Is A New Nuclear Arms Race About to Start Between Russia & US?
Donald Trump has sent a range of mixed – and often unconventional – signals on nuclear policy.
With barely a single working day left until Christmas, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump appeared to unexpectedly announce an intensified nuclear arms race.
It was, perhaps, an early sign that relations between the US and Russian leaders may not be as positive as some had expected.
It is still not entirely clear exactly what Trump meant with his 22 December tweet that the United States "must strengthen and expand its nuclear arsenal until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes".
The tweet appeared to be a response to comments by Putin earlier in the day on strengthening Russia's atomic arsenal and bragging of his country's ability to defeat any potential adversary.
Trump's Approach Different to Obama
What is clear is that Trump's words seem a significant departure from the approach of Barack Obama, who was still trying to draw down Washington's nuclear weapons stocks.
In truth, however, the outgoing administration was itself in many ways more visibly assertive than any of its post-Cold War predecessors in its own nuclear posturing.
Faced with an increasingly aggressive Russia and belligerent North Korea in particular, the Obama administration has on several occasions made a point of sending nuclear capable B-2 and B-52 bombers to Asia and Europe to reassure allies and send a not-so-subtle message to potential nuclear-capable adversaries.
Trump's Mixed Signals on Nuclear Policy
Trump has sent a range of mixed – and often unconventional – signals on nuclear policy. During the election campaign, he appeared to suggest that Washington should roll back its historic position of pledging to respond in kind for a nuclear attack on close NATO or Asian allies, even appearing to suggest countries such as Japan and South Korea might do better to acquire their own atomic arsenals.
A poll of national security experts concluded in 2015 that the risk of a major nuclear exchange had risen over the decade. On balance, they saw a 6.8 percent chance of a major conflict in the next 25 years, killing more people than World War Two’s roughly 80 million. It’s hard not to conclude that the prospect has increased since that survey.
Ultimately, it could be argued that both Trump and Obama – and perhaps also Putin – have just been trying to publicly wrestle with a simple awkward reality: that the threat of a major nuclear exchange between major states, particularly Russia and the United States, never really went away.
The US and Russian arsenals are much more limited than they were at the height of the Cold War. Then, the US stockpile alone stood at more than 25,000. Even today, however, a Washington-Moscow confrontation could devastate the entire northern hemisphere.
According to the Arms Control Association – one of the more respected estimators of nuclear arsenals – Russia has some 7,300 warheads in total, approximately 1,700 immediately deployable via missiles and bombers. The United States has slightly fewer – some 7,000 warheads, approximately 1,300 deployable.
No one else has anything close – the United Kingdom, France and China have approximately 200 to 300 each. India and Pakistan have an estimated 110 and 140 respectively. North Korea, which everyone worries over the most, was estimated to have a mere eight.
As Putin made clear in his press conference last week, that is why Russia reacted so angrily to the development and deployment of relatively limited US missile defenses, particularly in Eastern Europe.
From Washington's perspective, the focus of these systems was always on rogue states, the potential risk from places such as North Korea and Iran. For Russia, however, the defenses have always been seen as a Western strategy to negate Moscow's atomic arsenal.
Such worries were not, perhaps, entirely reasonable. Even the boldest suggested expansion of US missile defenses would never have been able to shoot down more than a tiny proportion of Russia's warheads. But with stakes like that, common sense is a relative concept.
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