WASHINGTON — A treaty committing the United States and Russia to keep their long-range nuclear arsenals at the lowest levels since early in the Cold War goes into full effect Monday. When it was signed eight years ago, president Barack Obama expressed hope that it would be a small first step toward deeper reductions, and ultimately a world without nuclear weapons.
Now, that optimism has been reversed. A new nuclear policy issued by the Trump administration Friday, which vows to counter a rush by the Russians to modernize their forces even while staying within the treaty limits, is touching off a new kind of nuclear arms race. This one is based less on numbers of weapons and more on novel tactics and technologies, meant to outwit and outmaneuver the other side.
The Pentagon envisions a new age in which nuclear weapons are back in a big way — its strategy bristles with plans for new low-yield nuclear weapons that advocates say are needed to match Russian advances and critics warn will be too tempting for a president to use. The result is that the nuclear-arms limits that go into effect Monday now look more like the final stop after three decades of reductions than a way station to further cuts.
Yet when President Trump called on Congress to “modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal” in his State of the Union address last week, he did not mention his administration’s rationale: that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has accelerated a dangerous game that the United States must match, even if the price tag soars above $1.2 trillion. That is the latest estimate from the Congressional Budget Office, one that many experts think is low by a half-trillion dollars.
Trump barely mentioned Putin in the speech and said nothing about Russia’s nuclear buildup. His reluctance to talk about Russia and its leader during his campaign and first year in office — and his refusal to impose sanctions on Russia mandated by Congress — has fueled suspicions about what lies behind his persistently friendly stance toward Putin.
In the State of the Union speech, the president focused far more on North Korea and on battling terrorism, even though his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, had announced just days ago that “great power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of US national security.”
In contrast to the president’s address, the report issued Friday, known as the Nuclear Posture Review, focuses intensely on Russia. It describes Putin as forcing America’s hand to rebuild the nuclear force, as has a series of other documents produced by Trump’s National Security Council and Pentagon.
The report contains a sharp warning about a new Russian-made autonomous nuclear torpedo that appears designed to cross the Pacific undetected and release a deadly cloud of radioactivity that would leave large parts of the West Coast uninhabitable.
It also explicitly rejects Obama’s commitment to make nuclear weapons a diminishing part of American defenses. The limit on warheads — 1,500 deployable weapons — that goes into effect Monday expires in 2021.
The report describes future arms control agreements as “difficult to envision” in a world “that is characterized by nuclear-armed states seeking to change borders and overturn existing norms,” and in particular by Russian violations of a series of other arms-limitation treaties.