Lehtikuva Lehtikuva/REUTERS Putin and Trump as Russian Matryoshka dolls, Helsinki, July 2018 

Brothers in Arms?

Why Trump Should Push Putin to Revive Arms Control

Ask most commentators and you’ll hear that next week’s summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki is doomed to failure. The United States and Russia share few regional or global interests and have clashed over Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Any lasting grand bargains are unlikely and probably unwise, as some fear that Putin’s KGB-honed negotiating skills—and Trump’s oft stated desire to get along with his Russian counterpart—will lead the U.S. president to give away too much for too little in return.

These doubts notwithstanding, the summit presents a real opportunity for the two leaders to tackle the issue of arms control, an area where sunset clauses and mutual distrust threaten to unravel past achievements. By agreeing to resume expert dialogue on nuclear arsenals and cross-military cooperation, Trump and Putin could improve the security of both countries at no cost to their respective interests, while setting the stage for more significant negotiations on broader topics of conflict in the future.

To bring home a win from Helsinki, Trump should push to fix the fraying treaties that have undergirded U.S.-Russian arms control to date. This means extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, commonly known as New START, and discussing the future of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Both sides should also resume a robust program of direct talks and activities between their armed forces.

The mere act of talking matters as much as the outcome. In the current standoff, Moscow’s and Washington’s inability to interpret each other’s signals correctly could lead to misunderstandings and unintended escalation in the event of a crisis. Both countries need to rebuild this skill, especially if they are to remain responsible custodians of their tremendous nuclear arsenals. Discussions on arms control offer a starting point, allowing each side to gauge the other’s underlying interests in a rapidly evolving strategic environment,

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