Experts praise US-Russian nuclear arms talks revival
4 July 2020. PenzaNews. The United States is ready to consider extending the Russian-American treaty on the reduction of strategic offensive weapons (START, New START), but only under “select circumstances.” This was announced by Special Envoy of the US President for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea during a video briefing for journalists on June 24.
The diplomat, whose apparatus is part of the Department of State, stressed that Washington “agrees completely” with the Russian position that the treaty should be multilateral.
“Now, our definition of multilateral might be slightly different, but the principle remains the same,” Marshall Billingsley said, adding that Russia wants to include France and Britain.
He explained that this means incorporating into the negotiations China and its “incredibly worrisome” nuclear program. According to Special Envoy, this proposal enjoys “complete unanimous NATO support.”
Among the “select circumstances,” Marshall Billingsley highlighted the effective regime for verifying compliance with the START conditions and “a number of greatly concerning Russian behaviors.”
Earlier, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian stated that the US attempts to involve the PRC into nuclear arms talks with the Russian Federation and the United States are absurd, as Washington is constantly striving to violate its obligations under an existing agreement.
The treaty on the reduction of strategic offensive weapons was signed by Russia and the United States in 2010. It will be valid until 5 February 2021, unless it is replaced by another agreement before this deadline. The document may be extended by mutual agreement of the parties for no more than five years, that is, until 2026. Moscow characterizes the START Treaty as the gold standard in the field of disarmament and calls on Washington not to delay the decision to extend the treaty. At present, New START remains the only current arms limitation agreement between Russia and the United States.
Russia and the United States held talks on strategic stability and arms control behind closed doors in Vienna on June 22. Russian delegation was headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and American – by Marshall Billingslea. The parties agreed to create three working groups, which will discuss the details of further cooperation between Moscow and Washington.
The next round of nuclear disarmament negotiations is expected to take place in late July or early August. Previous bilateral strategic negotiations took place in Vienna on January 16. Subsequently, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the already irregular dialogue between Russia and the United States was paused.
Despite the fact that it is now becoming more substantive, significant agreements are unlikely anytime soon, believes Thomas Graham, Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“It is good that the two sides met in Vienna and decided to set up some technical working groups and met again in that not too distant future. But, as the lead negotiators have indicated, the two sides remain far apart on key issues,” he said.
In his opinion, it is hardly surprising that the Chinese refused the invitation.
“Beijing has repeatedly said that it is not interested in participating in trilateral talks with the United States and Russia on strategic stability and strategic arms control. Its nuclear arsenal is a fraction of the size of the American and Russian arsenals and will remain so for some time. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to imagine a scenario under which Beijing would change its mind and participate in the talks,” Thomas Graham explained.
Whether the New START is extended or not is up to the United States at this point, he noted.
“Russia has indicated that it is prepared to extend the treaty as it is now written without any conditions. The question is whether the United States is prepared to do that. So far, Washington has given no indication that it is,” the analyst stressed.
At the same time, from his point of view, the era of bilateral US-Russian strategic arms control treaties is inevitably coming to an end and basically does not depend on the New START.
“Looking forward, the question is whether the United States and Russia, together or with other states, can develop a new concept for strategic stability that takes into account the complexity of the current era — multiple strategic actors, advanced conventional weapons that can perform tasks only nuclear weapons once could, space weapons, cyberweapons, and so on. If is far from certain that they can in the next five years – the maximum length by which the new START can be extended. As a result, we are likely to find ourselves not only without a bilateral US-Russian strategic arms control agreement but without any significant strategic arms control treaty toward the end of this decade,” Thomas Graham suggested.
Steven Pifer, US Ambassador to Ukraine in 1998–2000, ex-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, expert at Center for International Security and Cooperation, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, called the resumption of negotiations between Russian and American officials a good sign.
“But there are few grounds for optimism and little time before the US presidential election to work out the details, or even the outline of a complex US-Russian agreement,” he said.
In his opinion, a new agreement should limit all US and Russian nuclear warheads.
“That will take a long time to negotiate, and ancillary issues such as missile defense may well arise,” Steven Pifer added.
At the same time, he described the refusal of the PRC to participate in the negotiations as quite logical and predictable.
“The Chinese have long made clear that, given the differences in the size of the nuclear arsenals – China has less than 10 per cent the number of nuclear warheads that the United States and Russia each have – they would not take part in a trilateral negotiation. It would be good to get China involved in nuclear arms control at some point, but the Trump administration has not offered anything that would interest them,” the former diplomat pointed out.
In turn, Frank von Hippel, Senior Research Physicist at Princeton University, who served the Assistant Director for National Security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, shared the opinion that Washington made no attempt to involve China in the discussion.
“The Trump Administration insists that China join in the talks but has not, to my knowledge, made a proposal for commitments that China could make. I therefore think that this insistence […] is just camouflage of the Trump Administration’s lack of seriousness about arms control,” the expert explained.
“I could make suggestions for what China could do to be supportive of further Russian-US reductions but they could well require the US to make additional commitments as well, such as limit its ballistic-missile defense system so as not to threaten China’s nuclear deterrent. That is a commitment that the Trump Administration would be unwilling to make. I hope that a future US administration will engage in deeper analysis of strategic stability,” he added.
Frank von Hippel said that he has great respect for Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov but doesn’t think that “he has a serious counterpart” in Marshall Billingslea, “whose professional history has been working for opponents to nuclear arms control.”
At the same time, from his point of view, the agenda should be a simple one: an agreement to extend New START for five years as platform to further agreements.
“The fact that the Trump Administration cannot agree to this makes me concerned that they are not serious and perhaps that they have no interest in extending New START. If US inaugurates a new president on January 20, I hope it will not too late for a quick agreement on a five-year extension of New START,” said a former White House adviser.
He also stressed that the situation could change before the US election because the Republican Party has been unwilling to consider possible prospect of US ballistic missile defense limitations.
“I don’t think any sane leader would order nuclear use except in retaliation for nuclear use – and even that might be insane. My major fear of nuclear-weapons use relates to possible acts of madness, hacking, unauthorized use, or because of a mistaken belief by one country that it was under nuclear attack. I would therefore like to see the US and Russia make no first use commitments like China has made. I would also like to see them move away from launch-on-warning postures that increase the danger of nuclear war,” Frank von Hippel said and added that the parties should take a position that would reduce the likelihood of various kinds of errors and allow more time to correct them.
Meanwhile, Greg Thielmann, Board Member of the Arms Control Association and former office director in the State Department’s intelligence bureau, INR, who was specializing in political-military and intelligence issues, expressed doubt about the adoption of serious decisions on the New START this year.
“I am gratified at the resumption of US-Russian discussions on critical questions of strategic stability […]. Although I am encouraged by the news that technical working groups have been launched and that there is agreement in principle to a second round of high-level discussions, I am not optimistic that concrete results can be achieved in 2020. I regard the extension of New START as unambiguously in the interest of both Moscow and Washington, as well as all other countries in the world. It is unfortunate that the Trump administration is seeking to use the treaty extension as leverage in the pursuit of other goals,” the expert said.
In his opinion, the fact that the current US leadership is hesitating to nail down New START extension suggests that it will not be capable of negotiating effectively on more ambitious and difficult issues.
“I suspect that the upcoming November presidential elections will become an increasing distraction for US interlocutors, with partisan political considerations uppermost in the minds of the current president. I fully expect that the election of Joe Biden as our next president will create new opportunities for constructive and broad-reaching negotiations in 2021,” Greg Thielmann concluded.