Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Trump-Putin Summit’s Potential Nuclear Fallout

| July 10, 2018

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

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.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Wolfsthal, Jon.“The Trump-Putin Summit’s Potential Nuclear Fallout.” Foreign Policy, July 10, 2018.

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