Why Did Trump Pick a Fight with Putin Over the Nuclear Weapons Treaty?

President Donald Trump, accompanied by, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice Pres. Mike Pence, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, speaks on the phone with with Russian President Vladmir Putin, Sat., Jan. 28, 2017.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

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President Donald Trump, accompanied by, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice Pres. Mike Pence, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, speaks on the phone with with Russian President Vladmir Putin, Sat., Jan. 28, 2017.

President Trump took a hard line over New START with Russia. It's an odd battle to choose -- and a dangerous one.

President Donald Trump has already picked a fight with Russia’s Vladimir Putin over nuclear weapons and the New START treaty. It is a curious battle to choose. The treaty enjoys the overwhelming backing of America’s top national security leaders and military commanders. Trump reportedly didn’t know what the treaty was but seems to be adopting the rhetoric of the far-right and their losing battle to block it in the Senate since 2010. To back out now would uncap the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world, worsening a burgeoning new arms race. Even more worrying, it could leave Russia’s arsenal dangerously uncounted.

We learned Thursday, in yet another leak to the press from concerned White House staff, that Trump railed at Putin in their recent phone call, denouncing the 2010 New START nuclear arms limitation pact as a “bad deal.” It should have been a routine courtesy call. But according to Reuters, “When Putin raised the possibility of extending the 2010 treaty… Trump paused to ask his aides in an aside what the treaty was.” He then reprised campaign rhetoric about how one-sided the treaty is, claiming that it gave Russia a strategic nuclear advantage.

Approved by a vote of 71-26, New START is a modest arms reduction treaty that trims U.S. and Russian “operationally deployed strategic weapons” to 1,550 on each side and extends crucial inspection and verifications procedures, allowing each side to ensure that the other is complying with the limits. It expires in 2021. Putin’s effort to simply extend the agreement failed to get an answer from the irate Trump.

Here’s the reality: “The New START Treaty has the unanimous support of America’s military leadership — to include the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all of the service chiefs, and the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, the organization responsible for our strategic nuclear deterrent,” said then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2010, who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “This treaty deserves [to be ratified by the U.S. Senate] on account of the dangerous weapons it reduces, the critical defense capabilities it preserves, the strategic stability it maintains, and, above all, the security it provides to the American people.”

Then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen agreed, “I believe, and the rest of the military leadership in this country believes, that this treaty is essential to our future security.”

Some Senate opponents of the treaty blocked it for purely political reasons; not wanting to give the Democratic president a victory is a crucial election year. But others took their cues from hardliners such as Frank Gaffney, head of the Center for Security Policy, who warned that because of Russian aggression “the United States, its allies and interests are at greater risk by the day. New START would actually reward the Kremlin for such behavior, rather than end it.” They preferred an arms race to arms control, calling then, as now, for an increase in nuclear weapons with more “usable” designs and a broader range of potential targets.

Related: Making America’s ICBMs Great Again
Related: Welcome to America’s Nuclear Sponge
Related: Is That All There Is? Obama’s Disappointing Nuclear Legacy

Military leaders warned about the consequences of this approach. Former commander of STRATCOM Gen. Kevin Chilton, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “If we don’t get the treaty, the Russians are not constrained in their development of force structure and…we have no insight into what they’re doing. So it’s the worst of both possible worlds.”

Seven former commanders of U.S. Strategic Air Command and Strategic Command backed up Chilton, writing the Senate Armed Services Committee, “Although the New START Treaty will require U.S. reductions, we believe that the post-treaty force will represent a survivable, robust and effective deterrent, one fully capable of deterring attack on both the United States and America’s allies and partners.”

Another reality check: Under New START the U.S. is still capable of deploying 240 nuclear missiles on America’s submarine-launched nuclear forces alone; each carrying up to 8 nuclear warheads for an estimated 900-1,000 warheads deployed at sea almost around the clock. We also keep 400 intercontinental ballistic missies, or ICBMs, ready to launch at a moment’s notice, and 60 strategic bombers capable of carrying 1,168 nuclear weapons.

This “bad deal” allows the United States to keep enough destructive force to destroy all of human civilization several times over. Forget deterrence, we are still well into Mad Max scenarios.

What if Trump backs out of this treaty?

“Without New START we will be compelled to waste military resources, not to mention tax dollars,” warned retired Lt. Gen. John Castellaw,a 36-year veteran of the Marine Corps “A precise accounting of the Russian arsenal and predictability going forward informs our strategic force structure. Frankly, it is to our advantage to verifiably reduce the Russian deployment because it allows us to use our resources more effectively.”

As former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger and Colin Powell wrote in 2010, “Obviously, the United States does not sign arms control agreements just to make friends. Any treaty must be considered on its merits. But we have here an agreement that is clearly in our national interest, and we should consider the ramifications of not ratifying it.”

Nor does it seem that the president consulted either his secretary of state or secretary of defense prior to launching his diatribe. Both support the agreement. Before Trump turns his tweets about a new nuclear arms race into a terrifying new policy, the new president might want to listen to the people who actually know what they are talking about.

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