Shadow Government

The Trump-Putin Summit’s Potential Nuclear Fallout

When the U.S. and Russian presidents meet in Helsinki, the biggest risk won't be on everyone's radar.

Russian Matryoshka dolls depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump are on sale in the Ruslania book store in Helsinki on July 9. (Timo Jaakonaho/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian Matryoshka dolls depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump are on sale in the Ruslania book store in Helsinki on July 9. (Timo Jaakonaho/AFP/Getty Images)

The July 16 summit in Helsinki between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin presents a unique opportunity to reverse the dangerous nuclear competition between the United States and Russia and should be welcomed, despite its inherent risks. The opportunity to stabilize U.S.-Russian nuclear relations by extending New START, a key nuclear treaty that is set to expire in 2021, is paramount and worth the issues that come with any meeting between Trump and Putin.

Relations between the United States and Russia are at lows not seen since the end of the Cold War, and the risks of military conflict and even nuclear use remain high. Other irritants and dangers — including Russia’s interference in U.S. domestic affairs, illegal annexation of Crimea in Ukraine, intimidation of NATO members, and violation of numerous nuclear and other arms control agreements — all remain open points of conflict. But it is because of all of these risks, not in spite of them, that the summit could increase U.S. security if it extends New START.

Unlike other nuclear treaties, both countries remain in full compliance with the central limits of the New START agreement, which has proved a powerful tool for reducing the risk of nuclear warfare.

Yet the United States and Russia retain the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, and both are engaged in massive modernization programs to enhance the military utility and longevity of their forces. Both are now pursuing doctrines and capabilities that would rely on the earlier use of nuclear weapons in more situations all while claiming they seek to avoid conflict and prevent the use of nuclear weapons.

For its part, Russia is also in violation of numerous arms control agreements, including the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which prohibits either country from possessing ground-based ballistic or cruise missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles. Moscow also retains perhaps as many as 2,000 tactical battlefield nuclear weapons, not only to compensate for its perceived conventional inferiority to NATO troops but also leaving it in a position to carry out its threat to use nuclear weapons first in a losing conventional conflict that threatens the survival of the Russian state.

Numerous observers have noted that the risks of conflict among the United States, NATO, and Russia remain unacceptably high. Russia believes that NATO enlargement and U.S. expansion of missile defenses and advanced conventional capabilities are to blame for this state of affairs, while the United States believes that Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty (and that of Georgia in the 2008 war), its reckless behavior toward NATO, and its increasing reliance on nuclear weapons are to blame for the instability in Europe. Regardless, both states can and must take actions to reduce the risks of conflict, tensions that, given their own doctrines, could quickly escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. Risks that seemed long banished to the annals of history are now very real and require high-level attention to reverse.

Trump overpromised and, so far, underdelivered on nuclear issues with North Korea all while heaping undeserved and dangerous praise on Kim Jong Un. There’s understandable worries that Trump, with his largely unexplained obsession with having Putin’s approval, will embolden a state that is acting against U.S. interests.

The risk that Trump will give Russia multiple concessions on NATO, sanctions, Ukraine, or elsewhere is very real. The ability to constrain his actions rests with Congress and perhaps some members of his cabinet, although they have failed to exercise any real control on the president to date. The prospect of a private Trump-Putin meeting should give anyone paying attention great pause. But those risks must be weighed against the possible benefits of avoiding one of the greatest risks facing the United States today, that of nuclear conflict.

Negotiated between the United States and Russia by then-Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, the New START agreement’s central limits went into effect on Feb. 5. It will remain in force until February 2021 but can be extended by executive agreement for a period of up to five years. The treaty contains effective verification and on-site access provisions that ensure both countries can monitor compliance with the deal by the other side and that both sides are meeting their obligations under the pact.

By capping the arsenals of both countries to no more than 1,550 offensive deployed strategic nuclear weapons and no more than 700 deployed nuclear launchers (missiles and strategic bombers), the New START pact brings a much-needed predictability to the long-standing nuclear relationship between Washington and Moscow. And, importantly, the agreement’s limits are built into the current U.S. nuclear modernization plan. The expiration of the deal might lead Russia and the United States to expand further their costly and dangerous expansion of nuclear forces and remove any ability of Washington to cooperatively monitor Moscow’s nuclear developments.

Both Russia and the United States benefit from the transparency, data exchanges, and inspection rights codified in New START. The predictability that the agreement provides has helped both sides prevent an even more uncertain and unstable nuclear relationship. As bad as things are, they can get worse. Just imagine how worst-case assessments of Russia’s nuclear arsenal would dominate the press and policy debate if U.S. inspectors were no longer able to verify what accountable nuclear weapons Russia has and where they are located. The history of mistaken overestimates of Russia’s nuclear power by the United States in the 1950s and 1960s is chilling and led to poor and costly decisions — and unnecessarily risked all-out nuclear conflict.

The treaty is not a panacea. The United States rightly wants to constrain Russia’s actions, including its ongoing violations of the INF Treaty and its pursuit of a suite of new exotic weapons, such as its newly declared underwater long-range nuclear torpedo. Russia, too, wants to address the risks posed by U.S. missile defenses, precision conventional weapons, and other systems. These discussions and potential agreements must be pursued but will take time. Both sides can’t afford to risk the expiration of the New START agreement by waiting to solve all outstanding issues before locking in the benefits of the agreement.

If New START can be extended at the summit, then the two sides should also consider elevating the long-moribund and desperately needed strategic stability talks to a high level. One option would be to start a 2+2 dialogue of the U.S. secretaries of state and defense with their Russian counterparts on a regular basis, with technical teams meeting even more frequently. Far from a return to business as usual, such a step is both appropriate and warranted given the very real dangers inherent in the relationship today.

It seems surreal that the nuclear dangers of the Cold War have returned so quickly. But it is dangerous to ignore them just because we don’t want to admit that we have stumbled back into a pattern of competition and brinksmanship. While the contours of the tension may be different, the tools needed to reverse this dangerous pattern are proven and well know. New START is the latest example of such tools and should be extended without delay to give both countries the room to take broader and more productive action in the coming months.

Jon Wolfsthal is director of the Nuclear Crisis Group. He was President Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation.

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