Trump and Putin: The worst case scenario

A penny for your thoughts, president-elect.
A penny for your thoughts, president-elect.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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On Dec. 22, president-elect Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin both announced that they intend to increase their respective countries’ nuclear arsenals. Their use of language eerily paralleled each other. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” Trump tweeted. “Russia should fortify its military nuclear potential and develop missiles that can penetrate any missile-defense system,” Putin said at a defense ministry meeting.

The joint statements set off speculation that the United States and Russia are planning an increase in nuclear capacity that is in stark contrast to standard anti-proliferation policy.

This is an erroneous interpretation. Trump and Putin aren’t heading to war with each other—they’re heading to war together. Trump is a vociferous defender and admirer of Putin and is suspected by multiple intelligence experts of being assisted and even co-opted by the Kremlin. Russian interference in the US election has been affirmed by multiple US intelligence agencies and has led to calls for a congressional investigation. Rather than engaging in an arms race against each other, Trump and Putin are possibly teaming up as nuclear partners against shared targets.

Sound fantastical? It’s not: Trump has been obsessed with nuclear weapons for several decades, and has expressed his desire to coordinate with Russia on nuclear policy since the 1980s. In 1984 Trump, backed by Roy Cohn, the political operative who advised Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, proclaimed his goal of negotiating nuclear deals with the Soviets: “It would take an hour-and-a-half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles,” Trump said. “I think I know most of it anyway. You’re talking about just getting updated on a situation… You know who really wants me to do this? Roy… I’d do it in a second.”

This rhetoric mirrors Trump’s current rejection of expert advice and conviction that his instinct is enough to guide policy. (“I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things,” he said in March 2016 when asked whom he consults on foreign affairs.) During the 2016 US presidential campaign, Trump refused to look at intelligence briefings or collaborate with anyone outside his inner circle. This advisory team is comprised of corporate raiders, warmongers, and white supremacists, some of whom—like his nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, or national security advisor, Michael Flynn—are personally tied to Putin as well.

In 1987, Trump made his goal of Russian collaboration on nuclear power explicit: The Soviet Union and the US should partner to form a nuclear superpower with the intention of intimidating other countries into dropping their own nuclear plans.

“Most of those [pre-nuclear] countries are in one form or another dominated by the US and the Soviet Union,” Trump told journalist Roy Rosenbaum. “Between those two nations you have the power to dominate any of those countries. So we should use our power of economic retaliation and they use their powers of retaliation, and between the two of us we will prevent the problem from happening. It would have been better having done something five years ago. But I believe even a country such as Pakistan would have to do something now. Five years from now they’ll laugh.”

When Rosenbaum suggested Pakistan would not respond favorably to this policy, Trump laughed:

“Maybe we should offer them something. I’m saying you start off as nicely as possible. You apply as much pressure as necessary until you achieve the goal. You start off telling them, ‘Let’s get rid of it.’ If that doesn’t work you then start cutting off aid. And more aid and then more. You do whatever is necessary so these people will have riots in the street, so they can’t get water. So they can’t get Band-Aids, so they can’t get food. Because that’s the only thing that’s going to do it—the people, the riots.”

Trump then suggested that the US and Russia jointly apply the same policy of brutal sanctions on US allies like France.

1987 was also the first year Trump visited Russia, which was then part of the Soviet Union. In 1988, he attempted to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, reportedly to sell him on his nuclear plan. This meeting never happened. At this time, Trump also began proclaiming his presidential ambitions and taking out newspaper advertisements harshly criticizing US foreign policy.

While Trump’s obsession with nuclear weapons, calls for riots, rejection of expert advice, and deference to Russian leaders has remained consistent since the 1980s, his position on the use of nuclear weapons has changed. Originally, Trump proposed his nuclear partnership with Russia as an unusual form of deterrence. In 2016, however, he repeatedly stated his goal to use nuclear weapons on other countries.

In an interview with Chris Matthews in April, Trump said the use of nuclear weapons may be necessary under certain circumstances. When pressed to elaborate by a startled Matthews, Trump continued: “Then why are we making them? Why do we make them?” He went on to say he would consider using nuclear weapons on Europe and the Middle East.

On Aug. 3, after a week marked by a series of scandals including Trump asking Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails during what would be his final press conference, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough expressed his own belief that that Trump was obsessed with using nuclear weapons in an exchange with Mike Barnacle:

Scarborough: I’ll be careful here. Several months ago, a foreign policy expert on the international level went to advise Donald Trump, and three times he asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times he asked, at one point, “If we have them, why can’t we use them?”

Barnicle: Wow.

Scarborough: That’s one of the reasons why he has—he just doesn’t have foreign policy experts around him.

Barnicle: Trump? Trump asked three times whether we can use nuclear weapons?

Scarborough: Three times in an hour briefing, “Why can’t we use nuclear weapons?”

At the time, Scarborough seemed deeply alarmed by Trump’s plans. On Aug 22, Trump threatened to reveal secret information about Scarborough and his co-host Mika Brzezinski. A few weeks later, the hosts met with Trump and have since providing flattering coverage of the president-elect. Scarborough appears to be the sole media figure Trump informed on his new nuclear policy, which Scarborough paraphrased on Dec. 23 as “Let it be an arms race because we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

It is unclear who “them” is in this situation—and the phrasing is likely very alarming for countries around the world. But given Trump’s affection for and connection to the Kremlin—one the Kremlin itself has confirmed—and the fact that the US and Russia have now promoted nearly identical foreign policies (and also appear to be pursuing a series of financial arrangements in the gas and oil industry that benefit billionaires of both states), it is unlikely that the US is preparing to engage in a nuclear arms race against Russia.

Trump may have found the nuclear partner in Putin he has been seeking for decades. In Trump, Putin may have found a willing accomplice who will back Russian imperialistic ambitions and drop sanctions, among other benefits.

This is the new mutually assured destruction: the two states with the most nuclear weapons in the world, both backed by authoritarian leaders, may be partnering against as-yet unknown shared enemies. Their rhetoric alone is dangerous, and an actual increase in nuclear arsenals more so. In a worst case scenario, the end target of Trump and Putin’s destructive ambitions could ultimately be the entire world.