A conversation starter for Putin’s 2019 White House visit

A conversation starter for Putin’s 2019 White House visit
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At a news conference in Tbilisi, Georgia, last Friday, national security adviser John Bolton announced that the Trump administration has invited Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinPutin not ready to recognize Biden win Putin: Russia ready to give Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine to other countries Trump to participate in virtual G-20 summit amid coronavirus surge MORE to visit the White House for the first time since 2005. Bolton had just arrived from Moscow, where he told Putin the United States would withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which Russia has been violating.

Calling the U.S. decision “very dangerous,” Putin said ominously, “There would be nothing left except an arms race.”


Claiming the United States is starting a new arms race to serve the insatiable appetite of its Military Industrial Complex, the Kremlin’s state-controlled television echoed Putin’s contrivance.

Putin seeks to portray the United States as an irresponsible warmonger. An autocrat whose formative life experience was service in the KGB and as director of Russia’s oppressive Federal Security Service (FSB), Putin was trying to conduct an influence operation full of falsehoods.

Putin’s KGB past makes him a natural-born hypocrite and purveyor of lies. He regularly has portrayed Russia as a defender of peace and democracy in Syria, for example, when in fact the Kremlin has been deeply complicit in President Bashar al-Assad’s crimes against humanity. No country obstructed United Nations Security Council resolutions that desperately sought resolution to Syria’s humanitarian crisis more than Russia. In addition to diplomatic cover, Russia has provided Assad significant military and intelligence support.

The Trump administration should highlight that it was Putin who announced publicly in 2007 that Russia was considering withdrawal from the INF, a treaty that applies only to the United States, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, unless the treaty were expanded to cover other nations including China.

The Obama administration accused Russia of violating the INF in 2008, following Russia’s test of the SSC-8 cruise missile, a part of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. The SSC-8’s range of 300 to 3,400 miles would be banned under the INF Treaty. During his March 2018 State of the Nation speech, Putin warned the United States and NATO that Russia has developed hypersonic weapons that would render NATO’s U.S.-led missile defense system “useless.”

Putin wants to avoid any diplomatic fallout for building out his nuclear arsenal while portraying Russia to his own citizens as a besieged fortress that only he can defend.  Putin considers the United States an existential threat to Russia’s national security, not because of NATO’s ostensible military threat — which Putin purposely exaggerates — but because Western ideals of liberty, freedom and democracy might spread to Russia and break Putin’s grip on the Russian state.

Putin’s messages are designed to influence, rather than accurately inform. In his version of events, the United States is to blame for the arms race; Russia has no option but to build out its intermediate nuclear weapons arsenal; Russian citizens should understand that Putin is deterring a potential U.S.-NATO attack; and Europe should aim its protests at the United States, not Russia.

In truth, Putin is the perpetrator of an increasingly aggressive and dangerous foreign policy. Consider the past decade, during which Russia invaded Georgia; violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity; downed a civilian airliner; was a co-conspirator in Syria’s and Iran’s attacks on civilians in Syria; poisoned former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent; and interfered in elections in the United States and Europe.  

Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea violated international law and the Kremlin’s own agreements with Kiev promising to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. In a throwback to the same justification that Hitler used to annex Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, Putin defended the Crimea referendum to become part of Russia as consistent with the principle of self-determination. Baltic NATO members with Russian-speaking minorities are rightly concerned they might be Putin’s next targets.

Moving forward, the Trump administration should expose Putin’s strategy. Seeking a pretext to justify its own aggressive nuclear program, Putin is blaming the United States for withdrawing from a treaty that Russia abandoned years ago.  

Uncloaking Putin’s hypocrisy could be a first step towards negotiating a new INF Treaty with China’s participation. The United States and Russia have every reason to be concerned about China’s intermediate-range nuclear capability. China’s DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile, for example, is designed for medium- to long-range attacks on both land and large- to medium-sized maritime targets.

Arms control has been a key element of U.S. security on which the United States and Russia historically have found common ground, even during the most contentious periods in our history. Arms control arguably is even more vital when U.S. bilateral relations with Russia and China are as belligerent as they are now. As challenging as it might be, the Trump administration would do well to test Putin’s and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s commitment to their vision of a “multipolar” world by engaging in tripartite nuclear arms reduction negotiations.

With the U.S.-Russia New Strategic Arms Reduction (New START) Treaty set to expire in February 2021, this might be our last, best chance to limit the world’s most expansive and dangerous nuclear arsenals. What better time to start holding Russia accountable, and getting on with the business of arms control, than a 2019 Putin visit to the White House?

Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.