Leaked Document Reveals: Putin Lobbied Trump on Arms Control
August 31, 2018
Bryan Bender / Politico
According to a Russian document obtained by Politico, during their Helsinki meeting, Vladimir Putin invited Donald Trump to join in discussions to control nuclear arms and prohibit weapons in space. Widespread agreement exists that the US should seize the opportunity to promote the Cold War legacy of arms treaties with Russia. But the Center for Security Policy -- a conservative group headed by Frank Gaffney, an ally of Trump national security adviser John Bolton -- calls Putin's offer in Helsinki "a trap."
Leaked Document: Putin Lobbied Trump on Arms Control
A list of issues he shared with Trump in Helsinki
suggests Russia wants to
continue traditional nuclear talks with the US
-- but doesn't answer all questions about their meeting
Bryan Bender / Politico
(August 8, 2018) -- Vladimir Putin presented President Donald Trump with a series of requests during their private meeting in Helsinki last month, including new talks on controlling nuclear arms and prohibiting weapons in space, according to a Russian document obtained by POLITICO.
A page of proposed topics for negotiation, not previously made public, offers new insights into the substance of the July 16 dialogue that even Trump's top advisers have said they were not privy to at the time. Putin shared the contents of the document with Trump during their two-hour conversation, according to a US government adviser who provided an English-language translation.
POLITICO also reviewed a Russian-language version of the document, which bore the header in Cyrillic "Dialogue on the Issue of Arms Control." The person who provided the document to POLITICO obtained it from Russian officials who described it as what Putin had conveyed to Trump in Helsinki.
The White House declined to comment on the document Tuesday, aside from denying that Trump had received any actual paperwork. But on Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) delivered a letter from Trump to Putin's representatives in Moscow, calling for "further engagement" between the two leaders.
A spokeswoman for Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained Wednesday about the "leakage" of the Helsinki memo, writing that such leaks "from the American side occur regularly, approximately once a month."
"What Russian meddling in the US election one can talk about, if the United States is unable to keep even the content of the president's negotiations secret?" Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook, according to a translation by the Russian news agency Tass.
The Russian memo points to a surprising normalcy in the priorities that Putin brought to the meeting, which included a willingness to extend a series of landmark nuclear treaties and pursue new weapons limits.
Such issues have been standard fare in Russian-US dialogue for decades -- though they've been overshadowed of late by rising tensions over topics like Syria and Ukraine, as well as bipartisan complaints in Washington about Trump's refusal to challenge Putin's denials that Moscow had interfered in the 2016 election.
The new details provide evidence that Putin remains interested in maintaining the two nations' traditional cooperation on nuclear weapons despite all their other friction, said one participant in recent unofficial arms control talks in Moscow.
"This is, 'We want to get out of the dog house and engage with the US on a broad range of security issues,'" said the person, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the discussions. The arms control talks in late July included representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry and a US delegation headed by former Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering.
Uncertainty about what Putin and Trump discussed caused much consternation in Washington after the two leaders and their translators met alone in Helsinki, even inspiring Democratic attempts to subpoena Trump's Russian interpreter. The document doesn't fully address critics' questions about the private meeting, such as what the Russian government meant last month when it said the two leaders had discussed "cooperation in Syria."
Even Trump's top US advisers have expressed murkiness about what the two leaders discussed or agreed to. As recently as last week, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told reporters he was "not in a position to either understand fully or talk about what happened in Helsinki."
Still, Putin touched on some of the document's themes during his joint news conference with Trump in Helsinki, where the Russian leader said that "as major nuclear powers, we bear special responsibility for maintaining international security."
Among other priorities, Putin expressed interest in extending an Obama-era nuclear-reduction treaty and ensuring "non-placement of weapons in space."
"We submitted [to] our American colleagues a note with a number of specific suggestions," Putin said at the time.
The White House, which has refused to answer most questions about what Trump and Putin discussed, would neither confirm nor deny the document's veracity.
"During the historic meeting between President Trump and President Putin, the two leaders discussed a range of subjects, including our nuclear arsenals, which when combined account for roughly 90% of all nuclear weapons," National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said.
He added: "There were no commitments to undertake any action, beyond agreement that both sides should continue discussions. The President did not receive any written proposals from President Putin, and the President did not provide any written proposals to President Putin."
Some conservative defense hawks in the US have warned against trusting Putin's suggestions on arms control. They allege he aims to hamper Trump's priorities of modernizing America's nuclear arsenal and creating a Space Force, a military branch that the president says would ensure "American dominance" beyond the Earth.
But overall, nuclear arms control remains one of the few areas of the US-Russian relationship with bipartisan support in Congress.
For instance, the Russian document proposes a five-year extension for the so-called New START Treaty limiting nuclear arms. That mirrors a nonbinding resolution that Democrats recently proposed in Congress, where lawmakers have expressed alarm about the dangers of a new arms race as the US and Russia upgrade their nuclear arsenals and Trump seeks to establish his Space Force.
The Russian document outlines a host of areas where the two countries could work together to reduce nuclear dangers and rebuild some of their lost trust.
It begins with extending the New START Treaty, which was signed by Putin and then-President Barack Obama in 2010 and ratified by the Russian Duma and US Senate. The two sides agreed to limit each nation to 1,500 nuclear warheads deployed on land-based and submarine-launched missiles and carried by bomber aircraft, and it permits a vigorous set of regular inspections.
Russia proposes that the two countries "consider the possibility of a five years extension" of the treaty, which expires in early 2021, "upon understanding that existing problems related to the Treaty implementation will be settled," the document says.
More controversially, the document outlines Moscow's pitch to "reaffirm commitment" to agreements covering "intermediate-range missiles." That is a reference to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty negotiated by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which prohibited ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
The United States has accused Russia of violating the pact by deploying a cruise missile that can travel more than 500 kilometers. In response, Congress last year provided funding for development of a US version of the missile, and some Republican hawks have urged the Trump administration to pull out of the treaty altogether to avoid giving the Russians any battlefield advantage.
In the July 16 news conference in Helsinki, Putin referred to the New START Treaty, a possible ban on weapons in space and "the implementation issues with the INF treaty."
Trump also highlighted the potential for cooperation.
"We're getting together and we have a chance to do some great things, whether it's nuclear proliferation in terms of stopping, we have to do it -- ultimately, that's probably the most important thing that we can be working on," Trump said in the post-summit news conference.
"Our relationship has never been worse than it is now," Trump added. "However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that."
The Russian document also raises the prospect of a new space treaty that bars both nations from placing weapons in orbit -- urging the two countries "to discuss the non-placement of weapons in space."
The US and Russia are both party to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, but that only prohibits placing weapons of mass destruction in space. Both nations, along with China, are believed to be working on anti-satellite weapons and other offensive means to attack space assets.
The Russian appeal also addresses rising tensions in Eastern Europe, proposing that Washington and Moscow "take measures in order to prevent incidents while conducting military activities in Europe, as well as to increase trust and transparency in the military sphere."
It also calls on the two sides to "initiate expert consultations to identify destabilizing kinds of arms, to take them into account in the arms control mechanism."
The Russian document raised a series of possible venues for the talks to place. It proposes "strategic stability" consultations, led by the deputy secretary of state and deputy minister of foreign affairs, which could discuss a host of other thorny issues such as Syria. It also recommends so-called 2+2 dialogue between the US secretaries of State and Defense and their Russian counterparts, as well as meetings between the heads of the US and Russian armed forces.
The Pentagon seems eager to revive the "strategic stability" talks, which were suspended last year.
"We're in the process of trying to arrange a period of time, a date and a place, to meet to have strategic stability talks," John Rood, the undersecretary of Defense for policy, said late last month during a discussion hosted by the Aspen Institute. He said those would ideally involve "clear understandings of how we regard nuclear doctrine."
How the Trump administration plans to proceed on the arms control agenda, however, remains uncertain. A State Department spokesman declined to say when or if official talks might begin on extending the New START treaty.
But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has expressed cautious optimism that Russian interest in negotiating new arms control agreements is genuine and that the two countries can make progress.
Trump went to Helsinki "with the objective to create the opportunity for leaders of these two powers that own enormous nuclear capacity to have a channel to communicate," Pompeo said several days after the summit. "There were places they found overlap. We're going to work on counterterrorism together. We're hopeful that on some of these grand arms control issues, that are very important to the world, that there may well be a path forward."
Arms control advocates have generally criticized what they view as Trump's overly aggressive foreign policy, particularly some of his fiery rhetoric about nuclear weapons and his proposal to develop a new, lower-yield nuclear bomb for use short of an all-out atomic conflict.
Yet widespread agreement exists that the US should seize the opportunity to carry on the Cold War legacy of arms treaties with Russia.
"New START extension should be a priority regardless of other problems in the US-Russia relationship," said Alexandra Bell, a former State Department official who is senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a Washington think tank. "The predictability and stability the treaty provides should not be a bargaining chip. It also shouldn't be assumed that we can just deal with this later. The Russians have shown an interest in serious conversations about extension. We should pursue the opportunity."
Yet fierce critics remain in the most hawkish foreign policy circles in Washington. For example, the Center for Security Policy -- a conservative group headed by Frank Gaffney, an ally of Trump national security adviser John Bolton -- called Putin's offer in Helsinki "a trap."
"He said that he wants to re-start bilateral arms control processes with the United States," the think tank said in recent statement. "That proposal, much favored by the US foreign policy establishment, would: preclude the United States from decisively countering Putin's strategic nuclear modernization; deny America the right to defend itself against ballistic missile attack; and emasculate Trump's envisioned Space Force military service.
"President Trump must take a businesslike approach to get Putin to pay for his own arms control, while putting American defense interests first," it added.
David Herszenhorn contributed to this report.
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