Trump’s new nuclear budget is bad news for Russia
Since Donald Trump began his presidency, Democrats have painted him as an appeaser and possibly a pawn of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. At least in his rhetoric, from his supine flattery of Putin in Helsinki to his public rants about NATO allies, Trump has given them some fodder. Nonetheless, the Trump administration has also pursued a foreign policy that has been hostile to Putin’s interests. From his decisions in 2017 and 2018 to bomb Russia’s client in Syria, to the State Department campaign to get allies to recognise Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela, many of Trump’s policies have opposed Russian objectives, not aided them. Trump’s defence budget for 2021 bolsters such hawkish policies toward Russia. The new budget requests $28.9 billion for the Pentagon to modernise nuclear delivery systems and $19.8 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration to modernize the nation’s nuclear stockpile. It’s true that modernising the nuclear force has been a neglected priority for more than a decade. A 2017 Congressional Budget Office study laid out a series of cost scenarios for replacing elements of the three main delivery systems for nuclear weapons (missiles, bombers and submarines), many of which were designed and built decades ago. It estimated the cost of planned modernisation to be as much as $400 billion through 2046. It’s also true that America’s nuclear umbrella deters Russia, and reassures allies not to pursue their own nuclear weapons programmes. That said, Russia has the most to lose from a refurbished American atomic arsenal. For starters, a revamped US nuclear deterrent could force Russia to rethink some of its military doctrine. Since 2000, Russian strategists have floated the idea of a limited nuclear strike against an adversary to deter a conventional response from America and its NATO allies. Sometimes known as “Escalate to De-escalate,” this change in Russia’s military doctrine was one reason why America’s nuclear posture review in 2018 recommended the development of tactical nuclear weapons — such as a nuclear cruise missile — intended to complicate Putin’s own calculations in a potential conflict with the US or its allies.
Russia also loses because of the potential cost of an arms race. Despite America’s debt and budget restraints, the US remains a much larger economy than Russia, which is a declining power. As the Reagan administration proved with the larger Soviet Union, Washington has the ability to outspend Moscow when it comes to strategic weapons. Finally, the commitment to nuclear modernisation emphasises deterrence going forward as opposed to the Obama administration’s emphasis on arms control. Historically, the Russians have used the opportunity of nuclear arms control deals to cheat while America reduced its arsenal. That’s what happened with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. The US learned as early as 2008 that Russia had been researching a new ground-based cruise missile proscribed by the treaty; US officials labeled the missile as a violation of the INF in a 2014 treaty compliance report. In 2017, a US official confirmed Russia’s deployment of that missile against NATO positions in Europe. This is why the Trump administration withdrew from the treaty in 2019, after giving Russia a series of warnings to come back into compliance. Of course, defence and entitlement spending come from different pots of money in the budget. As the Dispatch recently reported, Mick Mulvaney, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget as well as Trump’s acting chief of staff, initially rejected the increased spending for nuclear modernisation. Early reports say that Trump himself weighed in at the last minute in favour of nuclear modernisation, over the objections of Mulvaney and the OMB. That should not be a surprise from a president who has boasted about the size and power of the nuclear button on his desk.