The Russian state TV propaganda machine continues to ridicule Democratic Party presidential contender Joseph Biden and promoting the incumbent, Donald Trump, portrayed as strong and full of energy after overcoming his bout with the COVID-19 coronavirus (Vesti, October 13). The message to the Russian public is clear: Trump still has a chance to hold onto the White House despite unfavorable opinion polls. Russian hackers and intelligence assets are allegedly continuing to work clandestinely to help Trump succeed and additionally to sow discontent and destabilization from inside Russia’s main global opponent, no matter who wins in November. But the apparently high likelihood of a Biden victory is visibly changing the Kremlin calculus.
In a recent interview with the flagship state-run Rossiya TV, President Vladimir Putin commended Trump for his efforts to improve bilateral relations even though those good intensions could never be fully realized due to Congressional opposition and “the bipartisan consensus in Washington” aimed against Russia. At the same time, Putin scolded Biden for allegedly spreading anti-Russian rhetoric. Still, the Kremlin leader contended, there are long-term historical connections between Moscow and the left wing of the Democratic Party. During the Cold War, Moscow supported pro-Communist and Socialist activists as common enemies of “capitalism and imperialism.” The African American liberation movement also received Soviet support as a revolutionary force. Today, African Americans are an integral part of the Democratic party electorate. Of course, Putin’s closest associates abroad and inside Russia are multi-billionaires, and he himself is also well off; yet in the Rossiya interview, Putin (68), recalled the old Soviet ideologically motivated intelligence effort to recruit leftists of color (“You are young and do not remember,” he posited). The Kremlin seems to believe this old connection could be used as a base to rebuild relations with liberal Democrats. Putin commended Biden for announcing he is ready to extend the New START nuclear arms-control treaty, which may expire on February 5, 2021 (Kremlin.ru, October 7).
The Trump administration has been strongly pushing through a nuclear arms deal with Russia to be concluded before the November 3 election. The White House is ready to prolong New START, which would not require ratification by the Senate, but wants in return for Moscow to sign a declaration pledging the intent to negotiate a more comprehensive follow-up treaty limiting not only strategic inter-continental nuclear weapons but also non-strategic or tactical ones. The proposed declaration would firmly demand that China join the negotiations to limit its own strategic and non-strategic warheads (see EDM, September 24, 29). On October 2, Trump’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, met in neutral Switzerland as Patrushev is under sanctions by the United States and the European Union. To the Trump administration, these talks apparently left the impression Moscow is ready to sign on to the deal. The US Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control, Ambassador Marshall S. Billingslea, announced an agreement had been reached with Moscow “in principal at the highest levels of our two governments” to extend New START and adopt an additional “gentleman’s agreement” to freeze all nuclear weapons, including those not covered by the strategic arms-control treaty. Details, including the verification of the “freeze,” must still be worked out, according to Billingslea (Interfax, October 13).
The blowback from Moscow came strong, fast and in undiplomatic language. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov called the Trump-appointed negotiators “shell game con artists” who are trying to push through an “unacceptable agreement,” while characterizing the US’s actions as reprehensible and “unclean.” Moscow does not accept the idea of a full “freeze” on nuclear weapons production and deployment, because this would undermine advanced new systems like hypersonic missiles, nuclear powered intercontinental super-torpedoes and cruise missiles, and so on. Putin has been so strongly promoting such “wonder-weapons” as a great achievement, putting Russia firmly ahead in the arms race. According to Lavrov, Moscow is ready to submit to the New START treaty rules only a couple of these new weapons systems (he did not say which in particular). Russia is not ready to even begin negotiating any limitations on its tactical nuclear stockpile, however, or to negotiate a more intrusive verification regime. And it rejects calls to publicly sign up to any declaration to put pressure on Beijing to join arms control negotiations the latter does not want (Mid.ru, October 14).
Moscow would surely like to extend New START with no strings attached, but the price the Trump administration wants to extract is seen as too high. Russia has reinstated an array of non-strategic nuclear arms, including field artillery and various land- and sea-based missiles. It is actively producing new ones, while the US has unilaterally scrapped almost all of its non-strategic nuclear arsenal in the last couple of decades. On paper at least, Russia wields thousands of non-strategic or tactical nuclear warheads, while the US keeps only several hundred bombs in Europe, designated for use by allied North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states’ non-stealth jets. According to Lavrov, the US must withdraw these bombs from Europe before any tactical nuclear weapons negotiation may commence—a move that would surely further weaken transatlantic ties (Mid.ru, October 14).
Russia has a vast advantage when it comes to such tactical warheads. It makes no sense for Russia to negotiate away or “freeze” them while it is in the process of further deployment and its hard-won advantage is expanding. Putin has been promoting his new nuclear superweapons as a means to pressure the West to come to the negotiating table; but the price the Kremlin wants in exchange for any limitations is not simply the extension of New START for a couple of years. Moscow demands the repeal of all Western sanctions imposed on Russia, the recognition of Russia’s Eurasian sphere of influence and its annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as acceptance of Russia’s “right” to rewrite borders or annex anything else within its sphere. Any attempt to sour Russian relations with China is seen as a foul US provocation. Billingslea’s announcement of a pending deal was seen as precisely such a move, hence the strong pushback language. Moscow may like Trump more than Biden, but no large nuclear deal looks to be pending. Nuclear arms consultations with the Trump administration will surely continue. But at the same time, Russia will be modernizing and expanding its nuclear arsenal and maintaining a strong strategic partnership with China, all the while waiting to see what happens after November 3.