Russian president Vladimir Putin responded to Donald Trump’s pledge to “greatly strengthen” U.S. nuclear capabilities, which came a day after Putin declared Russia needed to boost its nuclear forces. While Trump has the entire world guessing what U.S. nuclear strategy is likely to be following his controversial tweet about nukes, Putin says there’s “nothing unusual” in the U.S. President-elect’s comments.
During an annual news conference on Friday, Putin said Trump’s nuke pledges are in line with his campaign promises. It’s yet unclear what prompted Thursday’s tweet by Trump, but it came the same day Putin called for stronger nuclear forces.
When Trump, who will be sworn in as President on Jan. 20, was asked on Friday to clarify his comments about America’s nukes, he outright called for an arms race.
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Trump: Let it be an arms race
In his tweet on Thursday, Trump pledged to “greatly strengthen” and “expand” America’s nuclear capabilities until “the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
When asked by MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski to clarify his tweet, the President-elect called for an arms race. While unleashing an arms race could have dangerous consequences and even spiral into Cold War 2, Trump says he believes the U.S. would win.
“Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all,” Trump told Brzezinski during a phone conversation on Friday.
Interestingly, shares of uranium producers and nuclear fuel technology firms skyrocketed after Trump’s pledges to ramp up the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Does Trump really want to increase the number of nukes?
Hours after Trump’s comments, transition communications director Jason Miller issued a statement in which he suggested the U.S. President-elect wasn’t talking about boosting the number of nukes in the nation’s nuclear arsenal, but rather, updating America’s nuclear systems and infrastructure. Miller claims that Trump’s pledge to ramp up the nuclear arsenal is a preventative measure against terrorists and rogue regimes obtaining nuclear weapons.
“President-elect Trump was referring [in the tweet] to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it—particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes,” Miller wrote in the statement shared with CBS News.
While Miller neither confirmed nor denied Trump’s potential plans to increase the number of nuclear weapons in America’s arsenal, he said Trump “emphasized the need to improve and modernize our deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength.”
U.S. expansion of nuclear capabilities will have “consequences”
Nuclear arms control experts are alarmed by Trump’s comments on Twitter, saying that making such statements on the social media platform, which is limited to only 140 characters, could be misinterpreted by nations that view the U.S. as their potential enemy. Experts argue that Twitter is far from the ideal platform to be discussing U.S. nuclear strategy. Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told CBS News that confusing tweets about U.S. nuclear strategy are “not helpful for American security.”
Kimball also warned that expanding U.S. nuclear capabilities – whether it’s simply modernizing existing nuclear systems or increasing the number of nukes – will have consequences. He argues that Trump’s pledges are “certainly going to put Moscow on edge.”
But Trump’s statements about ramping up the nation’s nuclear power don’t make the U.S. a potential aggressor in the eyes of Russia. While saying that Russia’s military is more powerful than that of any potential aggressor, Putin admitted that the U.S. has a larger military.
“Indeed, they have more missiles, more submarines and more aircraft carriers, we aren’t arguing with that, but we are simply stronger than any aggressor,” the Russian President said.
Using nukes against terrorists would be a game-changer
Trump remained silent about his nuclear strategy for most of his presidential campaign. Even his transition website has a rather cautious tone when talking about nukes. The website reads that Trump “recognizes the uniquely catastrophic threats posed by nuclear weapons and cyberattacks,” adding that he would modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal “to ensure it continues to be an effective deterrent.”
Earlier this year, Trump suggested that using nuclear weapons could be a game-changer in the fight against terrorist organizations in the Middle East. According to data by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the U.S. and Russia account for nearly 90% of all nuclear weapons in the world.
Russia has the most nuclear warheads – 7,300 – while the U.S. owns 6,970 nukes. In 1967, Washington had 31,255 nuclear weapons. The current number of nuclear weapons was negotiated by outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama and the Russians in 2010.
The other seven nations that possess nukes are: France (300), China (260), the U.K. (215), Pakistan (between 110 and 130), India (between 110 and 120), Israel (80) and North Korea with its reported fewer than 15 nukes.
U.S. vs. Russia: nuclear war or nuclear cooperation?
It’s yet unclear whether it was pure coincidence that Trump’s call to boost America’s nuclear forces came the same day Putin declared that Russia needed to ramp up the military potential of its strategic nuclear forces to “penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems.”
But calls for stronger nuclear forces from the presidents of the two rival nations could mean only two things. One is that the U.S. and Russia still view one another as potential nuclear threats to their own security and don’t believe Trump could amend ties between Moscow and Washington during his presidency. Or the U.S. and Russia see the need to focus on strengthening their nuclear arsenals to counter their common threats such as North Korea, ISIS and the rise of terrorism and radicalism in the Middle East.
Only time will tell what Trump actually meant by calling for expansion of U.S. nuclear capabilities.