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U.S. To Leave 1987 Treaty That Marks The End Of The Cold War

NOEL KING, HOST:

National security adviser John Bolton is in Moscow today. He's expected to give a press briefing later to detail how the U.S. will pull out of a Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty. The 1987 INF treaty prevented Russia and the U.S. from having certain intermediate-range missiles. But President Trump says Russia is in violation of the agreement.

It's worth noting the Obama administration said the same in 2014. And then yesterday, President Trump said that the U.S., in fact, plans to expand its nuclear arsenal until other nations, in his words, come to their senses. Jon Wolfsthal is with me now. He's the director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and a former special assistant to President Obama. Good morning, sir.

JON WOLFSTHAL: Good morning.

KING: All right, so we are hearing the term arms race thrown around. Is this language and are these developments worrying to you?

WOLFSTHAL: They are. Not only are the United States and Russia vastly increasing their nuclear capabilities, their missiles and numbers of nuclear weapons, but we're no longer engaging with each other. We're sort of operating in the blind. And the chances that we could miscalculate, misunderstand or stumble into a crisis where nuclear weapons could be used is growing.

KING: All right, so time to be very careful. You served on the National Security Council under President Obama. And you were there when he accused Russia of violating this treaty. The U.S. did not withdraw then. Why not?

WOLFSTHAL: So we're very concerned that Russia has developed a small number of missiles which are banned by the treaty and deployed them. But they haven't produced them in numbers that really threaten to change the military situation in Europe. We still have the upper hand through NATO. Russia is building these to counter our conventional superiority. Our goal had been, under the Obama administration, to get Russia back into the treaty because it serves our interests.

I think the big difference between President Trump and President Obama is President Trump really doesn't have a strategy for bringing Russia back in, is really happy just to pull out. And John Bolton, who has killed a number of arms control agreements over multiple stints in the government, is very happy to go along and pursue that strategy. But there is no plan for how you improve American security once we do that.

KING: What do you think John Bolton is going to say today?

WOLFSTHAL: I think John Bolton's going to say, you can't cheat on America and get away with it, the same thing he told the North Koreans back in 2002. He's going to say this treaty no longer serves American interests because you cheated on it. And we're going to go our merry way and build whatever missiles we want, and you guys will just have to play catch-up. And I think as we've seen, Vladimir Putin is more than capable not only of playing catch-up but of building systems which undermine our security. And we're going to be adding fuel to this arms race that we're already in.

KING: There's another nuclear arms reduction treaty that I know a lot of people have an eye on - the New START treaty, which is due to expire in 2021. Now, yesterday John Bolton said the U.S. has not finalized its position on extending New START. Briefly remind us what it is and what happens if it expires.

WOLFSTHAL: So New START is the last strategic arms control agreement in place between the United States and Russia. It puts American inspectors on the ground in Russia and Russian inspectors on the ground in the United States. And it limits both countries to no more than 1,550 nuclear weapons. The Trump administration's been in office two years. How they haven't figured out that this is in our interest is beyond me. But if it goes away, we will be looking at a Russian program that grows even more than it has. And we will be likely having to increase our own spending and our own nuclear deployments.

KING: Jon Wolfsthal of the Nuclear Crisis Group. Thanks so much.

WOLFSTHAL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.