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No, Trump did NOT just reignite the Cold War

Vladimir Putin
Sergei Ilnitsky | Pool | Reuters
Vladimir Putin

President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to be cultivating a cozy relationship as of late, that created some concern that Russian aggression would go unchecked.

But if it's one thing we've learned about Trump and his "Art of the Deal" style of business, it's that he never reveals his full hand — and you should never be too sure that anything is for sure. Like "Trump and Putin are buddies," for example.

Sure enough, on Thursday, Trump tweeted that the United States, "must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability." When asked to clarify those comments just 24 later by MSBC's Mika Brzezinski, Trump said, "Let it be an arms race."

This one-two punch of rhetoric that evoked the Cold War left a lot of people scratching their heads about what Trump's message really means. But if you were paying attention, you wouldn't be surprised at all.

Not only is it not surprising given Trump's style but it's not surprising in a broader context of America's relationship with Russia. In many ways, it proves the fact that some aspects of the Cold War never really ended and they're not ending anytime soon, either.


"Trump is making it even more clear that he sides with those who believe that an America that pledges never to use a nuclear weapon only increases the chances of nuclear war occurring one day."

The key part of the term "Cold War" is "Cold," as in, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. thankfully never got into a direct shooting, "hot" war. But after the U.S.S.R. collapsed, Russia remained and still remains the world's second biggest nuclear and conventional military power. And under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has greatly expanded its military presence, and meddling in places like the Baltics and Syria. This is all eerily similar to the kind of actions we saw from both the Soviets and the United States during the Cold War.

And, Trump's comments came just hours after Putin made a similar comment about Russia's nuclear capabilities. Of course, Trump didn't wait long to respond in kind.

Trump is making it even more clear that he sides with those who believe that an America that pledges never to use a nuclear weapon only increases the chances of nuclear war occurring one day. If we promise never to use nukes and solidify that promise by only having weapons that would cause the most mass destruction and loss of innocent lives, what's the deterrent against an enemy of any size using a weapon of their own?

As Hudson Institute Fellow Rebecca Heinrichs wrote earlier this year, that stance makes it look, "as if the primary goal of U.S. defense planners should be to deter the United States." It fits so much of the rest of Trump's public persona to pursue a nuclear policy where our enemies and allies alike cannot be sure we would never use a nuclear weapon. It's undeniably morbid and frightening, but who can deny that nuclear brinksmanship is the ultimate in deal-making?

Perhaps the most enduring lesson we're starting to learn from Trump's historic transition period is that this president is going to be very busy and very hard to read for some time. For months, he's looked like he's been willing to appease Putin and Russia. But on Thursday, he responded to them on nuclear weaponry. Hacking the Democratic National Committee sure seems like small potatoes in that context.

In short, the Trump-Putin relationship status has now been changed from "friends" to "it's complicated." It's all just like the scenarios we got used to during the Cold War when Russia moved into new countries and U.S. deployments of new weapons used to drive each side crazy. At the same time, U.S. presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan managed to cultivate warm relations with Soviet leaders like Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev even as they pursued combative policies. It sure looks like we're back to having that kind of relationship again.

Putin and Trump can look warm and fuzzy in public even as they take opposing positions with the highest possible stakes. And, like the original incarnation of the U.S.-Russian conflict, how this one ends is not going to be easy to predict.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.