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, rather than simply assuming evil intent. Because of their technical character, arms control talks can also be shielded from what U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton has called the overwhelming “political noise” of the moment. Indeed, such talks took place even at the height of the Cold War.
Extending New START is a critical but achievable step. The 2010 treaty is the latest example of more than 40 years of bilateral nuclear arms control designed to forestall a destabilizing and costly nuclear arms race. It binds the United States and Russia to a maximum of 1,550 warheads on 700 deployed launchers each. (They may maintain up to 100 more nondeployed launchers each.) Even more important, it mandates effective verification mechanisms to ensure compliance, including short-notice on-site inspections at relevant facilities and military bases.
As of today, both sides are complying. But unless New START is renewed for another five-year term, it will automatically expire in 2021, leaving no limits on the growth of intercontinental nuclear arsenals for the first time since the 1972 SALT accords. Moreover, the current atmosphere of hostility would make a return to the agreement’s robust verification protocols difficult.
A wide range of experts on both sides support extension of the treaty, which would not forestall the nuclear modernization that both countries deem necessary. In addition, only the signatures of the two presidents are needed—not U.S. Senate ratification, which would likely mean further politicization. A five-year lifeline would also buy time for new agreements to be negotiated, which historically have taken years to hash out. Perhaps most crucial, extension would demonstrate that both sides remain committed to arms control at a time when other agreements are buckling under the weight of mutual distrust.
Among the instruments in trouble is the historic INF Treaty. Signed by the two nuclear superpowers in 1987, the agreement was the first to mandate on-site inspections and remains the only one in world history to eliminate an entire category of weapons owned by its signatories—all ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles within the 500- to 5,500-kilometer range and their launchers. Experts on both sides believe the existing treaty is outdated—but renegotiating it will not be easy. For one, it binds its signatories even as other states, such as China, Iran, and North Korea, can build the ground-based intermediate-range missiles it bans. In addition, the United States and Russia now accuse each other of undermining the treaty: Moscow argues that U.S. regional ballistic missile defense installations in Romania and Poland could be used to deploy prohibited systems, while Washington criticizes the deployment of a new Russian weapon system that it says violates the treaty terms.
The collapse of the INF Treaty, however, would exacerbate spiraling regional tensions in Europe and make any new agreement harder to achieve. The treaty may not be salvageable in its current form, but Washington and Moscow can nonetheless signal goodwill and promote stability by beginning conversations about what can be done to preserve, modify, or replace it.
Finally, the United States and Russia should agree to resume recently suspended programs, in place since the 1990s, to bring their military officers into regular contact with each other. Since Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and subsequent military intervention in Ukraine, the U.S. Congress has forbidden most military-to-military cooperation programs with Moscow through a provision in the yearly Department of Defense Appropriations Act, even though most senior U.S. military officers favor their resumption. Russia had in fact not been an active participant in many of these programs—which involve joint training, education, and conferences—for years. But drawing on the success of the deconfliction line used by the two militaries to avoid direct confrontation in Syria, a recommitment to these programs would allow officers on each side to gain a deeper understanding of the other side’s thinking. In the event of, say, a border violation or close aircraft encounter over the Baltic or Black Sea, this improved understanding could help each side identify signals of intent through the noisy fog of confrontation. It might even spawn new confidence-building measures between the two militaries, such as the Cold War Incidents at Sea Agreement of 1972 and the 1989 Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities Agreement,both of which remain in place despite today’s tensions. Any renewed military cooperation, however, would require Trump to get the green light from Congress, since the latest defense appropriations bill still blocks such programs.
Arms control and military ties need not be the only topics on the agenda in Helsinki. But it is doubtful that bilateral arrangements on other sore points, such as Ukraine or Syria, can stick, especially since any U.S.-Russian deal cannot commit all of the many other parties involved in these conflicts. By contrast, New START, INF, and military-to-military contacts are areas where bilateral progress not only is attainable but would represent a real breakthrough with the potential to slow, and perhaps even halt, the downward spiral in the relationship. Agreement in these areas would, importantly, not reward Russia for bad behavior, since there are no unilateral gains for Moscow here. A focus on arms control and military discussions can ensure that even as Washington and Moscow continue to disagree and compete in years to come, they are better equipped to calibrate their policies and avoid instability.