Biden Halts Russian Arms Control Talks Amid Ukraine Invasion

Officials said the talks had become an arena for Russia to complain about NATO.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin oversees the test launch of the Avangard hypersonic missile.
Russian President Vladimir Putin oversees the test launch of the Avangard hypersonic missile.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Russia’s national defense control center to oversee the test launch of the Avangard hypersonic missile in Moscow on Dec. 26, 2018. Mikhail Klimintyev/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

The Biden administration has cut off arms control talks with Russia, sources familiar with the decision told Foreign Policy. The move came after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine’s breakaway regions but before he launched the full-scale invasion of the country.

The decision, while perhaps unsurprising given Russia’s dramatic escalation in the conflict, interrupts a major Biden administration foreign-policy priority to revive arms control talks with Washington’s former Cold War rival. 

Shortly after U.S. President Joe Biden took office, he launched a “strategic stability dialogue” with Russia, with the aim of finalizing a new strategic arms control deal and pursuing possibilities for new negotiations on cyberattacks and cutting-edge nuclear weapons technology.

The Biden administration has cut off arms control talks with Russia, sources familiar with the decision told Foreign Policy. The move came after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine’s breakaway regions but before he launched the full-scale invasion of the country.

The decision, while perhaps unsurprising given Russia’s dramatic escalation in the conflict, interrupts a major Biden administration foreign-policy priority to revive arms control talks with Washington’s former Cold War rival. 

Shortly after U.S. President Joe Biden took office, he launched a “strategic stability dialogue” with Russia, with the aim of finalizing a new strategic arms control deal and pursuing possibilities for new negotiations on cyberattacks and cutting-edge nuclear weapons technology.

That dialogue has now been completely halted, officials and sources familiar with the matter confirmed, as Putin continues his all-out military assault on Ukraine and has threatened any country thinking of intervening with “consequences like you’ve never seen.” The U.S. State Department is still clarifying diplomatic guidance for U.S. interactions with Russia moving forward.

The halt in arms talks could have outsized significance after Putin made veiled threats about Russia’s nuclear weapons arsenal in the runup to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—though Western officials caution that any chance of a nuclear escalation over the Russian invasion remains highly remote.

“Today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states,” Putin said in a televised address before the invasion early Thursday morning. “There should be no doubt for anyone that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack our country.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded to Putin’s veiled threat in a CBS News interview that evening. “I can’t begin to get into his head and to say exactly what he means by that,” Blinken said. “But again, we’ve been prepared for whatever course that he chooses to take.”

The decision to halt strategic stability talks follows past U.S. precedent. After Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and launched an invasion into Ukraine’s Donbass region in 2014, the Obama administration suspended most arms control dialogues with Russia, though it continued working with Russian diplomats on the Iran nuclear deal, the so-called New START deal, and efforts to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons. 

In 2019, under then-U.S. President Donald Trump, the United States formally withdrew from a Cold War-era treaty with Russia to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) that could strike between a range of around 310 to 3,400 miles, accusing Russia of having violated the treaty by testing and deploying missile systems that the treaty banned. All NATO allies backed Trump’s decision and blamed Russia’s violations for the INF treaty’s demise. But some arms control experts still criticized the move at the time, voicing fears that Trump was dismantling an important arms control regime before exhausting all avenues to salvage the treaty.

After entering office, Biden vowed to reverse Trump-era arms control policies and revive arms talks on a variety of weapons systems with Moscow.

Just days after being inaugurated, Biden reauthorized the New START Treaty, which limits the number of strategic nuclear missiles that both sides can possess, such as deployed ballistic missiles and strategic bombers, warheads, and missile tubes. That agreement covers both countries’ arsenals until 2026 but does not include Russia’s novel nuclear weapons systems first unveiled by Putin in 2018, such as nuclear-powered cruise missiles, ballistic missiles launched from the air, and underwater vehicles—all of which boast ranges beyond the New START limits. 

The U.S.-Russia dialogue had initially started off on promising footing, and both Biden and Putin agreed to continue talks after they met in person in Geneva in June 2021, despite rising tensions between their two countries.

But in recent weeks, as Russian forces amassed for an attack on Ukraine and the Biden administration publicized U.S. intelligence on Kremlin plans to create a pretext for invasion, officials familiar with the matter said the dialogue became mostly an arena for Russia to air its grievances about NATO military buildups in Europe and other topics of Kremlin displeasure.

One senior U.S. congressional aide, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity to speak about sensitive policy deliberations, said the decision to kill the talks was a good move because it denies Putin a forum through which to gain additional leverage.

“The Russians want these things. They like these things. They want to be seen as world players sitting down with the U.S. face to face,” the aide said of the arms control talks. “They also see it as a way to get further concessions and things that will benefit them.” Russia has also repeatedly complained about U.S. missile defenses in Europe, such as sites for Aegis Ashore batteries in Romania that will soon be active in Poland, fearing they could be converted to launch offensive weapons at Russia. 

In a statement, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said the administration had no plans to convene another strategic stability dialogue with Russia at this point. Other officials and sources familiar with the matter said the Biden administration made the decision to halt the dialogue even before Russia’s full-fledged invasion. The officials and aides do not foresee any context in which talks could restart if troops remain in Ukraine. 

“As long as Russia is illegally occupying parts of Ukraine, the security dialogues should come to a full and complete halt,” the senior congressional aide said. 

In the week leading up to the invasion, Russia conducted military exercises of its nuclear forces in neighboring Belarus, including by test-firing its latest hypersonic and cruise missiles. Belarus’s embattled president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, a close Putin ally on the Ukrainian border, has also offered to host Russian tactical nuclear weapons in his country.

U.S. officials aren’t yet concerned about nuclear escalation, however. On Thursday, a senior U.S. defense official said the Defense Department has seen no signs that Russia has put its nuclear forces on alert after the invasion. But some nonproliferation experts said the freeze out can’t continue forever.

“Although Putin’s regime must suffer international isolation now, U.S. and Russian leaders must eventually seek to resume talks through their stalled strategic security dialogue to defuse broader NATO-Russia tensions and maintain common sense arms control measures to prevent an all-out arms race,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, wrote in a recent editorial. 

But other Western officials appeared more eager to send a clear message to Putin to avoid a spillover of the conflict. “I think that Vladimir Putin must also understand that the Atlantic alliance is a nuclear alliance,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday.

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

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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