With the election in the United States less than three weeks away, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise strategic concession to the Donald Trump administration—apparently against the consensus opinion of Russia’s military and diplomatic bureaucracy. The Kremlin proposal looks designed to help US President Donald Trump’s reelection prospects by producing a last-minute deal on nuclear arms control. Russian foreign ministry officials involved in the talks with Washington and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov himself have for months been rejecting the US government’s offer to prolong the New START arms control treaty, scheduled to expire on February 5, 2021, in exchange for a supplementary political declaration or “gentleman’s agreement” to freeze all active nuclear weapons at their present numbers, including those not covered by New START. The Trump-appointed Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control, Ambassador Marshall Billingslea, has insisted both governments have in principal agreed “at the highest levels” to put together such a package before November 3, 2020; but Russian negotiators rejected the notion. Lavrov called the US negotiators “shell game con artists,” trying to push through an “unacceptable agreement” (see EDM, October 15). But then came a reality show–style “October surprise”: The Russian foreign ministry publicly announced it is ready to prolong New START for one year (instead of five) and make a “political decision” to declare a mutual “nuclear arms freeze” for a year—allowing that time to be used to negotiate a new “comprehensive” arms control agreement. This apparent concession is conditioned on Washington not making any other additional demands (Militarynew.ru, October 20).
Moscow called on Washington to answer and promptly resume negotiations. Billingslea and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo responded positively. A looming meeting of Russian and US negotiators is reportedly being prepared and, according to Billingslea, “We’re very, very close to a deal” (Interfax, October 22). At the same time, both Billingslea and Pompeo insisted New START is not a good agreement since it limits some 92 percent of the US nuclear arsenal while covering only 45 percent the Russian one, while Chinese warheads are not covered at all (TASS, October 21). To rectify this apparent disadvantage, Washington demands that any nuclear “freeze” must be vigorously verified (Militarynews.ru, October 22).
After 1991, as the Cold War ended, the US unilaterally retired and eventually scrapped almost all of its non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons—both the delivery systems and the warheads themselves. Only several hundred nuclear bombs are left, at bases in Europe, designated for use by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members’ non-stealth jets. The last major US unilateral non-strategic nuclear arms reduction happened during President Barack Obama’s second term. But while the US disarmed unilaterally in this area, Russia has retained its non-strategic nuclear arsenal; and in the last two decades under Putin, it has been expanding or reinstating tactical nuclear arms—nuclear field artillery, different land- and sea-based missiles, nuclear torpedoes, and so on. The non-strategic nuclear weapons are not covered by New START or any other arms control treaty. The New START verification regime instead controls the number of deployed and reserve strategic nuclear delivery systems, which are easier to track. The number of warheads attached to strategic ballistic missiles is also verified. Nuclear warheads and bombs not directly attached to delivery systems are maintained at special nuclear storage facilities of the Ministry of Defense’s 12th Main Directorate. And the nuclear arms are assembled and dissembled at facilities in the so-called “chosen cities” of the Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation. Verification is not and has never been carried out at the 12th Main Directorate’s sites; and the number or readiness state of the Rosatom stockpiles has never been disclosed. According to Russo-US relations and arms control expert Sergei Rogov, the official number of Russian nuclear arms deployed under New START terms is postulated to be 1,550, but the overall number of strategic nuclear weapons, including those in storage, could be as high as around 6,000. The number of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons deployed or in storage has never been disclosed; assessments range between several thousand and over 10,000. No established methods exist for counting stored strategic or stored non-strategic nuclear weapons. With no trustworthy numbers, enforcing a “nuclear freeze” seems like an uphill job. Washington is proposing onsite intrusive inspections, including US soldiers patrolling the perimeter of 12th Main Directorate bases or the Rosatom facilities to make sure no nuclear arms go in or out. Russia would be apparently granted the same privilege at US sites. According to Rogov, such an arrangement would likely be mutually unacceptable. Working out any workable nuclear warhead verification procedure will surely require more than a year of negotiations, and it is absolutely impossible to start such talks from scratch and conclude them prior to November 3 (Interfax, October 22).
The sudden Russian U-turn on arms control caused a serious ripple in Moscow. Putin apparently made the decision personally and imposed it on the foreign policy and defense establishment. Of course, the autocratic Russian president is incontestably in charge of the country’s foreign and defense policymaking; still, the apparent Kremlin submissiveness in yielding to US demands sparked tensions and dismay in the capital. The bureaucracy fears that even if this concession is nothing more than a PR move to help Trump’s reelection, and Putin is not ready to give away Russia’s vast advantage in tactical nuclear arms for a year of prolonging New START, the Americans might still come to believe that Putin’s Russia can be pushed around like in the bad old times of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin (Kommersant, October 21).
Despite of the apparent “nuclear freeze” concession, the Kremlin apparently insists there will be no mention of China’s nuclear arsenal in the proposed “gentleman’s agreement” with Trump. And it seems there will be no meaningful verification protocol attached. But it is far from clear that the Trump White House would be willing to sign up to such an arrangement just to be able to quickly declare victory.
As Rogov observes, the present US election is not about foreign policy or nuclear arms control at all (Interfax, October 22). The Democratic Party contender, Joseph Biden, promised he would prolong New START for five years without preconditions, but Putin seems so intent to tangibly show support for Trump’s reelection that he did not wait until after November 3 to make his pitch. Instead, Putin opted to rush and accept a seemingly worse deal proposed by the Trump administration—something Russian specialists in Russo-US relations simply cannot rationalize.