U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki July 16 is fraught with risk and opportunity. There are well-founded fears that he may make an ill-considered concession on easing sanctions or recognizing Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Given the conclusions of key U.S. intelligence agencies (recently endorsed by the bipartisan report of the Senate Intelligence Committee) that Russia massively interfered in the U.S. 2016 elections in support of Trump’s candidacy, any understandings he reaches with Putin in Helsinki will be seen by many Americans as highly suspect.
Luckily for Trump, there are straightforward, low-cost ways to stabilize the U.S. and Russian relationship, which would reduce the risks of war and an expensive arms race. He and Putin can choose to restart the U.S.-Russian dialogue on nuclear arms control, which has been stalled since 2013.
First and foremost, the two leaders should agree to extend for five-years the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) beyond its February 2021 expiration date, an option provided in Article XIV of the treaty. President Putin reportedly signaled his interest in such an extension during a February 2017 telephone conversation with President TrumpDonald TrumpSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Crenshaw slams House Freedom Caucus members as 'grifters,' 'performance artists' Senate confirms Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection MORE.
But adding five years to New START’s limits would help forestall some of the worst-case scenarios the U.S. could otherwise face -- such as runaway deployment of Russia’s new heavy ICBM, Sarmat, with up to 15 nuclear warheads on each missile. Most importantly, New START extension would enhance U.S. intelligence collection by continuing to provide invaluable data exchanges and site-visit follow-up on Russia’s otherwise opaque strategic force structure.
Given probable hostility among Democrats to any Trump-Putin deal constituting a sharp departure from traditional U.S. security policies, and the continuing antipathy toward arms control treaties among many Republicans, the option of extending New START carries the additional advantage of having already been ratified by Congress.
Building on New START extension as a foundation, Trump and Putin could also use the Helsinki summit to begin tackling more difficult issues in the arms control realm. One of the most urgent priorities is stemming the continuing deterioration of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Although this treaty was strikingly successful in eliminating within three years an entire category of nuclear weapons delivery vehicles – nearly 2,700 ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles – Russian development and deployment of a new, ground-launched cruise missile, is jeopardizing the treaty’s survival. In response, the Trump administration is pursuing new nuclear weapons of its own that would violate the treaty if flight-tested and deployed. The risk of renewed and dangerous nuclear competition is real.
Here too, the chummy personal dynamic between Trump and Putin could be used to reverse a significant impediment to improved bilateral relations. An opportunity for resolving key INF Treaty compliance issues emerged after the November 2017 meeting of the treaty’s Special Verification Commission.
After three years of U.S. charges, Russian denials and counter-charges, the United States finally provided Russia the military designator of the missile Washington judged to be a violation. Russia implicitly acknowledged the existence of this missile, but disputed the capabilities attributed to it by the United States.
With the core issue changed from verifying the system’s existence to verifying its actual capability, the sides have a new opportunity to further narrow the dispute via firsthand observations. Although a unilateral Russian invitation for U.S. technical experts to examine the missile and launcher seems improbable, it could very well become politically feasible as part of a reciprocal arrangement.
Since Russia claims the U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense system being deployed in Romania and Poland is capable of launching land-attack cruise missiles banned by the INF Treaty, an obvious quid pro quo emerges: Russian inspectors could be granted access to the U.S. systems located on Russia’s periphery in exchange for U.S. inspections of the new missile system in Russia. Although the road to resolution would be rocky, a pledge to start down that road is another deliverable available to Trump and Putin.
Arms control achievements in Helsinki cannot fix everything wrong in the U.S.-Russian relationship any more than past arms control treaties could solve the basic conflicts dividing Washington and Moscow during the Cold War. It is unrealistic to expect Putin to reverse Russia's annexation of Crimea or for Trump to press hard against Moscow’s meddling in U.S. elections.
But unlike the disputes over election interference, Russian activities in Syria, or the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, New START extension and a reciprocal INF Treaty inspections proposal offer the two leaders plausible achievements in Helsinki, which could not only stoke their egos, but serve their national interests as well.
Greg Thielmann is a board member of the Arms Control Association, a think tank created in 1971 to promote public understanding of arms control policy. He served 25 years as a US Foreign Service Officer, including posts in Moscow and Bonn, and retired as office director for Strategic, Proliferation, and Military Affairs in the State Department’s intelligence bureau (INR). He is also a former senior staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee.