"Let it be a new arms race": Trump ready for nuclear brinksmanship with, um, Russia? Update: Putin sends Trump letter

I hate to knock him for rattling his saber at Russia after knocking him so many times for slobbering over Putin, but can he maybe find an intermediate foreign-policy setting between “Kremlin toady” and “full nuclear release”? Good lord. How about “repairing relations with Moscow is a top priority but we will honor our NATO commitments”? Not too hot, not too cold. Just right.

It all started with a tweet, as most major American policy developments likely will over the next four years.


What prompted that? It’s anyone’s guess, but Putin said something yesterday about strengthening his own nuclear forces so that they “can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems.” You would think Trump, having spun so dependably for Russia on the DNC and Podesta hackings, would have shrugged that off. Instead he grabbed his phone and booted up Twitter, and when Mika Brzezinski followed up this morning by asking him what he meant about “nuclear capability” if not a new arms race, he apparently told her, sure, he’s ready for a new arms race if need be. And just like that, the new Cold War between the U.S. and Russia took an unexpected turn.

What does he really mean, though, when he says we should “strengthen and expand [our] nuclear capability”? The Times has a fun piece out parsing his tweet word by word, noting how many different ways it could be interpreted. Maybe he means nothing more than that we should “modernize” our existing weapons, a policy Obama has pushed for years. Maybe he means we should make those existing weapons more powerful, with higher payloads. Maybe he means we should deploy those weapons more aggressively, re-stationing some of them in eastern Europe. Maybe he means we should develop new delivery systems, like space-based platforms. Or maybe he means we should start building new weapons, a momentous reversal of the last few decades of denuclearization. Also, what’s with that bit at the end about the world “coming to its senses”? Is that aimed at Putin, to warn him that we’re prepared to build up our nuclear offense if he insists in trying to out-maneuver our missile defense? Or is it a more prosaic reminder that so long as any other country maintains a nuclear arsenal, the U.S. will maintain one too?

A statement that can be read practically any way you want to read it isn’t worth much diplomatically, although as a general expression that Trump won’t be intimidated by Russia or anyone else, I suppose it’s useful. It could be that Trump is smarting from all of the attacks on him lately for appearing to side with Putin over the CIA on the hacking matter and wanted to show Americans he’s prepared to stand up to him as president, even if that means an arms race. Or, if you prefer a more basic alpha-male reading of Trump, maybe he got annoyed when Putin said yesterday, “We can say with certainty: We are stronger now than any potential aggressor. Anyone!” If there’s one thing Trump seems to find intolerable, it’s being seen as weak; he’s spent months defending Putin from hacking accusations, which is bad enough, but now here’s Putin implying that he and Russia will be the stronger partner in their new relationship with the U.S. That’s transparent nationalist nonsense aimed at his domestic Russian audience, which, you would hope, Trump would realize. But maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he took all of Putin’s saber-rattling blather yesterday as a bit of a punch and, true to form, he counterpunched. Voila: New arms race.

One amusing consequence of yesterday’s tweet is watching people on both sides of the Atlantic instantly start spinning on Trump’s behalf, insisting that he didn’t really mean what he might have meant. One spokesman, Jason Miller, told the media he was indeed talking about modernizing the nuclear arsenal, not expanding it; that interpretation seems to be undercut by what Trump (allegedly) told Mika. New White House press secretary Sean Spicer, meanwhile, told NBC this morning that there’s not going to be a new arms race, even though Trump has now explicitly held open that possibility. Putin himself was asked about Trump’s tweet at a press conference this morning and went to bat for him, insisting that what he said about bolstering the U.S. arsenal is no different from what he said during the campaign. (The “arms race” comment came after Putin’s presser ended so he hasn’t reacted to that yet.) A lot of people in a lot of different countries are going to spend the next four years claiming that Trump couldn’t have really meant the things he said. And a lot of people here will spend those years insisting that every move he makes is part of a game of eight-dimensional chess he’s playing, because he’s a “disrupter” or he’s following the “madman theory” of foreign policy, rather than a case of him reacting in the moment. Hope they’re right.

Here’s the Brzezinski segment followed by Spicer trying to clean up Trump’s mess. Exit question: Why … are these people wearing pajamas? Never mind, I don’t want to know.

Update: Sounds like the arms race is canceled, or at least postponed.

President-elect Donald Trump on Friday praised Vladimir Putin and shared a Christmas letter the Russian president sent him.

“A very nice letter from Vladimir Putin; his thoughts are so correct,” Trump said in a statement. “I hope both sides are able to live up to these thoughts, and we do not have to travel an alternate path.”

In the attached letter, Putin emphasized the importance of cooperation between the two countries.

“I hope that after you assume the position of the President of the United States of America we will be able – by acting in a constructive and pragmatic manner – to take real steps to restore the framework of bilateral cooperation in different areas as well as bring our level of collaboration on the international scene to a qualitatively new level,” the Russian leader wrote.