remarks came just ahead of President-elect Donald Trump’s own nuclear musings, on Twitter, of course. Trump, who betrayed confusion over U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities and policies on the campaign trail, tweeted his intention to overturn two decades of bipartisan U.S. policy to reduce the country’s nuclear stockpiles.
“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” he tweeted.
But that only set the stage for the dramatic escalation in rhetoric that came Friday morning, when Trump told MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, “let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
The comments came – again – after Putin spoke Friday morning in Moscow. The Russian leader appeared to try and ratchet down the heat a bit when asked about Trump’s tweet, saying, “as for Donald Trump, there is nothing new about it, during his elections campaign he said the U.S. needs to bolster its nuclear capabilities and its armed forces in general.”
While tensions remain high between the two countries over the war in Syria, Russian intrusions into the U.S. presidential election, and a NATO buildup near Russia’s European borders, the nuclear issue — and the gradual drawdown of both countries’ stockpiles — was one that had remained relatively quiet.
The comments from two men — who have expressed a willingness to work together to reduce tensions — show how tough it may be to overcome great-power rivalries, driven both by Moscow’s desire to reclaim its place and a nervous NATO bulking up against a perceived threat.
Former defense secretary and CIA director Bob Gates, who is advising Trump, told the Washington Post Thursday that one of the things he is focusing on is helping get the Russia strategy right. But he’s also urging caution to U.S. allies.
“We’ve never had a populist movement or political insurgency quite like this — that actually captured the White House,” he said. “That means there will be more discontinuities in our foreign policy. I’m telling people: ‘Give us some space here and have some strategic patience. And don’t overreact — even to Trump’s tweets.’”
Putin’s speech at the defense ministry’s headquarters in Moscow comes weeks before NATO is slated to deploy thousands of new troops to Eastern Europe and the Baltic states in an effort to reassure alliance members looking nervously over their borders at their Russian neighbors, who are themselves moving troops and tanks to the border region.
But questions remain over the ultimate fate of the new deployments, as President Barack Obama’s $3.4 billion European Reassurance Initiative — which would put more U.S. troops in Europe — could run up against President-elect Trump’s campaign promises to cut spending on stationing U.S. troops abroad.
The money will help fund the deployment of two more U.S. brigades — about 8,000 soldiers in all — to Eastern Europe and the Baltics next year. It will also pay for placing about 1,600 tanks, artillery pieces, and other vehicles in a storage facility in The Netherlands. The prepositioned gear is intended to allow U.S. troops to deploy more quickly. Other vehicles will be stored in Bulgaria, Estonia, Poland and Romania.
“We want to make sure we are sending a clear signal to Russia that we will not accept any violation of NATO’s territorial integrity,” Dutch Gen. Tom Middendorp, Chief Defense Staff, Royal Netherlands Army, said at the opening of the facility earlier this month. The wider plan will see Germany will lead a multinational battalion in Lithuania, with similar units to be led by the U.K. in Estonia and Canada in Latvia.
The moves display “very strong signals to allies and to Russia about American resolve,” said Lisa Sawyer Samp, who directed NATO and European strategic affairs activities on the National Security Council until 2015.
But Putin on Thursday warned that his government is “adjusting plans to neutralize potential threats to our country.” His Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu added that “for the first time in its history,” Moscow has blanketed the Russian border with early warning anti-missile systems, and announced plans to deploy more troops to Russia’s western borders with NATO, and to the Arctic.
The NATO deployments and new Russian divisions establishing themselves just over the border from Ukraine and the Baltic states represent the most significant staredown between Moscow and the alliance since the end of the Cold War, and are heightened by the Russian practice of keeping NATO off balance by launching unannounced “snap” exercises with thousands of troops along the borders.
One senior U.S. defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Foreign Policy that Russia has used such exercises “as a pretext in the past to do things that are completely beyond the pale,” like the 2008 incursion into Georgia, a precedent that makes NATO wary.
Complicating matters is the Trump tweet, which comes a day after he met with a host of military officials involved in the U.S. nuclear program. While the message was vague, any increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal “would be a radical departure from what the bipartisan trend in Washington has been since the end of the Cold War,” said Kingston Reif, director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association.
“Every president since the end of the Cold War has reduced the size of the nuclear arsenal,” he said, noting that any change in that policy would be “a very concerning and destabilizing symbol for the rest of the world about the U.S. commitment to reducing nuclear weapons. The Russians are certainly not growing the size of their arsenal.”
Washington has accused Moscow of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty by conducting flight tests of the missile in recent months, and officials have said they fear Russia is building more missiles than they would need merely for testing, sparking fears they could be deployed.
As it stands, the U.S. government is slated to spend $1 trillion in modernizing and replacing elements of the “nuclear triad” in the coming decades, including new intercontinental ballistic missiles, and nuclear-capable bombers and ballistic missile submarines. Expanding the nuclear force could carry a similarly massive price tag, which would be hard to square with Trump’s plans to cut taxes and reduce federal revenue.
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