Trump, Russia and Nuclear Weapons - Sam Nunn Interview with Atlanta Public Radio

This interview is the second portion of a two-part interview series with Sam Nunn on Atlanta's NPR station, WABE, that ran on Tuesday, March 14th 2017. In this portion, Nunn discusses U.S. Russia relations and rising nuclear dangers with WABE's Denis O'Hayer. Click here to read the transcript of the second portion, in which Nunn discusses U.S. policy toward North Korea.

MR. DENIS O'HAYER, HOST, MORNING EDITION:  You've called for increased communication, military to military, with the Russians.  Given the level of mistrust on Capitol Hill from not only Democrats, but some Republicans as well, about the administration's dealings with Russia and the access that Russia might have to the American military, is that something that can even happen right now?

MR. NUNN:  Well, I want to try to get this answer as concise as possible, but it does call for a little bit of discussion.  First of all, we have fundamentally different interests than Russia in several parts of the world, and we've got to understand that.  We certainly don't have the same concept of rule of law or democracy as Russia, and we've got to understand that.

But we've also got to understand that given the nuclear arsenals and the fact that we can destroy each other while we're having lunch, that we have an existential interest with Russia in basically preserving our nation.  And they have the same kind of interest.  So we've got to communicate.  And the more the tensions go up, the more we need to communicate.  I would start with military to military, because the military on both sides are pretty darn professional and I've seen them be able to have a discussion when the political side was so poisoned and so much distrust there wasn't any way to have a discussion.

So I would start with military to military.  I would have NATO and Russia military communications.  I would certainly communicate about ships and planes flying so near each other and get some understandings on that.  I would try to have discussions about not having exercises that included nuclear scenarios, because that creates great suspicions.  I would try to raise the threshold for -- or lower the threshold rather -- for notification of any kind of exercises, so that you don't have surprise exercises which can lead to a surprise attack.

And I also think we need to work with the Russians on the radiological front, dirty bombs.  There's dirty bomb material all over the world.  It's a miracle we haven't had that now.  It wouldn't kill nearly as many people as a nuclear explosion, nowhere near it, but it could poison a whole business district or a port or an airport.  The use of that kind of dust, particularly cesium, could do grave damage, economic damage for decades.  And so we need to talk to the Russians about that.

And so here is where we have to have a balance.  We have to be able to disagree firmly in some areas.  We have to make sure that we have the right kind of deterrence and defenses in NATO to protect Article 5 commitments.  But we also have to talk to the Russians.  We have to make progress with them.  And we have to basically understand in both countries that we are doomed to work together or we are doomed to have some pretty serious catastrophes.

MR. O'HAYER:  On the subject of dealing with the Russians, President Trump wants to spend $54 billion on defense next year.  Now, obviously, we don't have a line item breakdown of all of this, but will that help?  And he has also called for expanding America's nuclear capability.

MR. NUNN:  Well, number one, we already have a very vigorous expansion or modernization of our nuclear capability.  It would be better to use the term modernization because we're not trying to build more weapons.  We're trying to make them safer, make them more reliable and make sure that we're up-to-date.  And I think that's absolutely essential.  That has started under the Obama administration.

The question is whether we can really pay for that without impinging on our conventional capabilities.  And I agree with the increase in the defense budget, but we have to be careful about the baseline.  The baseline was really being squeezed by the sequester and the tide of domestic programs.  And so you're increasing --

MR. O'HAYER:  And sequester is that budget process that basically calls for across the board reductions, right?

MR. NUNN:  Right.  You're increasing from a line that was going down and the Obama administration had been requesting more money for defense than the Congress was appropriating.  Of course it was complicated because it got tied to domestic.  So this is not an enormous increase in the overall perspective.

And we do have serious readiness problems with our forces.  We've been fighting a war in Afghanistan now for -- what? -- over a decade and we have an Army that needs to be modernized.  We need more Navy ships.  So I don't think this is an irresponsible expansion of the defense budget.  I think it's a needed expansion.

MR. O'HAYER:  Does it depend, though, on where the money goes?

MR. NUNN:  It does depend on where it goes, and I think there's going to have to be a lot of thought given to priorities.  I think it's a serious question whether we can pay for the nuclear program that the Obama administration already has without depleting the forces we use every day out there.  And so when you look at the overall budget and the challenges we have, it's pretty apparent that there's going to have to be a real discussion with the Congress about where are the priorities.  And one of the priorities is simply making sure our forces are ready, because we do live in a very dangerous world.

MR. O'HAYER:  It's a political question, but certainly some leading Democrats, even a few Republicans have questioned whether the president has the temperament to handle all of these difficult military and security questions.  Are you concerned about that?

MR. NUNN:  Well, I think that's an open question, and I think there are an awful a lot of people, including a lot of Republicans, who are very worried about the, you know, some of the tweets that come out in the middle of the night.  It's very difficult if you're a Secretary of State in Mexico and the Commander-in-Chief and President is tweeting back home right in the middle of your discussions.  And it's very tough if you're Secretary of Defense and you're having a tour of Asia and you get the tweets right off the bat and not well thought out.

So I think that President Trump has missed a number of opportunities, and I hope there will be less of that in the future, a lot of opportunities to hold his tongue and hold his tweets.  You know, that's advice he probably doesn't want to hear, but right now, you can't really behave as President of United States as you do as a political candidate.

MR. O'HAYER:  There's certainly debate over just how close his relationship is with Vladimir Putin.  Does the nature of that relationship appear to you to be either a danger or perhaps if we're trying to improve communications with the Russians, could it be turned into a strength?

MR. NUNN:  Well, it could be turned into a strength.  I think President Trump has the right instincts: that we have to communicate with the Russians.  But we also can't ignore some of the things that the Russians have done, including the Ukrainian invasion, including some of the things they have done in Syria.

So we have some fundamental differences with the Russians.  And certainly we don't want to make Putin into a hero, but we have to talk to him.  He's the person who is in charge of Russia.  He is in charge of the country that can basically destroy us even at the expense of their own destruction. That's what I call an “existential common interest”.

And so I am hoping that we will carefully prepare for any kind of meeting between President Trump and President Putin, but it's very important.  And it's also very important that President Trump should care as much as anyone else about making sure he sends signals to the Russians that it's not permissible for them to interfere in American elections.

Now, we've got to give some assurances on our own side, because the Russians believe we do that.  And so there's got to be some discussions here.  And I am hoping that a summit conference, I am not sure whether it ought to take place in the short-term, because I think the most important thing is thorough preparation, and that means having people in place that can have that kind of preparation in the State Department and the Defense Department with their Russian counterparts.

MR. O'HAYER:  Does the Russian interference in the recent U.S. election raise the specter that they might have the capability to do the same on something -- if you could believe it -- even more serious, which is our national security apparatus?

MR. NUNN:  Absolutely.  In fact, I really am concerned about the fact we have no discussions going on on cyber, we have no rules of the road on cyber.  And if someone launches an all-out cyber attack on America's warning systems or even more likely -- because we are much better protected in that sort of thing than other countries that have nuclear weapons -- suppose somebody wants to start a war between India and Pakistan, they have several hundred weapons each and false warnings there could lead to that sort of situation.

So this is existential for not just the United States, but for every country that has nuclear weapons, and it's certainly existential for the United States and Russia. We've got to begin conversations on that.  So, yes, I am concerned about the elections.  Yes, if the Russians did interfere in our elections, I think it was a very bad miscalculation by them.  But unless you have discussions, you don't realize what the other side thinks.  And if the other side thinks you're doing similar things, then here we go, it's off to the races.

MR. O'HAYER:  Should there be an "or else"?  I mean there's certainly been talk about what to do about the sanctions on Russia?

MR. NUNN:  Well, I don't think sanctions on Russia are having very much effect on Russia, and I think we ought to take a look at them.  But Russia has got to step up to fulfilling its commitments in Ukraine, and I don't agree with removing the sanctions until they do fulfill their commitments.  They are not going to get out of Crimea.  That's going to be a long-term problem, and we're going to have to live with it.  But they can certainly do much more than they have done to ease the tensions with Ukraine.  And the Ukrainians have got to do their part also.  But it's in everybody's interest.  I fail to see how it's in Russia's interest to have a country like Ukraine completely alienated.  At some point they have got to step back and say: "What are we doing to ourselves?"

MR. O'HAYER:  Is Russia the biggest nuclear threat we face?  It certainly has the most capacity.  But when you look at North Korea and how potentially unstable that leadership is, is it actually a greater threat?

MR. NUNN:  Well, Russia in the sense that they basically can destroy the United States is a bigger threat than anyone else.  No other country can do that.  And that's why you have to put the Russians in a different category in terms of dialogue.  And I think it's -- to me it doesn't make sense to say that when the Russians do something we don't like, even if we hate what they have done, that we're going to cut off communications to punish them.  You don't punish Russia by cutting off communications.  You probably strengthen the person in power, because they rally around the flag.

And also I find it almost humorous, if it wasn't dangerous, that I hear people talk about isolating Russia.  Look at the map, nine time zones, how are you going to isolate Russia?  So we've got to be realistic about what we're dealing here with as we were during the Cold War.  But we've forgotten some of those lessons.

MR. O'HAYER:  There are so many reasons to be worried.  Where are you hopeful in all this?

MR. NUNN:  Well, let's say, switching to the domestic side just for a little bit of a positive discussion, I think Democrats and Republicans ought to be able to agree on infrastructure, a great increase in our infrastructure program, and they ought to be able to agree on reducing corporate taxes, which are not competitive in the world, which could help bring home -- literally hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars is not going to come back to the United States when they are going to pay such heavy taxes on that money and that could have a huge effect on the economy.

I also think that Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree that we need to have a major retraining effort as a partnership between governments at every level and business.  Everybody wants more jobs and that was one of the things that President Trump ran on.  But we're not going to bring back yesterday's jobs.  We're going to have to create tomorrow's jobs.  And that means more training.  It means partnership between business and government.  So on those fronts, I think we can make some progress.

I think it's very hard to make progress on the whole question of dealing with Russia right now because it's so poisoned, such a poisoned atmosphere.  And I do think that quiet discussions with the president where we have intelligence briefings for the leadership of the Congress, the leadership of the Committees outside the public atmosphere so they can understand some of the things that at least I believe, which is that we do have existential reasons to deal with Russia and communicate with them.

And I think it's a mistake to act like talking to the Russians is a crime.  I think if anybody has talked to the Russians and lies about it or misleads the president or misleads the Congress, then they ought to be held accountable.  And that's what we've seen with the national security advisor and the attorney general.  Whether it was a lie or misleading or a mistake, whatever it was, they are being held accountable.

But to act like anyone who discusses things with the Russians has committed a crime is crazy.  I mean I met with the Russian ambassador every year I was in the United States Senate, and I am sure many times back when tensions were just as great or maybe greater than they are right now.  That's part of the job.  That's part of your job if you serve on the Armed Services Committee.  And of course the Russian ambassador has a job to talk to people in the United States.

So we're getting some of this way out of perspective.  The question is not whether you talk.  The question is whether you have conspired with the Russians against the best interest of the United States.  That's a totally different question.  We're getting the two confused right now.

MR. O'HAYER:  Some Democrats have said that Attorney General Sessions perjured himself.  They've gone so far as to use that word.  Others haven't.  Do you think he did?  Do you think he should stay on?

MR. NUNN:  I wouldn't want to judge that.  I mean you would have to go back and read the record very carefully.  But clearly, he should have said: "Yes, I did meet with the Russian ambassador in my office."  Now, maybe he forgot it.  But, you know, if you're wearing two hats, you can't just switch them on your answer.  You’ve basically got to understand that when you meet – you’re meeting -- whether you have your Senate hat on or whether you have your campaign hat on.

So I would think it could have been a mistake.  I certainly wouldn't use the word perjury, but it certainly was misleading, and it was an inadequate answer, and I think he was correct in terms of recusing himself from this investigation.

But it leaves us all in a pretty awkward situation.  And I think on the whole Russian question, we're pretty far off balance.

MR. O'HAYER:  How do we get back?

MR. NUNN:  One of the things is careful preparation for any summit with President Trump and President Putin.  I would like to see the two presidents reiterate, particularly with the very loose and irresponsible rhetoric about nuclear weapons and the tensions between the Russian and U.S. positions on the Middle East as well as Ukraine, I would like to see a repeat of the Reagan-Gorbachev statement, where the two leaders come out and announce that, you know, we differ on a number of things, but we do agree that a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought.

That would be a good beginning.  And then to announce a series of military to military discussions, including -- one of the things I've suggested is the NATO-Russian crisis control council.  Because we have this strange phenomenon, both in the case of Georgia back in previous administrations when the Russians used military force in Georgia and the Russian use of military force in Ukraine and Crimea, we have this strange reaction of NATO, which is to cut off discussions in the NATO Military Council, which was a council that was created to basically handle this sort of thing.

So cutting off discussions when you're in a period of confrontation with a country that can basically cause an existential threat to your own country is not very smart.

MR. O'HAYER:  Many of the president's harshest critics have raised the speculation -- and I'll just say that that's what it is -- that the Russians might have something – they’re not quite sure what that something is -- on President Trump.  Is that a concern that you have?

MR. NUNN:  Well, of course, there's some smoke here, and I have no evidence whatsoever of that except what I read.  But I do think that we've got to be very careful between saying something as an allegation and saying it's evidence.  And I don't have the evidence for that.

We've seen an increasing tendency in our country for both parties once a presidential election is over to find ways to try to delegitimize the election.  I think that's very dangerous for our democracy.  I saw it happen with Clinton.  I saw it happen with Obama.  We're seeing it happen with President Trump.  I think that's dangerous.

When I came into the movie, so to speak, in 1972, my first four years in Washington we had three presidents and four vice-presidents from '72 to '76.  I saw President Nixon lose his credibility.  That was a very dangerous time for America.

So whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, the credibility of the president of the United States is enormously important, and we should all be very careful on that score.  It doesn't mean we don't criticize.  It doesn't mean we don't disagree.  But it does mean that we should not delegitimize or try to delegitimize the president of the United States.  The credibility of the president is important to all of us whether we are Democrats, Republicans or Independents.

MR. O'HAYER:  President Trump has said he would tear up the nuclear deal with Iran, that it was a horrible deal.  He hasn't moved on that front yet.  Do you think he is having second thoughts, that he is perhaps occupied with other things?  And what happens if he does?

MR. NUNN:  I find that encouraging.  I introduced General Mattis before the Armed Services Committee, and he was asked the question about what would his advice be to the president.  And he said I didn't favor the agreement, but I think we ought to keep the agreement and hold the Iranians to it.  He said something to that effect.

So it looks like to me -- and I find this encouraging -- that President Trump is maybe listening to people like Mattis and Tillerson, who understand the importance of the United States keeping our commitments, particularly when we have been the leader of the negotiations, and we had other countries around the world, many other countries join in not only the negotiations, but the embargo and sanctions that led to the Iranians being willing to have this agreement.

So is it a perfect agreement?  No.  But does it buy us time, 10 or 12 years, and does it give us adequate warning if the Iranians breach the agreement?  I think it does.  It has got the tightest verification we've ever had.

MR. O'HAYER:  That was my next question, because it has been in effect for a while now.  Are you satisfied that we have accurate verification?

MR. NUNN:  I think we will get enough notice so that if the Iranians have a serious violation that we will be able to respond to it in whatever steps we decide to take, whether it's diplomatic or military.

MR. O'HAYER:  Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel has said this is a horrible deal and he wants it done.  Does continuing the deal as it is now raise the perhaps unintended consequence that there will be increased militarization in the rest of the Middle East?

MR. NUNN:  Well, there's still danger there.  The Iranians -- this agreement dealt only with their nuclear program.  It didn't deal with their behavior -- it didn't pretend to deal with their behavior.  And their behavior in the Middle East causes grave danger.  So I understand Israel's perspective.  But the Israeli military and the Israeli intelligence services, I am told, think we ought to continue the agreement.  So I am sure that there may be a difference in the political posture and the real feeling of the security experts even in Israel.

MR. O'HAYER:  Former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn.  Senator, you've been very generous with your time.  Thank you so much.  Good to see you.

MR. NUNN:  Thank you, Denis.  Always great questions.  Thanks.

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March 14, 2017

Part two of a two-part interview series with Sam Nunn on Atlanta's NPR station, WABE. In this portion, Nunn discusses U.S. Russia relations and rising nuclear dangers with WABE's Denis O'Hayer.

Sam Nunn
Sam Nunn

Co-Chair, NTI