WEST PALM BEACH, Florida (AP) — After months of promising to engage more with Russia, President-elect Donald Trump vowed to enhance America’s nuclear capabilities, warning Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday to avoid circumstances that may set the two global powers on an “alternate path.”
Trump passed along a “very nice letter” his transition team says was sent to him by Putin, which urges Trump to act “in a constructive and pragmatic manner” to “restore the framework of bilateral cooperation.”
Putin’s letter, dated Dec. 15, also notes that serious global and regional challenges “show that the relations between Russia and the U.S. remain an important factor in ensuring stability and security in the modern world.”
Trump said in response to the letter that Putin’s “thoughts are so correct,” noting that he hoped “both sides are able to live up to these thoughts, and we do not have to travel an alternate path.”
The Russian government did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation that Putin sent the letter. The Kremlin does not always report the letters Putin sends to foreign leaders. Trump’s transition team said the English-language letter was an unofficial translation.
The exchange comes on the heels of comments by both Trump and Putin about the need to strengthen their countries’ nuclear arsenals. Trump re-opened the debate over nuclear proliferation Thursday, declaring on Twitter that the U.S. should “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability” until the rest of the world “comes to its senses” regarding nuclear weapons. Those comments echoed an earlier statement by Putin who said this week that strengthening his country’s nuclear capabilities should be a chief military objective in the coming year.
But Putin downplayed the significance of Trump’s comments Friday at a marathon end-of-year news conference, saying he sees “nothing unusual” in Trump’s pledge to strengthen the U.S. nuclear forces, calling the statement in line with the president-elect’s campaign promises.
In his wide-ranging remarks, the Russian leader claimed that his country’s military is stronger than any potential aggressor, but acknowledged that the U.S. military is bigger. He also cast the modernization of Russia’s nuclear arsenals as a necessary response to the U.S. missile defense system.
Trump extolled Putin’s leadership during the campaign and called for a tempered approach to U.S.-Russia relations. And while Putin had described Trump as “bright and talented” during the campaign, observers say Russia’s interest is centered around relief from crippling sanctions implemented under the Obama administration, which is viewed as a gateway to bolstering Russia as the political and economic equivalent of the United States.
Renewed tensions have mounted between the U.S. and Russia in recent months over accusations that the Russian government hacked the emails of U.S. citizens and institutions, including political organizations. The FBI said this month that it supported the CIA’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the presidential election with the goal of supporting Trump.
Trump has repeatedly dismissed claims that Russia sought to usher in his victory, but his remarks, both in the letter and over the need for beefed up nuclear capabilities, indicate that Russia may not be an exception to Trump’s vow to assert American influence through “unquestioned military strength.” However, his comments are prompting fears of a nuclear race-in-the-making if Trump breaks nuclear treaties, and countries like Russia interpret the move as a threat.
The two countries signed the New START treaty in 2010, capping the number of nuclear warheads and missile launchers each country can possess. The agreement is in effect until 2021 and can be extended for another five years.
Earlier this year, Trump said he would “certainly not do first strike,” with regard to nuclear attack, but quickly shifted his position, saying, “I can’t take anything off the table.”
Outgoing Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in September that the Pentagon plans to spend $108 billion over the next five years in its commitment to correct decades of short-changing its nuclear force. Trump’s choice as defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, has called Russia’s aggression in Ukraine a problem “much more severe, more serious” than Washington and the European Union are treating it.
Trump’s spokesman and newly-named press secretary, said Friday the president-elect is putting other countries on notice.
“It was in response to a lot of countries. Russia, China and others are talking about expanding their nuclear capability,” spokesman Sean Spicer said on Fox News.
Spicer also told NBC’s Today, “We’re not going to sit back and watch other nations threaten our safety.”
He added: “But just to be clear: The president isn’t saying we’re going to do this. He said, `unless they come to their senses.’ It’s a warning to them that this president isn’t going to sit idly by.
Trump was in Mar-a-Lago, his South Florida estate, Friday, where he retreats for most holidays. He spent the morning playing 18 holes with golf champion Tiger Woods at the Trump International Golf Course, and was set to hold high-level staff meetings later in the day, his transition team said.
He has spent the week meeting advisers and interviewing candidates for a handful of Cabinet positions that remain unfilled.
The president-elect took to Twitter early Friday, declaring it a “ridiculous shame” that his son, Eric, will have to stop soliciting funds for his charitable foundation, the Eric Trump Foundation, because of a conflict of interest.
“My wonderful son, Eric, will no longer be allowed to raise money for children with cancer because of a possible conflict of interest with my presidency,” Trump tweeted. “He loves these kids, has raised millions of dollars for them, and now must stop. Wrong answer!”
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