Foreign Policy

Trump, Russia take a dangerous first step on nuclear arms control


In a recent interview with the the London Times, Donald Trump suggested that he would offer to lift U.S. sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of a nuclear arms control agreement.

At a time when tensions between the two countries are growing, a verifiable and stabilizing new arms control agreement would be genuinely welcome. But a bad deal would only make matters worse.

{mosads}The comments about sanctions relief raise real questions about whether the incoming administration is willing to pay any price to improve relations with Russia (and why).


Today, both countries are making investments to replace nuclear systems that were first fielded during the Cold War. An agreement to limit these modernization plans could save money, stabilize the nuclear balance, and be safer to maintain and operate.

Under President Obama, the United States found that it could meet its deterrence requirements after a further one-third reduction in deployed strategic warheads, beyond what was agreed in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in 2010, and offered this deal to Russia.

A new arms control agreement would be difficult to achieve today. Putin declined Obama’s one-third offer and has signaled that he is not willing to negotiate over his most dangerous systems, its vast and opaque stocks of low-yield and short-range weapons.

At the same time, Russia has violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by developing a new prohibited cruise missile and indicated no real willingness to address the concerns of the United States and other treaty participants. Arms control accords are among the most consequential and the most difficult negotiations in the world, features that will surely attract Trump — but changing Putin’s position will be a very tall order.  

If the United States and Russia do launch a new round of arms control, U.S. negotiators will have significant leverage with which to bargain.

Given the assent of military advisors, U.S. officials could consider a variety of modifications to the U.S. nuclear modernization plans, including cancelling the new U.S. nuclear cruise missile, shifting the less-capable 180 tactical nuclear weapons stationed in Europe, or changes to the U.S. missile defense plan.

But they should only offer these cuts if they receive a fair trade in return. They must take care not to introduce new vulnerabilities, which would in turn exacerbate tensions.

Proposing to include sanctions relief in an arms control package is a dangerous first step. Trump seems to believe that the United States has to offer Russia sanctions relief in order to get to negotiations. It isn’t true: Russia has strong incentives to try to limit the more capable U.S. arsenal.

The United States should not have to pay a cover charge just to get to the negotiating table; arms control agreements must stand on their own merits.

Linking strategic arms control and sanctions policy also implies that the latter is purely political and arbitrary. In fact, the United States imposed sanctions on Russia for good reason: Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was an illegal and unacceptable affront to international peace and security.

The ongoing conflict has killed thousands of Ukrainians and displaced more than a million civilians. Reports from Ukraine even this week show that the Russians have escalated their involvement and the violence in Ukraine.  The Ukraine sanctions should be lifted only when Russia has proven it is willing to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine and withdraws its forces; to this end, Congress should immediately write the sanctions into law.

The linkage sends all the wrong messages. It may convince Putin that nuclear saber-rattling can get him off the hook for past crimes or that Trump cares more about deal-making than European security.

And what if Trump gets his deal and Putin continues his illegal actions in Ukraine? The United States would have to choose between lifting limits on Russia’s nuclear arsenal or acquiescing in an interminable war that destabilizes Europe. Ukrainian, European, and U.S. negotiators would have very little credibility left for confronting future Russian aggression.

It’s hardly a foundation for a good arms control agreement or improved relations.

Additionally, Trump must listen when the State Department and the Pentagon insist on strong verification.  Per usual, Russia will try to get by with looser standards. On-the-ground inspections and data exchanges provide valuable information about changes in the Russian arsenal and improve confidence that Russia is meeting its commitments.

We’re pleased to learn that Trump recognizes the value of nuclear reductions. Good arms control agreements are those that exchange stabilizing, verifiable, and mutually beneficial reductions.  A good accord can indeed lead to better relations — but closing our eyes to Russian aggression in Ukraine or rushing into a bad arms control deal are too high a price.  

It is incumbent on Congress to use its oversight powers to prevent either from happening.  Congress must insist that any arms control measures be verifiable and stabilizing, that Russia make real progress in Ukraine before any U.S. sanctions are relieved, and that the two issues be clearly separated.

Richard Nephew is a Senior Research Scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. He previously served as the deputy coordinator of sanctions policy at the U.S. Department of State. Adam Mount is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation Arms control Donald Trump Donald Trump Foreign relations of Russia Global politics International relations International sanctions Iran–United States relations Nuclear weapon Politics START I Ukrainian crisis

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