When Putin and Trump meet for the first time, one major topic of discussion could be the fate of each nation’s nuclear missile systems.

Pictured: U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. Photo: AP

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has been facing a lot of criticism for his controversial statements, reckless inconsistency and his apparent lack of understanding of key political and international problems. And his recent interview with Time magazine only seems to have confirmed his image of an impetuous politician.

During the interview, Trump made it clear that the sanctions imposed on the Kremlin for its policy in Ukraine could be lifted only as part of a tradeoff involving nuclear nonproliferation. In other words, he plans to pursue the same policy of nonproliferation as his predecessors and expects the Kremlin to do the same if it wants economic sanctions to be lifted or alleviated.

However, he said in December that he would build up America’s nuclear potential. He noted that this policy would continue “until such time, as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” This appears to be exactly the opposite strategy of nuclear nonproliferation. Does it mean that he contradicted himself within the period of just a month?

Or is there just a political calculation behind his recent move that aims at resolving all problems at once — modernizing the U.S. nuclear potential and, at the same time, presenting himself as a peacekeeper who helped to contain Russia’s nuclear threat?

A short guide to the history of nonproliferation

The history of nonproliferation dates back to the era of the Cold War, when nuclear weapons became a deterrent factor in the 1950s. Nowhere was this more evident than in the resolution of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world was at the brink of a nuclear catastrophe. The Soviet Union had some advantages in delivery systems of nuclear weapons and missile systems in comparison with the U.S., yet by the 1970s the Soviet nuclear potential decreased due the country’s economic challenges, resulting in near parity with the United States.

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In 1972, Moscow and Washington signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-I), which aimed at limiting the nuclear arsenals of the two countries to the level that they had reached at the moment of the ratification.

In the same year, the Soviet Union and the U.S. signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that obliged them to decrease the number of territories covered by their ABM systems: Only Moscow in Russia and the Grand Forks Air Force Base in the U.S. were protected by missile systems until 2009, when the treaty expired.

However, today the New START treaty between Moscow and Washington is still intact after being signed in April 2010 between Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev. The agreement intends to decrease nuclear missiles to 1,550 units, with the number of intercontinental ballistic, submarine and bomber warheads supposed to decline to 700. Both Russia and the U.S. regarded the New START treaty as a big diplomatic victory. This was especially true for the Kremlin, because at the moment of ratification, Russia had significantly fewer warheads than America.

Moreover, Moscow has not yet reached the nuclear missile threshold. In addition, the New START treaty doesn’t extend to multiple rockets, which can carry 12 warheads instead of just one.

At the same time, the New START treaty failed to resolve the problem of the American ABM shield in Eastern Europe and didn’t lead to the reduction of the nuclear arsenal of two U.S. allies — Great Britain and France. In fact, it just reconfirmed the nuclear parity and status quo and didn’t give any advantages to either side.

The inconvenient truth about nuclear deterrence

One should be mindful about some inconvenient aspects of nuclear deterrence that are ignored by diplomatic circles or dismissed by the political establishment (advertently or inadvertently). Today, the nuclear deterrence concept amounts to one simple and obvious move: in the case of nuclear attack, an adversary will be forced to respond in kind, regardless of how catastrophic the implications might be.

Top brass in the armed forces and military pundits refer to it as “unacceptable damage.” What does it mean? It means that even a limited nuclear attack would result in the total collapse of the economy, unimaginable social upheaval, serious problems with energy sources and the food supply - not to mention radiation poisoning and a colossal death toll in the epicenter of a nuclear explosion.

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In any imagined apocalyptic scenario, in which the U.S. or Russia would conduct a nuclear attack against each other (or their allies), the response is supposed to be reciprocal. Yet the nuance is that the New START treaty doesn’t forbid the types of delivery systems and nuclear warheads that could destroy life on the planet. Moreover, the United States has been stepping up its efforts to develop the so-called bunker buster bombs, which could penetrate to deep underground bunkers and shelters as well as hardened targets.

Likewise, the Kremlin has also expressed interest in such warheads. Andrei Bezrukov, a Russian undercover agent who was exposed in 2010 after a spy scandal, allegedly obtained secret information about bunker buster bombs, as some Russian media report.

Thus, the current treaties between Russia and the U.S. are hardly likely to save the world from a nuclear apocalypse. Moreover, the anti-missile system won’t be able to protect a country from a potential nuclear threat: submarine warheads, Tomahawk cruise and P-500 missiles cannot be intercepted by the ABM system. This might mean that any potential large-scale conflict between the two powers will hardly likely be a zero-sum game: it will be a lose-lose conflict.

Russia and Trump’s nuclear agenda

What can Trump offer as an alternative to nuclear deterrence? At any rate, his initiative will be political in its nature and he might make an effort to offer an acceptable tradeoff to Russia. Washington and NATO are highly interested in Russia withdrawing its Iskander missile systems from Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave in northeastern Europe.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin seeks to persuade the White House to withdraw nuclear missile systems from military bases located close to the Russian border. It also wants guarantees that the U.S. won’t deploy its ABMs in Eastern Europe. Such an agreement could also cover the problem of multiple warhead rockets and decrease the number of military launch systems.

At the same time, all these “peaceful” initiatives of Trump don’t mean that he is not going to build up and modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal and strengthen the entire military complex of the United States. Similarly, he is hardly likely to stop developing new kinds of nuclear weapons. After all, many American politicians repeatedly highlighted the importance of modernizing the U.S. nuclear potential. Moreover, it is not in the interest of the Trump administration to make any concessions about ABMs in Europe.

In turn, the Kremlin won’t withdraw the Iskander missile systems from the Kaliningrad region unless Trump yields on the question of ABMs. However, there might still be a political tradeoff — and the so-called nuclear trains could be the subject of this tradeoff.

Moscow announced the launch of such a train, the Barguzin, in 2016. Western experts labeled it “the ghost train” and characterized this nuclear train as an invincible threat that would be able to undermine U.S. security. The nuclear train is a mobile railroad complex that carries the nuclear warheads and rockets and easily maneuvers throughout the country. It is convenient in responding to potential attacks or launching its own missiles. It is a significant deterrence factor.

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And if Trump can persuade Putin to give up the project if the U.S. withdraws its ABMs from Eastern Europe, it could be framed by his administration as a big diplomatic victory and a breakthrough. In addition, it could be used to optimize the U.S. budget as a way to modernize the country’s military project, a goal that the Trump administration is pursuing. Such a move could be quite logical and expected from the U.S. President-elect, given his pledges to prioritize the U.S. army and cut expenses involved in maintaining the military infrastructure in Europe.

Moreover, such a move would allow Trump to find common ground with Russia and normalize the bilateral relations, which could foster the process of lifting (or alleviating) the sanctions imposed on the Kremlin, at least those sanctions that hamper American business.

All this indicates that the nonproliferation agenda might play a significant role during the first official meeting between Putin and Trump. However, it remains to be seen if they will be able to come up with a compromise. If they will, it is not clear to what extent their potential deal will be viable and long-standing, given a great deal of unpredictability and the fact there are no effective agreements that could restrict the use of nuclear weapons.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.