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Prospects for Arms Control and U.S.-Russia Relations under a New U.S. Administration

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On November 15, the Center for the National Interest hosted an event focusing on the prospects for arms control talks between Russia and the United States under a Donald Trump presidency. Center Executive Director Paul Saunders moderated a discussion between Lt. Gen. Evgeny Buzhinsky, Russia’s former top military arms control negotiator, and Stephen Rademaker, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control. A summary of the event can be found below. Footage of the event was broadcast live by The National Interest on Facebook and can be viewed online here.


Prospects for Arms Control and U.S.-Russia Relations under a New U.S. Administration

Two former senior U.S. and Russian officials agreed that the election of President-Elect Donald Trump has the potential to fundamentally reshape the U.S.-Russia relationship and redefine the role and scope of arms control negotiations within that relationship. Lt. Gen. Evgeny Buzhinsky and Stephen Rademaker appeared at the Center for the National Interest on November 15 to discuss the prospects for nuclear arms control and missile defense in U.S.-Russia relations following the U.S. elections.

Rademaker, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control and Buzhinsky’s former counterpart, argued that the role of arms control within U.S.-Russia bilateral relations under a Trump administration will differ markedly from the Obama administration. Whereas President Obama made arms control the centerpiece of his Russia Reset policy and strove to appropriate that bilateral relationship towards achieving his administration’s larger goal of a nuclear-free world, Rademaker argued, a Trump administration would more likely focus on improving the bilateral relationship itself, within which arms control could be an important feature but not a key driver. Indeed, Rademaker asserted that if it were to occur, arms control progress would “grow organically” from a stronger bilateral relationship, though Trump may avoid arms control efforts altogether.

Buzhinsky, Russia’s top military arms control negotiator during the second Bush administration and the early Obama administration and previously involved in the missile defense talks and negotiations that led to the New START arms treaty, stated that the current stalemate in arms control negotiations stems from disagreements on the role of nuclear weapons and assessments of strategic balance. Buzhinsky asserted that prospects for arms control under a Trump administration are weak, due to: (1) the lack of parity in conventional weapons and the U.S.’ unwillingness to reduce its significant advantages in this realm vis-à-vis Russia; (2) the importance of non-strategic nuclear weapons in Russia’s nuclear posture and national security strategy; and particularly (3) the issue of missile defense.

The lack of operational nuclear weapons (as opposed to nuclear devices) in North Korea and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles in both the North Korean and Iranian arsenals, Buzhinsky argued, make U.S. anti-ballistic missile defense plans in Europe unnecessary. If arms control negotiations were to resume, Buzhinsky claimed, Russia would base any reductions on the simultaneous negotiation of an ABM-type treaty, just as was done in 1972. Rademaker challenged the likelihood of this scenario, saying that the Trump administration would not likely cede ground on missile defense due to the enduring threats posed by Iran and North Korea and the strong support for missile defense among Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

With regards to the broader U.S.-Russia relationship, Rademaker believes that President-Elect Trump will seek to adopt policies that satisfy enough of Moscow’s concerns so that the Kremlin no longer perceives NATO as a threat and instead perceives the U.S. as a potential partner against threats elsewhere. He also expressed concern about another possible scenario in which NATO weakens under a Trump administration, leading to growing insecurity among allies and potentially greater instability in Europe.

Buzhinsky focused on Moscow’s lack of trust in NATO’s promises, citing the expansion of military infrastructure in Eastern Europe—such as the onshore Aegis missile defense system inaugurated in Romania earlier this year—and the possibility of those systems being equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles that could threaten Russian military installations. Buzhinsky also voiced concern that the new generation of military commanders on both sides (particularly on the Russian side) do not have the experience in observing the intricate Cold War-era rules of military and nuclear posturing. Along with the reduction of strategic channels of communication between military command authorities and the divergent assessments of strategic stability, according to Buzhinsky, this is a significant and potentially destabilizing factor. He linked this to recent close encounters involving NATO and Russian aircraft and vessels.

Both also weighed in on the potential impact of warming U.S.-Russia relations under a Trump administration on the Iranian nuclear deal’s longevity and the Syrian conflict. Buzhinsky expressed hope that a President Trump would adhere to his campaign promises of a closer relationship with Moscow, particularly with regards to cooperation in Syria against various Islamist rebel and terrorist groups. He also said it would be difficult for the United States to withdraw from the multilateral deal hammered out between Iran and the P5+1 countries, though he mentioned that Russia may mediate between Washington and Iran and that certain adjustments to the deal were possible. In contrast, Rademaker stated it was plausible that the nuclear deal would no longer be in effect within two years, with either the U.S. or Iran abandoning the agreement. He saw this as an outcome of efforts in the U.S. Congress to impose new sanctions, which could be difficult for President Trump to oppose in view of his position on Iran during the election campaign.