Donald Trump follows Putin in calling for stronger nuclear capabilities

Moscow posturing seen by some as attempt at unnerving incoming US administration

A journalist holds a poster with portraits of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, France’s far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, and US president-elect Donald Trump prior to Mr Putin’s annual press conference in Moscow on Friday. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

A journalist holds a poster with portraits of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, France’s far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, and US president-elect Donald Trump prior to Mr Putin’s annual press conference in Moscow on Friday. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

 

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have separately called for a strengthening of their nations’ nuclear capabilities, sparking more uncertainty around US-Russia relations four weeks before the New York mogul is inaugurated as the 45th US president.

Speaking at a meeting of his defence chiefs, Mr Putin said Russia must “strengthen the strategic nuclear forces . . . [to] develop missiles capable of penetrating any current and prospective missile defence systems”, according to the Tass news agency.

Several hours later, Mr Trump said the US should expand its nuclear capabilities. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” Mr Trump tweeted.

Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said it was unclear whether Mr Trump was just backing the existing US nuclear modernisation programme – which will not increase the size of the arsenal – or whether he was talking about adding to the total number of nuclear warheads.

Mr Kimball said the tweet was likely a “ham-handed” effort to back the modernisation programme following a meeting he held on Wednesday with Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, and some of the top military brass from the Pentagon.

“[But] he also said we must strengthen and expand our nuclear capacity, which implies that he is thinking about, or wants to build new nuclear warheads . . . which would be a radical departure in US policy that goes back decades,” he added.

Transition team

Asked about the tweet, Jason Miller, the Trump transition team spokesman, said he was “referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it – particularly to and among terrorist organisations and unstable and rogue regimes”.

“He has also emphasised the need to improve and modernise our deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength,” added Mr Miller, without explaining whether Mr Trump wanted to increase the actual number of US nuclear warheads.

Mr Kimball stressed that it was “very irresponsible” for Mr Trump to use a tweet to “encapsulate the future direction of policy of the worlds’ largest nuclear superpower”.

It was unclear whether Mr Trump was tweeting because of something he heard in the briefing on Wednesday, or whether it was a kind of response to the Russian leader.

The comments by Mr Putin – who also claimed that Russia was “stronger than any potential aggressor” and could repel any threat – follow the most intense nuclear posturing by Moscow since the end of the Soviet Union.

Russia has cancelled three nuclear deals with the US, while Russian state television recently warned that the US was about to start a war, comparing tension over Syria with the Cuban missile crisis.

Some analysts saw Moscow’s nuclear posturing as an attempt at intimidating the incoming Trump administration, as well as bolstering Mr Putin ahead of elections in 2018.

Eugene Rumer, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment, said Mr Putin had made similar comments about Russia’s strategic nuclear forces in 2014 and 2015 because of concerns that the US was building missile defences that would threaten the ability of their nuclear forces.

Military threats

“However, this time, right after he spoke about the need to maintain their strategic nuclear forces, he also spoke about the need to raise Russian strategic non-nuclear forces to a qualitatively new level that will make it possible to deal with any military threats to Russia,” said Mr Rumer. “That is an area where Russian military analysts have long viewed the United States as far superior to Russia.”

The Russian posturing comes at an important time in US-Russia relations. The Obama administration has accused Mr Putin and the Kremlin of orchestrating cyber attacks on the Democratic National Committee in Washington, although Mr Trump has confounded US experts by dismissing the conclusions of the CIA as “ridiculous”.

Despite huge spending on military modernisation in recent years, Russia’s conventional forces remain a fraction of the size of Nato’s. But its nuclear arsenal is on a par with America’s – though both are far smaller than at the height of the Cold War – allowing it to level the playing field.

Russia’s armed forces have been deployed in Mr Putin’s stand-off with the west over Syria and Ukraine. In 2014, they took the Crimean peninsula and last week helped Syrian government forces retake Aleppo, a key flashpoint in the country’s five-year civil war.

In Syria, Russian armed forces have killed 35,000 rebel fighters and destroyed 725 training camps since Moscow intervened on behalf of president Bashar al-Assad’s regime last year, according to Sergei Shoigu, Russian defence minister. He added that Moscow had carried out 18,800 sorties and 71,000 strikes in Syria.

The Russian military has used 162 different weapons systems in the conflict, which has served as a showcase for much of the new equipment developed under Mr Putin’s modernisation drive. Mr Shoigu also said Russia would produce five new strategic bombers and add three new units to Russia’s nuclear forces.

( – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)