Just hours after Russian president Vladimir Putin said unequivocally he doesn’t want a nuclear arms race, President-elect Donald Trump indicated he was ready for it, and was confident the United States will win it comprehensively.
“Let it be an arms race,” he reportedly told an MSNBC news anchor, when asked to explain his tweet from Thursday about enhancing US nuclear capability. He added, “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
But Trump struck a conciliatory note in a statement later in response to a letter he had received from Putin more than a week ago. “I hope both sides are able to live up to these thoughts, and we do not have to travel an alternate path,” Trump said.
Putin wrote in the letter that he hoped that after Trump assumed office, Russia and the US will act “in constructive and pragmatic manner”, take “real steps” to restore bilateral ties and take international cooperation to a “qualitatively new level”.
But Trump’s tweet? Seen to be upending a longstanding US policy of reducing nuclear warheads that has enjoyed bipartisan support from presidents of both parties, the outburst had also triggered fears about a fresh round of arms race.
Though Trump had assigned no reason or context for the tweet, it seemed to have come in response to remarks earlier on Thursday by Putin about the need to “enhance the combat capability of strategic nuclear forces” of Russia. But addressing his annual year-end news conference in Moscow on Friday, the Russian president was categorical he doesn’t want an arms race. “If anyone is unleashing an arms race it’s not us. We will never spend resources on an arms race that we can’t afford.”
In fact, he added, it was Trump who “spoke about the necessity of strengthening the US nuclear arsenal, and strengthening the armed forces. There’s nothing unusual here”.
In his tweet on Thursday, the president-elect had said, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
As he didn’t elaborate, the cryptic tweet was seen to be signalling a complete overhaul of a long-standing US policy of nuclear arms reduction, pursued by a succession of presidents from both parties, starting with Republican Richard Nixon.
Another Republican president George W Bush turned out to be the most aggressive of them all, according to the Federation of American Scientists, an independent body that advocates disarmament, reducing the US arsenal by half. The cuts have slowed down under President Barack Obama, FAS has said and put the blame equally on opposition to further reductions from both US congress and Russia, despite the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).
The US and Russia have the world’s largest nuclear arsenals with 7,000 and 7,300 warheads respectively, according to FAS, followed by France (300), China (260), UK (215), Pakistan (130), India (120) and Israel (80). All of them combined are said to hold 15,350 warheads, down from 70,300 at the peak of the arms race during the Cold War.
Does Trump want to start another one? He seemed to be ready for it, according to his remarks to the MSNBC.
But his aides had taken a different line clarifying his Thursday tweet. Trump was “referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it — particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes”, his communications director Jason Miller said in a statement.
He went to say the president-elect had, as in the past, “emphasised the need to improve and modernise our deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength”.
Though meant as an explanation, Miller’s statement seemed more like reeling back Trump from a sticky spot as has become the practice, but did nothing to help quell fears of a renewed nuclear arms race, started this time by a tweet in 118 characters.
“Can a tweet start and arms race? This one just might have,” Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and a nuclear arms expert told Mother Jones, a news site.