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A nation must think before it acts.
After weeks of silence surrounding the substance of President Donald Trump’s July 16 discussions with President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, some details are beginning to emerge. These fragments do not provide a comprehensive picture of the talks, but they give some indication of the possibilities for U.S.-Russia cooperation on issues of mutual interest. As such, they should not be discarded out of hand or forgotten in the uproar over Trump’s performance at Helsinki, but taken seriously as a way to preserve and strengthen strategic stability between Washington and Moscow during this tumultuous period in U.S.-Russia relations.
The first leak, to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, appeared on July 26. Then, another one emerged in Politico on August 8. These Russian proposals cover a number of different areas, including the control of space-based arms, missile defense, and talks on strategic stability, but they focus on the near-term future of two fundamental U.S.-Russia nuclear pacts: New START and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
The leaks suggest that Putin pushed Trump on the New START agreement that caps both sides’ strategic offensive nuclear weapons and expires in 2021. New START limits both sides to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads on 700 deployed delivery vehicles (bombers, submarine- and ground-launched missiles). As well as capping numbers of strategic nuclear weapons, the treaty also facilitates transparency by providing for, among other measures, on-the-ground inspections of strategic nuclear sites and the exchange of deployment and missile-test data. At Helsinki, Putin allegedly proposed that the United States and Russia work on triggering the treaty’s provision for a five-year extension to 2026, “upon understanding that existing problems related to the Treaty implementation will be settled”—a likely reference to Russian concerns regarding the verifiability of U.S. measures to render bombers and submarine missile tubes incapable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Second, Putin proposed a joint U.S.-Russia statement reaffirming the two countries’ commitment to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which bans the testing and deployment of ground-launched missiles with a range of between 500 and 5,500 km. This Russian initiative may be an attempt to neutralize those pushing for Washington to withdraw from the treaty in the face of U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusions that Russia has tested a cruise missile that falls within the prohibited range. Moscow denies that the missile has such capabilities, while accusing the United States of violating the treaty through its installation of ground-based missile defense interceptors in Europe.
That the leaked proposals have a Russian provenance is significant. According to Tatyana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Moscow Center, there are two schools of thought in Moscow regarding how to deal with the Trump administration. One approach sees Trump’s victory as a way to push forward a new reset in U.S.-Russia relations. The other, dominated by those from the security services, sees this approach as futile given the domestic controversy Trump faces in relation to Russia. Instead, it privileges the use of Trump as “a convenient instrument for sowing chaos in U.S. politics, testing the strength of the Euro-Atlantic partnership, and splintering the West’s traditional common geopolitical front.” The substantive proposals outlined in the leaks suggest that, at least in part, Putin went to Helsinki with the aim of testing the first approach.
As Stanovaya notes, the U.S. reaction to Helsinki has probably diminished enthusiasm in Moscow for a substantive reset in U.S.-Russian relations. The uproar over Trump’s comments regarding U.S. intelligence on Russian interference during the 2016 presidential election completely overshadowed discussion of other topics, including nuclear arms control. The apparent lack of a clear record on the U.S. side added to the confusion and suspicion regarding what had passed between the two leaders. The immediate upshot of Helsinki has been strengthened determination in Congress to punish Moscow for 2016 and increased suspicion regarding any form of cooperation, however limited.
For its part, the administration has been extremely cautious in following up on Moscow’s arms control proposals. During his appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified that the administration is currently undertaking a “holistic” review of the New START and INF treaties and has yet to make a decision as to whether the preservation of these two agreements serves the interests of the United States. This attitude chimes with the personal history of Trump’s key foreign policy aides, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, who is on record as opposing New START, as well as Trump’s reported hostility to the treaty in his first telephone call with Putin.
Caution is well advised when dealing with nuclear arms control, a highly technical subject that touches on the United States’ vital national security interests. However, the reported dynamic in Moscow suggests that the administration should conclude its review sooner rather than later. While the Russian government appears interested in cooperation on arms control for the moment, the U.S. reaction to Helsinki has probably already strengthened the hand of those who believe that Moscow should discard any hopes of a constructive relationship with Washington and focus on stoking division within the United States as a means to weaken U.S. standing in the world.
While a full reset is highly unlikely given the current state of U.S.-Russia relations, a pragmatic, clear-eyed approach to bilateral nuclear arms control is in the interest of both countries. The United States should offer to extend the New START Treaty to 2026, along with measures to allay Russia’s verification concerns. It should also table a concrete proposal to resolve American and Russian doubts regarding both sides’ compliance with the INF Treaty, for example through reciprocal inspections of the disputed systems. These steps would help preserve the existing framework for nuclear stability between the two countries, while buying time for a more comprehensive review of U.S. arms control options in the light of long-term technological and geopolitical trends, such as hypersonic weapons, cyber warfare, and the rise of China. Failure to preserve these treaties would eliminate the predictability and transparency that has governed relations between the world’s two nuclear superpowers for decades, while leaving the United States with little further flexibility as it attempts to evaluate the adequacy of the arms control enterprise for the new challenges of the coming century.