Can Trump trade sanctions for nuke reductions with Russia?

Well, perhaps the better question is should he? The media rumor mill is buzzing after suggestions that the President Elect is considering cutting a deal with Vladimir Putin which could involve the easing or lifting of sanctions in exchange for a dramatic reduction in nuclear weapons stockpiles. We should include the usual caveat that even though he mentioned it to a reporter as a possibility, nothing is official until we see it on Trump’s Twitter feed, but it’s clearly worth an early look. (Reuters)

President-elect Donald Trump will propose offering to end sanctions imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea in return for a nuclear arms reduction deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he told The Times of London.

Trump, in an interview with the newspaper published online on Sunday, was deeply critical of previous U.S. foreign policy, describing the invasion of Iraq as possibly the gravest error in the history of the United States and akin to “throwing rocks into a beehive”.

But ahead of his inauguration on Friday as the 45th U.S. president, Trump raised the prospect of the first major step toward nuclear arms control since President Barack Obama struck a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia in 2010.

“They have sanctions on Russia — let’s see if we can make some good deals with Russia,” the Republican president-elect was quoted as saying by The Times.

I’ll admit that this sounds like classic Trump instincts on the surface. He based much of his argument in favor of electing him on the proposal that the United States makes a lot of really crappy deals (which is absolutely true) and that he would be a top level negotiator. (This is historically true in the business world, but now we’re going to put it to the test in terms of foreign relations and government policy.) I’m all for better deals but I have to wonder if this is really a good opening gambit. To be clear, minimizing the number of nukes everyone is sitting on while keeping enough of a stockpile to remain an effective deterrent is always a good idea in my opinion, but it’s not as if we’re in the midst of another massive build-up at the moment. Check out the historical warhead counts for both countries going back to the dawn of the age of nuclear weapons.


We’ve been pretty much at parity for a while now and the overall trends are already downward. Further, Russia is in even more financial trouble than we are at the moment and they have been for a while. Maintaining the nuclear stockpile is an expensive and logistically daunting proposition for anyone. It’s actually in Russia’s best interests to keep reducing the headcount of weapons. Much like us they would be better served by cutting out old systems and replacing them with a smaller number of newer, more reliable weapons platforms. As it is, we both have enough nukes to hurl mankind back into the stone age several times over, so a big build-up isn’t really getting us anywhere as long as the technology for what we currently have is solid. (Our arsenal is not broken and unreliable as some choose to claim, but the aging weapons do present challenges in terms of maintenance and reliability.)

So with all that in mind, does the United States really need to cut a deal with Putin in which he gets a bunch of sanctions he hates removed in exchange for something he’s probably already hoping to do anyway? As I see it, further reductions in the stockpiles – particularly if they are drastic – is more of a political poker chip than some pressing need in military strategy or international diplomacy. We still have hippies holding protests over nukes annually and reductions make for great headlines, but not much more. I’m all for making a deal with the Russians (or anyone except ISIS, al Qaeda and company really) but it seems like we could be getting a lot more in exchange for sanctions relief than this. Is a new arms treaty really our top priority with them?