A Small Russian Overture

Donald Trump denounced the New START Treaty in his first phonecall with Vladimir Putin. Putin brought up the treaty, which is coming up for renewal in 2021, so talks should be starting soon. The treaty limits the numbers of nuclear weapons for Russia and the United States, preventing an arms race. But the treaty was negotiated under Barack Obama, so in Trump’s mind, it is a bad treaty.

Putin expected a good relationship with Trump. He was not Hillary Clinton, for one thing. He was a businessman, and Putin believes that he can do business with him. The Russian meddling in the election was designed to put Trump in office, and it succeeded.

But since the election, the relationship has not gone so well. The phonecall started things off badly, and Trump’s appointees have tended to the standard line that Russia is no friend of the United States. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, awardee of a Russian medal of friendship, said it again today. Trump’s campaign idea that getting along with Russia is a good thing has submerged. Even he hasn’t said it for some time. He has been meeting with world leaders, but not Putin.

There is the question of how closely Russia coordinated its election campaign with Trump’s people. That is being investigated by the FBI and others. Trump and his people seem to have enough sense not to cozy up to Russia while that is going on. Those 59 cruise missiles lobbed into Syria over dinner at Mar-a-Lago were not a signal of friendship.

Putin requested this latest phonecall, the third between the two leaders. The major topic seems to have been “deconfliction zones” in Syria that would separate the combatants. Putin even proposed, according to David Ignatius, to ground the Syrian air force while deconfliction was in progress.

And there’s something else that most of the news has missed: Russia is now proposing talks on the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), from which they withdrew some months back, after the United States decided to slow down building a factory for producing mixed uranium and plutonium oxide (MOX) reactor fuel and look into alternative disposal methods.

The new Russian proposal wants the United States to continue with its MOX plans, but it does not mention the greatly excessive demands of last year. Those demands were intended to make a point, rather than negotiate.

Russia probably sees the Trump administration as likely to be more willing to continue the MOX plant. It’s a small feeler, but it avoids the sensitivity now associated with New START and could be a basis for talks on that and other arms-control issues. Agreements on those topics stabilize the relationship in a way that Russia, and knowledgeable people in the United States, want to continue.

Now the question is whether the Trump administration can respond to that small overture. That is, if they know what the PMDA is.


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