On Nuclear Treaty, at Least, Biden Aims for Fresh START With Russia

Washington and Moscow look set to keep New START alive with working-level talks, despite historic tensions.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
An image of Russian President Vladimir Putin is displayed as U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the White House.
An image of Russian President Vladimir Putin is displayed as U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the White House.
An image of Russian President Vladimir Putin is displayed as U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the White House in Washington on June 22. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Biden administration has announced that it will restart nuclear arms control talks with Russia, even as tensions spike over the latter’s war in Ukraine, coupled with the threat of Moscow using nuclear weapons.

The talks are expected to take place in Cairo in the near future, current and former U.S. officials said, and represent the first move by both sides to revive their mutual arms control agenda since U.S. President Joe Biden first halted dialogue after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February. The talks represent a test of whether the United States and Russia can conduct working-level diplomatic negotiations on high-stakes issues, even as U.S.-made weapons contribute to the mounting Russian death toll on battlefields in Ukraine. Gen. Mark Milley, the United States’ top military officer, said on Wednesday that at least 100,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded since the invasion began.

The talks also showcase the Biden administration’s willingness to engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin on certain foreign-policy issues, even as it blankets Russia with devastating sanctions and aims to make it an international pariah for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The Biden administration has announced that it will restart nuclear arms control talks with Russia, even as tensions spike over the latter’s war in Ukraine, coupled with the threat of Moscow using nuclear weapons.

The talks are expected to take place in Cairo in the near future, current and former U.S. officials said, and represent the first move by both sides to revive their mutual arms control agenda since U.S. President Joe Biden first halted dialogue after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February. The talks represent a test of whether the United States and Russia can conduct working-level diplomatic negotiations on high-stakes issues, even as U.S.-made weapons contribute to the mounting Russian death toll on battlefields in Ukraine. Gen. Mark Milley, the United States’ top military officer, said on Wednesday that at least 100,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded since the invasion began.

The talks also showcase the Biden administration’s willingness to engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin on certain foreign-policy issues, even as it blankets Russia with devastating sanctions and aims to make it an international pariah for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The existing arms reduction treaty, New START, caps the number of intercontinental-range nuclear weapons in both Washington’s and Moscow’s arsenals and allows each side to conduct on-site weapons facility inspections in the other country. This allows experts from each country to visit the other country’s weapons sites to view the number of nuclear weapons, launch vehicles, and other details to confirm that both sides are adhering to the treaty. The treaty allows up to 18 on-site inspections per year.

It is the last remaining arms control treaty in place between Russia and the United States, which respectively have the first- and second-largest nuclear arsenals in the world. Under the terms of the treaty, which was first signed in 2010, both countries agreed to cap the number of nuclear warheads they could deploy on delivery systems to 1,550.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has quietly been in contact with his Russian counterparts to minimize the risk of the war spreading beyond Ukraine’s borders, and he warned Russia against using nuclear weapons, as the Wall Street Journal reported.

Reviving the New START talks has been a quiet goal of the White House and State Department since at least this summer, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter, and scheduling a new meeting with the Russians on the issue has been in the works for months. Rose Gottemoeller, a former NATO deputy secretary-general and top U.S. arms control envoy who helped negotiate New START in 2009-10, welcomed the move and said the latest nuclear discussions shouldn’t be seen as any sort of concession to Russia.

“We don’t always get to choose with whom we negotiate, but if we’ve got an issue that’s in our national security interest, we have to work it,” said Gottemoeller, now a scholar at Stanford University. “We’ve achieved agreements with the Russians during some very dark hours in our bilateral relationship in the past.”

Both Washington and Moscow agreed to pause on-site inspections in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the invasion of Ukraine has put a new spotlight on Moscow’s nuclear arsenal and the heightened risk of nuclear war, as the United States and NATO allies ferry weapons and munitions to Ukraine to beat back the Russian military.

Putin has issued thinly veiled threats that Russia could deploy nuclear weapons to protect its military or occupied territory in Ukraine. Western officials believe it’s simply a political threat to convince Western countries to halt their support for Ukraine. But they also fear that Russia’s continued battlefield defeats, including its most recent retreat from the key city of Kherson, put Putin under new pressure to find ways to turn the tide of the war, which may increase the likelihood he turns to nuclear weapons.

In August, Russia barred U.S. inspectors from visiting its nuclear sites, saying that U.S. sanctions and travel restrictions on Russia had made it impossible for them to travel to the United States to conduct reciprocal inspections. U.S. officials countered that the sanctions and travel restrictions were “fully compatible” with routine New START inspections.

The meeting expected to take place in Cairo falls under the treaty’s Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC)—routine meetings between lower-level officials to discuss how to implement the treaty in practice. Restarting on-site inspections is expected to be a leading agenda item for the meeting. Even without the on-site inspections, the United States has been closely monitoring Russian nuclear weapons sites with satellite imagery, and current and former U.S. officials said Russia continues to notify Washington about the movements of its nuclear forces, in line with the treaty’s requirements.

“It’s not like we’ve been blind to what’s going on inside the Russian nuclear forces, but getting back to on-site inspections is an important aspect of treaty verification,” Gottemoeller said.

In February 2021, shortly after taking office, Biden agreed to renew New START with Russia for an additional five years, until 2026. The last time the United States and Russia convened a lower-level meeting was in October 2021.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price downplayed any expectations of major breakthroughs on arms control at the upcoming BCC meeting but said the United States won’t cut off dialogue with Russia despite tensions over Ukraine.

“When it comes to Russia, of course, we are clear-eyed. We’re realistic about what dialogue between the United States and Russia can entail and what it can accomplish,” he told reporters at a press briefing this week. “We’ve been very intentional about seeing to it that the ability of our two countries to pass messages back and forth and to engage in dialogue does not atrophy.”

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

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