Listen

How The Trump-Putin Summit Could Affect 2 Arms Control Treaties

Jul 15, 2018
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of the topics up for discussion when President Trump and President Putin meet tomorrow in Helsinki will be nuclear proliferation. The U.S. and Russia possess more than 13,000 nuclear weapons and, with an uncertain fate for two existing arms control treaties, both have begun building more. NPR's David Welna looked into whether this summit might change that.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The U.S. and Russia own 92 percent of the world's nuclear weapons almost equally divided. And tensions once again are running high between them. Dimitri Simes is a Russian native who's president of the Center for the National Interest in Washington. Russia, he says, is an existential threat to the U.S.

DIMITRI SIMES: It's very good that we're having nuclear discussions with North Korea, but it's kind of ironic not to have nuclear discussions with far more powerful Russia.

WELNA: On Friday, President Trump announced such discussions will be on tomorrow's agenda in Helsinki.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I will be talking about nuclear proliferation because we are massively - you know what we've been doing? We've been modernizing and fixing and buying, and it's just a devastating technology. And they, likewise, are doing a lot.

WELNA: Trump's intention to talk nukes fits a pattern. Richard Burt was the chief U.S. negotiator of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the former Soviet Union.

RICHARD BURT: When the U.S.-Russian relationship gets bad - and it's certainly bad now - often, the - both countries turn to arms control and nuclear disarmament as a good topic for beginning to rebuild trust.

BURT: Russia's annexation of Crimea four years ago halted almost all military cooperation between the U.S. and Russia, says Lynn Rusten, who was the National Security Council's senior director for arms control and non-proliferation in the Obama White House.

LYNN RUSTEN: There was supposed to be kind of a carve-out for nuclear matters, and that was certainly the case when I was in the Obama administration. But I think, over the years, what's happened is that that carve-out has shrunk, and so there's so little dialogue between our governments on these critical nuclear matters.

WELNA: As a result, says the Center for the National Interest's Simes, there have been no serious arms control negotiations. Neither side, he adds, is prepared to propose any new arms control agreements in Helsinki.

SIMES: The most you want to accomplish in Helsinki would be to start the process of arms control discussion. It is called strategic stabilization talks.

WELNA: Those talks were last held nearly a year ago, and a round scheduled for March got canceled. Arms control posts in the Trump administration were left vacant for months and were then mostly filled by people with little or no prior experience. Rusten, who's now with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, says it's not clear what this administration really wants.

RUSTEN: I think they've just been, frankly, slow to get organized and figure out what it is - our policy is going to be toward Russia and on these nuclear matters.

WELNA: On Friday, Trump claimed he had enough expertise of his own to handle nuclear negotiations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I understand nuclear. Look up Dr. John Trump at MIT. He was my uncle - many, many years a professor. I used to talk nuclear with him, and this is many years ago.

WELNA: Hanging in the balance are the so-called New START Treaty, which expires in two and a half years but could be extended another five, and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which the U.S. says Russia's repeatedly violated. Simes says Trump won't resolve all that at this summit.

SIMES: Well, hopefully, he will be able to say, I have talked to Putin. We understand there is a threat, and we're planning to talk about it.

WELNA: And that, he adds, would be a step in the right direction.

David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.