Former U.S. senators Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn at Spaso House in Moscow in August 2007 where they attended an event recognizing diplomatic relations between the two nations. (HPI Photo by Brian A. Howey)
Former U.S. senators Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn at Spaso House in Moscow in August 2007 where they attended an event recognizing diplomatic relations between the two nations. (HPI Photo by Brian A. Howey)

INDIANAPOLIS - The "doomsday clock" of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists remains at two minutes to midnight. For most Americans, the yellow and black bomb shelter signs that used to adorn public buildings have disappeared and school students no longer cower under their desks during nuclear drills, practicing "active shooter" exercises instead.

But according to former senators Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn, along with other Cold War veterans and nuclear experts, President Trump's decision on Friday to pull out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty is "gravely misguided," in Lugar's words. "Withdrawing will not make us safer, it will rob us of leverage essential to our own security and power," the former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman said in October. "It will foolishly play into the hands of Russian propagandists by focusing global attention on our rejection of the treaty instead of Russian violations. And it will make the world a more dangerous place."

In announcing the pullout, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained that Russia has been in violation of the INF, a fact recognized by Presidents Clinton, Bush43 and Obama. "We provided Russia an ample window of time to mend its ways and for Russia to honor its commitment," Pompeo said. "Tomorrow that time runs out. Russia has refused to take any steps to return real and verifiable compliance over these 60 days. The United States will therefore suspend its obligations under the INF Treaty effective February 2."

Asked for comments in wake of Trump's decision, The Lugar Center referred back to the former senator's Oct. 25, 2018 statement. "Withdrawing from the treaty will not force Moscow into compliance," Lugar said. "Just the opposite will occur. We will open the door to a renewed Russian build-up of intermediate-range nuclear weapons. That would pose a far greater strategic threat to us and our allies than this violation, which gives Russia no military advantage."

In a letter to President Trump dated Nov. 7, 2018, Lugar and Nunn, former Defense Sec. William Perry and former Secretary of State George Shultz urged the president to "direct your team to redouble efforts to negotiate technical solutions to U.S. (and Russian) compliance concerns. A senior adviser to President Putin has said that Russia is still ready to address "mutual grievances' related to the treaty. We urge you to pursue this option."

Nunn, who along with Lugar drafted the 1991 Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act in an effort to contain a decaying nuclear arsenal after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in an op-ed article of Ernest Moniz of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, called the Pompeo comments the "latest wake-up call that relations between the world’s nuclear superpowers are dangerously off the rails."

According to Nunn and Moniz, the "foundation of decades of nuclear dialogue" has disappeared. "Today, many of those mechanisms have atrophied," they write. "The relationship between the U.S. and Russia is fraught and communications are feeble. Western sanctions placed on Russia in response to Vladimir Putin’s acts of aggression have further frozen relations, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in America’s 2016 elections continues to roil American politics, and Donald Trump’s administration is imperiled if it touches anything related to Russia."

Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear weapons policy expert and president of the Ploughshares Fund, writes in a Washington Post op-ed that national security adviser John Bolton pushed Trump toward the INF suspension. "America will pay a high price for this rigid ideology," Cirincione said of Bolton's long history of opposing nuclear arms treaties. "President Trump walking out of Reagan’s treaty is a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin. It doesn’t fix the problem; it makes it worse. Now, there will be no restraints whatsoever on Putin’s ability to deploy hundreds of missiles, should he desire. The United States will likely be blamed for the collapse of the treaty, widening the split within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Europeans are already shaken by the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear deal. This will increase their doubts about U.S. commitment to their security."

Cirincione adds, "All this plays into Putin’s hands. It raises serious questions about whether Putin and Trump discussed this in any of their five secretive meetings. Whatever Bolton’s ideological agenda, this is certainly helping, not hurting Putin’s Russia."

At a congressional national intelligence briefing last Tuesday, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats was asked about whether he knew what Trump and Putin discussed alone for two hours last July in Helsinki, and at four other meetings between the two with no top aides present and no readouts. “This is a sensitive issue and an issue we ought to talk about this afternoon and discuss in a closed session,” Coats responded.

In addition, the threat of cyberespionage and hacking have the potential of compromising command and control mechanisms of all nuclear powers. A new arms race on top of that compounds the danger. "Military technologies are advancing rapidly, and the risk that cyberattacks could target nuclear warning and command-and-control systems is ever-increasing," Nunn and Moniz explained. "The threat of catastrophic terrorism has greatly increased nuclear dangers. Meanwhile, U.S. and Russian military forces are again operating in close proximity, with increased chances that an inadvertent collision — or a deliberate act of aggression, accident, or terrible miscalculation — could lead to the fatal use of nuclear weapons for the first time in nearly 75 years.

"The U.S. and Russia are sleepwalking toward a nuclear disaster, and America’s best hope of avoiding catastrophe is reengaging with Russia now — with Congress taking the lead," Nunn and Moniz explain.

In December 2015, candidate Trump didn't know what the term "triad" (nuclear armament via aircraft, submarines and silos) meant. Pressed during a debate by conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt on the concept, Trump responded, "I think we need somebody, absolutely, that we can trust, who is totally responsible, who really knows what he or she is doing. That is so powerful and so important." When Hewitt followed up asking which "of the three legs of the triad" was Trump's priority, Trump responded, "For me, nuclear, the power, the devastation, is very important to me."

As a candidate, Trump also asked foreign policy experts why the U.S. couldn't use its nuclear arsenal.

The news isn't all bad, however. Trump and North Korea despot Kim Jong Un have gone from comparing nuclear button sizes in 2017 to becoming BFFs and "in love," as the American president put it. In the summer of 2017, both U.S. Sens. Joe Donnelly and Todd Young were talking about "wrapping our minds" around a potential nuclear conflaguration.