Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

If there is one thing Donald Trump wants us to know, it’s that he negotiates great deals. He has also been shrilly disdainful of Obama’s foreign policy handiwork, particularly the nuclear agreement with Iran (which, it must be pointed out, involved not just the United States and Iran, but all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany). This, Trump said, was the worst agreement ever, presumably including the 1938 Munich agreement, presupposing he has ever heard of that one. Nothing so criminally naïve as the Iran deal would ever happen on his watch.

Yet it appears that we may be on the road to a diplomatic agreement under President Trump which will make the Iran deal look as if that country had unconditionally surrendered to the United States.

In interviews with The Times of London and Bild that occurred less than a week before his inauguration, Trump said he could envision dropping economic sanctions against Russia in exchange for nuclear arms reductions between the two countries. A simple quid pro quo, right?

As someone who has long favored a U.S.-Russian nuclear builddown, I can understand the superficial attractiveness of Trump’s trial balloon. But there are compelling reasons why it is a bad idea.

First, nuclear arms negotiations should not be linked to extraneous issues. Agreements such as the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991 were complex, highly technical treaties with years’ worth of negotiations and even “pre-negotiations” before they were signed. Dragging in additional issues could very well have killed them.

Second, the United States negotiated multiple nuclear agreements with the Soviet Union even when the latter was under considerably more stringent sanctions from the allied powers than Russia is today. Under the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM), exports of even some of the most basic Western technologies were under a strict embargo. (By contrast, Western high-technology firms such as Intel, Google, and HP now operate software development centers in Russia). Somehow, the Soviet Politburo saw fit to negotiate solely over arms even when under more stringent economic sanctions than those faced by Vladimir Putin.

During nuclear negotiations with Iran, critics asked why President Obama did not use the negotiations as a framework to free American citizens imprisoned by the Iranians. The Obama administration answered – correctly – that doing so would be advantageous to Iran, diluting the Western powers’ negotiating strength on the central issue of ratcheting down Teheran’s nuclear program and not only incentivizing Iran to be more recalcitrant by giving it another bargaining chip, but possibly even encouraging it to imprison more U.S. citizens for negotiating leverage.

At this point, readers may think they detect a logical weakness in my argument: why am I saying that economic sanctions should not be mixed into nuclear negotiations with Russia when sanctions relief was the tradeoff for Iran cutting back its nuclear development? Simply because reducing sanctions was the sole inducement that the six major powers offered to get Teheran to denuclearize. It is not as if the United States or France had offered Iran concessions on sanctions and put their own nuclear arsenals on the negotiating table.

With Iran, negotiations constituted a one-for-one deal: sanctions relief for nuclear concessions. Trump’s little gambit offers Russia a two-fer: dropping sanctions plus U.S. nuclear reductions in exchange for Russian nuclear cuts. If sanctions relief for Russia were ever to be proposed, it should be kept separate from mutual arms reductions. Conceivably it could be offered in connection with ending the Russian-sponsored insurgency in Eastern Ukraine or the forcible annexation of Crimea, which were the proximate causes of the sanctions in the first place.

Why, one might then ask, would Vladimir Putin be so interested in arms control in isolation from any other bilateral issue? What is his incentive to negotiate if we don’t sweeten the pot as Trump is appearing to do?

Maintaining, let alone modernizing, Russia’s vast arsenal of approximately 4,500 deployed and stockpiled nuclear warheads and their associated delivery systems is a heavy financial burden, and Russia is not in a favorable economic situation. However much Western sanctions may be personally inconveniencing individual oligarchs in Putin’s circle, this is not the main stumbling block for Russia’s economy. Until recently, over half the country’s federal revenue came from the production and export of petroleum products, and this heavy dependence is a severe problem.

As recently as 2013, Russia’s gross domestic product stood at about $2.2 trillion. The record oil prices of the early 2000s meant that Putin was able to garner tremendous personal popularity among the Russian people as the man who presided over improved living standards and who seemed to have rescued the country from the lost decade of the 1990s. Russia had vaulted into the ranks of the middle income countries.

But with the oil price slide, Russia’s GDP has fallen to only $1.3 trillion. It has slipped to the level where its economy is smaller than that of South Korea or Australia, countries with much smaller populations. Could oil prices recover? They certainly might, but with enhanced recovery, tighter fuel economy standards, and increased use of alternative energy, there is likely to be a lid on future oil price rises, and Russia has a lot of ground to make up.

Putin has another incentive for arms reductions unlinked to sanctions. For several years, a complete nuclear modernization of the U.S. arsenal has been in its planning stages. It was first officially suggested in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, a quadrennial policy statement on the role of nuclear weapons in our strategy.  This involves refurbishing and upgrading not only the nuclear warheads themselves, but replacing the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine with a new vessel and retiring the venerable B-52 in favor of a new-production Long Range Strike Bomber. General James Mattis, Trump’s own nominee for Secretary of Defense, has suggested that we should maintain and refurbish our ICBMs as well.

The 40-year history of U.S.-Soviet strategic competition demonstrated that when one side improved its nuclear arsenal, the other side did as well. The Kremlin may well feel it would have to match the American nuclear modernization. But the 30-year life-cycle cost of the planned U.S. modernization has been estimated at approximately $1 trillion. Putin can ill afford this kind of cost in a country whose people’s life expectancy ranks 110th internationally, and where the average male does not even live to the age of 65.

Under even the best of circumstances, and with a U.S. president whose head is far cooler than Trump’s, nuclear negotiations with Russia would be an onerous task. The folk saying was that you have to buy a horse twice from a Russian. During the Soviet era, foreign ministers Vyacheslav Molotov and Andrei Gromyko were extremely tough and intransigent negotiators, displaying stony, unsmiling faces to their American counterparts while insisting that what was theirs was theirs and what was ours was negotiable.

Which brings us back to Donald Trump. Throughout his business career he has showed a similarly pitiless, cut-throat instinct, whether in his direction of the fraud-ridden Trump University or his stiffing of vendors and small businessmen. His pettifogging, litigious nature even leads him to file ridiculous lawsuits against people whom he feels have disrespected him.

Candidate and President Trump has shown the same behavior towards other countries. There is no possibility of a win-win deal with Mexico or China. The only possible way for America to be great again is for those countries to lose. (This attitude achieved curious results in the case of Mexico: every time he tweets something derogatory about that country, the peso falls and Mexican interest rates rise. If this drives the Mexican economy into recession, what will unemployed Mexicans do? – they’ll try to cross the Rio Grande, increasing the illegal immigration he campaigned so vociferously against).

There is one and only one matter in which Trump exhibits an uncharacteristic beta-male softness and indulgence: U.S. relations with Russia. Why is that, exactly? There are several theories circulating, and the reader can choose among them or draw his own conclusions.

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Mike Lofgren is a former career defense analyst for the House and Senate budget committees, and the author of The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted .