At a low point in US-Russian relations, President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin seem to generally agree on at least one thing: Their first face-to-face meeting on Wednesday is an opportunity to set the stage. for a new era in arms. control.
Whether that leads to real arms negotiations is another matter, complicated by the bitter relationship and accusations from each country that the other has cheated in previous arms treaties. The fabric of arms control has been unraveling, especially with the abandonment in 2019, first by Washington and then by Moscow, of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which had ruled an entire class of missiles for more than three decades.
The Trump administration also pulled the United States out of the Open Skies Treaty, which had allowed surveillance flights over military installations in both countries. Last month, the Biden administration informed the Russians that it would not rejoin the treaty, and last week Putin confirmed Russia’s departure.
Biden and Putin now face choices about how and when to restart a dialogue on arms control priorities, even as Biden faces pressure from Congress on China’s growing military might and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Despite its importance, the issue of gun control may be overshadowed at the Biden-Putin summit, given the increased US focus on ransomware attacks, alleged Russian interference in US elections, Russia’s military concentration on the Ukraine border and allegations that the Kremlin was behind the SolarWinds hacking campaign. .
International arms control groups are pressuring Russian and US leaders to begin pushing for new arms control by holding “strategic stability” talks, a series of government-to-government discussions aimed at resolving the many areas of disagreement and tension at the national level. These consultations have also been asked to include Europe because the talks could cover a wide range of issues, including cyber threats, space operations and missile defenses, in addition to nuclear weapons.
Officials in Moscow and Washington have indicated that they see value in strategic stability talks, which would likely not be an arms control negotiation, but rather a series of lower-level discussions aimed at deciding how to organize and prioritize an eventual agenda of gun control.
“What we are looking for is that the two presidents can send a clear signal to their teams on strategic stability issues so that we can advance arms control and other nuclear areas to reduce tension and instability in that aspect of the relationship,” Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said last week.
Washington broke off strategic stability talks with Moscow in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in support of separatists in eastern Ukraine. The talks resumed in 2017 but gained little traction and during the last weeks of the Trump administration they failed to produce an agreement on the extension of the New START treaty limiting nuclear weapons. Shortly after Biden took office in January, the two sides agreed to a five-year extension, but without a roadmap for future talks.
Biden wrote in The Washington Post, anticipating his trip to Europe, that he has already made it clear to Putin that the United States wants to avoid conflict. Biden will attend a NATO summit meeting and consult with European Union officials before the Geneva session with Putin.
“We want a stable and predictable relationship in which we can work with Russia on issues such as strategic stability and arms control,” Biden wrote.
Putin said that he, too, is ready for such talks.
“Strategic stability is extremely important,” Putin told the heads of international news agencies on June 3. “We don’t want to scare anyone with our new weapons systems. Yes, we are developing them and we have achieved certain results and successes. But all the leading countries and major military powers are doing it, and we are one step ahead. “
“We realize that other high-tech powers, such as the United States and other countries, will achieve similar results sooner or later,” Putin added. “Therefore, I think it is better to agree beforehand on how we will live together in a changing world. We are prepared for this.”
Putin seemed to be alluding to what some call Russia’s exotic strategic weapons, such as the Poseidon nuclear-powered torpedo and the Burevestnik nuclear-powered experimental cruise missile. Putin has said that these can be discussed as part of a strategic stability dialogue. But Americans must be prepared to include in the discussion of their work on strategic missile defenses, which Moscow has long called an impediment to arms control.
International arms control experts want to make sure Europe has a place at the table. Some favor the restart of direct consultations between NATO and Russia, which were interrupted after Russia seized Crimea, not as an arms control forum but as a means to discuss tensions and reduce war risks.
In the past, the US, Europe and Russia shared a mutual understanding on ways to avoid accidents and miscalculations that lead to conflict.
Today, however, conflicting national interests, insufficient dialogue, the erosion of arms control agreements, advanced missile systems, and new cyber and hypersonic weapons have destabilized the old balance and are increasing the risk of conflict. nuclear, “the US, European and Russian members of the Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group wrote in a statement last Monday urging more attention to arms control.
In a separate appeal to Putin and Biden, a group of Russian and American organizations, nuclear policy experts and former senior government officials called for resuming a strategic dialogue “that is regular, frequent, comprehensive and results-oriented leading to further reduction from nuclear risk hanging over the world and to the rediscovery of the path to a world free of nuclear weapons. “
Associated Press journalist Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.