Media in Russia report that United States President Donald Trump’s administration wants to secure a nuclear arms control agreement with Moscow before Election Day, November 3, to be able to publicly tout one more foreign policy success on top of the one just sealed in the Middle East—the normalization/peace agreement between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel. But time is running short and Russo-US backroom negotiations look to be going nowhere. In an attempt to speed up the apparently deadlocked talks, the White House’s special presidential envoy for arms control, Ambassador Marshall S. Billingslea, has resorted to public diplomacy by giving an interview to the Russian daily Kommersant, which caused commotion within the corridors of power in Moscow. Specifically, Billingslea told Kommersant that he has been discussing with his Russian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, the possibility of promptly producing a joint declaration or presidential memorandum by Trump and President Vladimir Putin outlining the framework of a future nuclear arms control accord. Such an agreement would not require ratification by the US Senate or the Russian parliament, but it must stipulate the political intent of both governments to work out later the precise details of a new comprehensive arms control agreement to replace the existing New START arms control treaty, set to expire in February 2021 unless extended by both sides. If Moscow agrees to sign, Washington will, in turn, agree to immediately extend (“as of tomorrow, if there is an agreement”) the New START treaty. According to Billingslea, Trump and Putin have already repeatedly discussed these proposals by phone (Kommersant, September 21).
New START allows for a onetime, five-year extension by the countries’ two presidents without a politically charged ratification procedure requiring a two-thirds’ majority vote in the US Senate. If New START expires in February, that will not be a major problem, according to Billingslea: the US will immediately begin to redeploy additional warheads on missiles and bombers. Billingslea described the US proposal as reasonable, but if Moscow does not accept it at once, the conditions could become worse “after Trump is reelected.” Billingslea believes the New START treaty limits the US more than Russia. Washington wants New START’s verification procedures to be modified and the treaty to be extended for fewer than five years “to keep up the momentum to clinch a new treaty soon.” The Trump administration wants the proposed framework memorandum to contain a pledge to limit “all nuclear warheads,” including non-strategic or tactical, where Russia holds vast numerical superiority since the US (unlike Russia) scrapped almost all of its non-strategic warheads in the decades after the end of Cold War. The Trump administration also wants Moscow to publicly pledge support for the inclusion of limitation on China’s nuclear and missile arsenals within the next nuclear arms control treaty. According to Billingslea, Russia has been expanding its nuclear stockpile and China even more so, while the US has not; but Washington is planning a massive nuclear modernization and, “if the New START limitations expire in February, that would be easier.” The US presidential envoy believes Moscow also has a vested interest in limiting Chinese nuclear arms (Kommersant, September 21).
Moscow rebuked Billingslea’s move to publicly push through a hard bargain, calling it an unacceptable “ultimatum” (Interfax, September 21). His Russian counterpart, Ryabkov, publicly rejected the US ambassador’s proposals point by point: Moscow is not ready to begin discussing non-strategic nukes. Moscow wants to extend New START “as it is,” without any modifications or changes in the verification procedures. As Russo-US relations are in shambles and mutual trust is close to zero, the US-proposed intrusive verification process involving employing observers at nuclear-production facilities to count the number of newly manufactured and retired strategic and non-strategic warheads is unacceptable. Russia would not object to China joining nuclear arms control talks but will in no way pressure Beijing to join; and if China does come to the table, Moscow would then demand that France and the UK join, too—something Washington opposes. According to Ryabkov, Moscow may reluctantly agree to extend New START for less than five years, but not much less “or it makes little sense.” The bottom line from Ryabkov: Moscow will not be bullied into a deal (Kommersant, September 22).
It is well understood in Moscow that Trump wants a reelection foreign policy coup—to be seen to have pushed through an ambitious though legally nonbinding deal with Putin while seemingly turning Russia against China on a strategically important issue. The Kremlin could even play along to some extent, since a second Trump term is apparently considered the lesser of two evils compared to a Joseph Biden presidency. But Ryabkov’s leeway is limited. More intrusive verification involving permanent onsite missions is a no go. Limiting or seriously discussing non-strategic nuclear weapons, if that involves the disclosure of their numbers and deployments, is a no go. As a prerequisite, Moscow has demanded the unconditional withdrawal of the last deployed US tactical nuclear weapons—the bombs in North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, intended for use by allied forces—knowing such a unilateral move would seriously undermine Alliance unity and is not forthcoming. Most importantly, Moscow is not ready to undermine its cohesion with Beijing by being seen as siding with Trump on pressuring the Chinese to disclose their nuclear arsenal and enter tripartite arms control talks. None of this looks feasible in the present international situation.
Still, Russia is not breaking off arms control talks, and there is still a possibility that some compromise formula may be found (Kommersant, September 21). In a prerecorded address to the United Nations General Assembly, Putin stated, “Extending the New START treaty beyond February 5, 2021, is a priority that must be resolved without delay. Negotiations are continuing” (Kremlin.ru, September 22). Several days earlier, however, Putin announced that, for the first time in history, Russia possesses classes of nuclear weapons no one else has: “faster, more powerful and precise.” Gone are the days when Russia was catching up and unable to reply to the enemy’s challenges (Kremlin.ru, September 19). Putin believes Russia is negotiating with the US from a position of strength, and there is no need to rush to take Trump’s offer.