Report

Biden Looks for a New, New START

But the Kremlin is driving a hard bargain for a new arms control deal.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to shake hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to shake hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin prior to the U.S.-Russia summit at the Villa La Grange in Geneva on June 16. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

When U.S. and Russian negotiators first shook hands on a comprehensive arms control deal in 2010 that put stiff limits on the nuclear stockpiles of the world’s two biggest atomic powers, the White House saw signs of a thaw in the post-Cold War relationship. Before the ink was even dry on the New START treaty, both sides had set up an expansive bilateral commission to iron out almost every aspect of ties. Then-U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev even munched on burgers and split an order of french fries in a Virginia parking lot. 

But more than a decade later, even though the Biden administration and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top deputies in the Kremlin are optimistic about a follow-up nuclear deal, there’s little hope for any breaking of bread or clinking of glasses. As the U.S. State Department plots its negotiating strategy with the Russians ahead of an expected follow-up arms control talk after U.S. President Joe Biden’s meeting with Putin in Geneva last week, the talks are increasingly seen as less of a new start and merely a new starting point for a diminished relationship where the two sides can agree on avoiding nuclear war—but perhaps little else. 

There’s urgency on both sides to get something done. Speaking at an online conference on Tuesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called New START the “last and only bulwark standing amid smoking ruins” of international arms control after the United States left the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, known as the INF Treaty, in 2019 over Russian violations and exited the Open Skies Treaty that allowed unarmed surveillance flights. And U.S. officials see the timing as close to optimal. There’s time yet before the re-upped New START deal expires in five years. Biden is personally engaged, despite frustration in Washington over Moscow’s failure to atone for INF violations deploying ground-launched cruise missiles within earshot of NATO allies. 

When U.S. and Russian negotiators first shook hands on a comprehensive arms control deal in 2010 that put stiff limits on the nuclear stockpiles of the world’s two biggest atomic powers, the White House saw signs of a thaw in the post-Cold War relationship. Before the ink was even dry on the New START treaty, both sides had set up an expansive bilateral commission to iron out almost every aspect of ties. Then-U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev even munched on burgers and split an order of french fries in a Virginia parking lot. 

But more than a decade later, even though the Biden administration and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top deputies in the Kremlin are optimistic about a follow-up nuclear deal, there’s little hope for any breaking of bread or clinking of glasses. As the U.S. State Department plots its negotiating strategy with the Russians ahead of an expected follow-up arms control talk after U.S. President Joe Biden’s meeting with Putin in Geneva last week, the talks are increasingly seen as less of a new start and merely a new starting point for a diminished relationship where the two sides can agree on avoiding nuclear war—but perhaps little else. 

There’s urgency on both sides to get something done. Speaking at an online conference on Tuesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called New START the “last and only bulwark standing amid smoking ruins” of international arms control after the United States left the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, known as the INF Treaty, in 2019 over Russian violations and exited the Open Skies Treaty that allowed unarmed surveillance flights. And U.S. officials see the timing as close to optimal. There’s time yet before the re-upped New START deal expires in five years. Biden is personally engaged, despite frustration in Washington over Moscow’s failure to atone for INF violations deploying ground-launched cruise missiles within earshot of NATO allies. 

But even arms control advocates pushing for a new deal think it will be an uphill climb as negotiators will need time to rediscover their atrophied muscle memory after more than a decade of mostly dormant talks.

“It’s going to have to entail some give and take, right? It’s going to have to be positive, not zero sum,” said Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association. “It’s going to be difficult. I mean, there has been no meaningful progress on strategic arms control since New START was negotiated over a decade ago now.”

Officials in the Biden administration are still hashing out an agenda that could include elements of nuclear conflict, space, cyber, and crisis avoidance between two of the largest militaries on the planet; some of those things might get shoehorned into a separate negotiation. Earlier this month, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called nuclear arms control “the starting point of strategic stability talks” but said the administration was still weighing whether additional elements would come into play. There may be connective tissue between the risk of nuclear conflict and those emerging issues—as officials figure out how to mitigate cyberattacks that could disable nuclear command and control—or Russia’s emerging anti-satellite capabilities that have the potential to blind U.S. early warning systems.

And the Russians have extended a flimsy olive branch. On Tuesday, Ryabkov reiterated a call for a reciprocal moratorium on INF-range ground-based missiles, starting in Europe. 

But in the nuclear space, a complicated tit-for-tat between the two sides is emerging that is likely to test Biden’s patience. Russian negotiators, including Ryabkov, have already begun publicly and privately urging upgraded U.S. missile defenses be limited in a new deal. Moscow fears it wouldn’t be able to retaliate in a nuclear exchange even while it has continued developing the S-500 air defense system that can defend against incoming missiles; the request has long been a no-go for Washington. 

The Russians, who began developing a suite of nuclear-powered cruise missiles, air-launched ballistic missiles, and underwater vehicles with range beyond the New START limits, also want constraints on U.S. intercontinental weapons systems, fearing a so-called “counterforce” strike on Russian arms. Russia also wants U.S. tactical nuclear weapons scattered across Europe—unacknowledged by Washington—to be included in any accord. 

“There is a mismatch between how the two sides are looking at the agenda,” said Rose Gottemoeller, former deputy secretary-general of NATO who was the chief negotiator of New START during the Obama administration.

The Biden administration faces other challenges. Congress is gearing for a tense debate over pricey new ground-based nuclear missiles to replace the 1970s-era Minuteman III, all while Russia has revamped its arsenal. Ryabkov has been sparring with U.S. diplomats for decades; their likely match at the other end of the bargaining table, Bonnie Jenkins, a long-time disarmament expert and Biden’s nominee to be the U.S. State Department’s top arms control official, is still awaiting confirmation on the Senate floor.

There may be little desire on the part of the Russians to give up their head start on nuclear modernization over the United States.

“Russia’s hand at the negotiating table has grown stronger as it has successfully implemented its own strategic modernization program and has begun to develop additional nuclear-armed strategic range capabilities,” wrote Michael Albertson, deputy director of the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in a paper in March. “The negotiating dynamics have shifted decisively away from the power advantages enjoyed by U.S. negotiators over much of the last three decades.” 

While progressives are urging a new arms control deal, Republicans on Capitol Hill are worried the Biden administration might not be up to the challenge. If the administration gets as far as a treaty, they may still need the Senate, and at least some of its 50 Republicans, to sign off. And some are wary of giving Russia the velvet glove treatment. 

“These are hard things to call, but to me, it’s much, much more about action,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Obama had big words on Russia, and his actions were so weak, and Putin walked over him. Trump’s words weren’t that good from my perspective, but his actions were actually strong. And we’ll see where President Biden ends up.” 

Foreign Policy staff writer Amy Mackinnon contributed reporting for this story.

Correction, June 22, 2021: A previous version of this article misstated one of the Russian negotiators goals.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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