US-Russian nuclear arms control has become a hostage to the conflict in Ukraine President Biden

Elena Chernenko

During the Cold War, Moscow and Washington managed to agree on arms control regardless of the degree of their involvement in regional conflicts, whether in Europe or in Afghanistan. 

In the case of Ukraine, the situation is different: one of the side effects of the deployment of Russian troops in the country has been the freezing of these negotiations between Russia and the US.

The process of drawing up new agreements in this field, launched in 2021, has been stopped. The last of the existing bilateral treaties on strategic offensive arms is facing serious problems. In the meantime, the breakdown of arms control will lead to more mistrust, unpredictability and instability.

A step forward . . . 

In the area of strategic stability, 2022 started well overall. On January 26, the US responded to security demands issued by Russia, and although Washington refused to provide guarantees that Ukraine would not join NATO or to withdraw the bloc’s forces to 1997 positions, in the area of strategic stability the US was clearly in favour of compromise. 

The American response indicated that they were willing to negotiate on a number of topics that Russia had been unsuccessfully pushing for over the previous few years. 

The most prominent example: Moscow’s 2019 proposal for a moratorium on the deployment of land-based intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles in Europe. Before last January, the US and its NATO allies had publicly labelled the Russian initiative as “unacceptable and untrustworthy.” 

However, Washington’s response to Moscow’s demands explicitly stated that the Americans had agreed to negotiate on the issue. 

Moreover, the letter specified that the US was ready to discuss a transparency mechanism with Russia to verify the absence of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Aegis Ashore sites in Romania and Poland, provided that Moscow provided reciprocal transparency conditions for two selected land-based missile bases on its territory. 

Earlier, the Russian side itself had proposed similar verification measures, but Moscow’s suggestion was only listened to against the background of its December 2021 ultimatum on Ukraine and its concentration of troops on the Ukrainian border. 

In its January response, the US also indicated a willingness to explore the possibility of expanding the exercise notification regime and measures to reduce nuclear danger, including with regard to strategic atomic weapons-carrying bomber aircraft. 

In addition, the message from Washington indicated a willingness on the US side to discuss with Russia, differences on conventional arms control and additional measures to prevent dangerous incidents at sea and in the air. Although Russian officials had described these US proposals as “secondary” to Russia’s central demands for NATO non-proliferation and the withdrawal of the bloc’s infrastructure in central and eastern Europe, many observers had the impression that Moscow was simply bargaining. 

Not in a particularly elegant way, but very effectively, as it looked to strengthen its negotiating position. All the more so since Russian officials had assured the world that no “invasion” of Ukraine was planned, and the Russian Foreign Ministry had expressed the hope — as early as mid-February — that “together” Russia and NATO member states could achieve “a good result across the whole package (of issues)” 

The feeling that Russia would not try to resolve the “Ukrainian issue” by force and the belief that arms control was a foreign policy priority for Moscow gave rise to cautious optimism. 

It seemed that the troops were about to be withdrawn as promised and an intensive negotiation process was about to begin between the two powers. The basis for this belief already existed: during their meeting in Geneva in June 2021, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden had launched a “dialogue on strategic stability” aimed at working out new bilateral agreements to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires in 2026. 

As part of this process, the two delegations managed to hold two rounds of face-to-face talks. 

The results were modest but encouraging  . . . and two backwards. 

However, following Moscow’s recognition of the independence of the Donbass and Lugansk People’s Republics, and then the deployment of Russian troops to Ukraine, those hopes were dashed. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who had planned to meet his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on 24 February, said that he no longer saw the point. 

The US quickly suspended its participation in a bilateral “strategic stability dialogue.” 

The positive aspects of the December-February correspondence were no longer mentioned. Against the backdrop of the hostilities in Ukraine, everything faded into the background. 

This was the case for about six months, but around August, Washington began signalling a readiness to return to discussing arms control with Moscow. 

This was stated in particular by President Joe Biden in his address to the Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. 

Recalling that “even at the peak of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to work together to maintain common responsibility and ensure strategic stability,” the American leader declared: “My administration is ready to expeditiously negotiate a new arms control framework to replace New START when it expires in 2026.” 

Joe Biden, however, conditioned the resumption of negotiations on a number of vaguely worded demands on Russia in the context of Ukraine: “But negotiations require a bona fide partner. 

And Russia’s brutal and unprovoked aggression in Ukraine disturbed the peace in Europe and is an attack on the fundamental principles of the international order. 

In this context, Russia must demonstrate that it is ready to resume nuclear arms control work with the United States.” 

Moscow felt that since the “dialogue on strategic stability” had been interrupted at the initiative of the US, it should ask for its resumption, rather than making demands. 

Dmitry Medvedev, who signed the START Treaty with the US when he was president in 2010, had the harshest words for the American position. 

“Let them come running or crawling themselves and ask for it (the resumption of negotiations on strategic stability). And they will appreciate it as a special mercy. Otherwise it looks like this: they give us all kinds of abominations, and we give them a nuclear deal,” he wrote in his Telegram channel. “Unproductive, dangerous, and looks like a display of weakness. 

Let them appreciate such a dialogue for real and ask for it in all the streets and in the back alleys.”  

The idea of Moscow and Washington returning to the pre-conflict state-of-affairs did not work out so well. 

l Elena Chernenko is a special correspondent at the Kommersant daily newspaper in Moscow

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