Kremlin Learning to Navigate Washington’s New Unpredictability

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 3

(Source: IBT)

In the run-up to his inauguration this week (January 20), President-elect Donald Trump has been saying all the right words Moscow would seem to want to hear. The Kremlin openly supported Trump’s recent characterization of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as “obsolete.” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, declared, “We fully agree—NATO is hell-bent on promoting confrontation, and we have been for a long time insisting it is a leftover [of the Cold War]” (, January 16). Moreover, Moscow has for decades struggled and failed to find common ground with the European Commission—the European Union’s executive arm. So Trump’s prediction to journalists (published in The Times and Bild on January 15) that the EU is likely to disintegrate into disrepair after last June’s Brexit vote is an outcome the Kremlin would surely want to see. Russia has traditionally preferred to broker separate arrangements with individual Western countries instead of dealing with strong multinational institutions—an attitude apparently very similar to that of Trump.

Undermining NATO and the EU is absolutely in line with Moscow’s long-term strategic objectives. Putin’s Kremlin may be prepared to just stand back and wait to see what damage Trump himself may inflict on these institutions. But the President-elect’s publicly proposed first offer to Moscow of a major deal to somehow exchange nuclear arms reduction for sanction relief has not been met with applause in Russia. The United States and its allies imposed sanctions on Russia to punish Moscow for annexing Crimea in 2014 and promoting an armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Last month (December 2016), Washington imposed additional sanctions in retaliation for Moscow’s alleged hacking operations aimed at influencing the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. Sanctions are hurting Russia, and Trump seems ready to use the prospect of sanctions relief “to make some good deals” (Intefax, January 16).

Sanctions are indeed biting, and removing them without Russia having actually made any serious concessions on, say, Crimea would be seen as a major political victory by Putin. But substantially cutting nuclear weapons stockpiles does not seem high on Putin’s agenda—nor, indeed, does it seem desirable for the Kremlin. Russia spent hundreds of billions of dollars in the last decade to vastly enhance its nuclear arsenal and build an array of new long-range delivery vehicles. The Russian Navy has deployed three newly built Borei-class strategic nuclear submarines and five more Borei-class subs are under construction. A new intercontinental sea-based ballistic missile—the Bulava—has been developed and deployed with the Borei-class submarines. Dozens of nuclear and non-nuclear attack subs are being built, as well as surface warships equipped with long-range nuclear-capable cruise missiles. After the Borei-class submarine building program in complete, a new program is in the works to build a next-generation of strategic ballistic missile-carrying nuclear subs—the Husky class (, December 23).

An array of new land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) have reached the stage of launch testing and may soon go into production: Railroad-mobile (Barguzin) ICBMs, heavy silo-based (Sarmat) ICBMs, as well as land-mobile Yars and Rubez ICBMs (, November 3). By 2020, Russia may have more than ten types of land-based deployed ICBMs and up to five different sea-based ballistic missiles, while the US has only two deployed long-range ballistic missiles—the vintage land-based Minuteman and the sea-based Trident. Moscow has refused Barack Obama’s offers to agree to substantially cut its nuclear arsenal and will surely reject Trump’s, assuming the incoming US President’s proposal is a strategic hoax. In Moscow’s thinking, Russia spent a great deal of money and sees itself ahead of the United States in nuclear armament, so Washington has an incentive to try to offer to scrap its vintage nuclear delivery systems in exchange for the demolition of newer and more sophisticated Russian ones to achieve a military advantage. Trump may try to style himself as a new Ronald Reagan, the still immensely popular late Republican US President who ended the nuclear arms race in the second half of the 1980s, by making a nuclear arms deal with Russia. But Putin would surely hate to be seen as a reincarnation of Reagan’s late–Cold War counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, who dismantled the Soviet superpower and is seen by many of Putin’s domestic supporters as a traitor. Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has not signed a single arms reduction treaty—which is hardly a coincidence. He delegated his lieutenant, Dmitry Medvedev—who at the time served as Russian president, albeit with more limited powers—to sign the 2010 New START treaty with Obama.

Of course, the Kremlin stated for the record that the Russian government fully supports nuclear disarmament in principal, but a link to sanctions is wrong and unworkable—sanctions may be reinstated at the stroke of a pen, while rebuilding a nuclear submarine or silo-based missile is not that easy. Russian officials say they are ready to discuss nuclear security issues with Trump, but any deal to cut nuclear warhead numbers must be accompanied by the US pledging to scrap its missile defense deployment plans. In addition, other nuclear powers (China, France and the United Kingdom) should join the talks and also cut their stockpiles. As long as these preconditions are not met, there is no scope for any further arms cuts (RIA Novosti, January 16). According to a recent statement by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, “The world is becoming less stable; world powers confront each other to control resources and seek domination. The West refuses to accept Russia’s vital national interests and sees the expansion of Russian influence in the post-Soviet space as a threat.” In response, according to Shoigu, Russia will strengthen its military capabilities and “continue a massive program of nuclear rearmament, deploying modern ICBMs on land and sea, [and] modernizing the strategic bomber force” (, January 12).

Trump’s proposed sanctions-for-nukes deal was a nonstarter, but it sent an important signal—the new US administration sees sanctions imposed as punishment for aggression and wrongdoing as bargaining chips that may be traded for something totally unrelated. The incoming US President seems uninterested in the future of Ukraine and may believe Russia could be allowed to take it over as a dependency if it wishes or if it is ready to pay off Trump with some lucrative deal. Or maybe the Kremlin indeed holds some devastating kompromat (compromising material) connected with the President-elect, and Trump is simply seeking a pretext to lift sanctions.