At a low point in U.S.-Russian relations, President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin appear to agree broadly on at least one thing — their first face-to-face meeting Wednesday is a chance to set the stage for a new era in arms control.
Whether that leads to actual arms negotiations is another matter, complicated by the soured relationship and accusations by each country that the other has cheated on past arms treaties. The fabric of arms control has been fraying, notably with the abandonment in 2019 — first by Washington, then by Moscow — of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which had governed a whole 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 facilities in both countries. Last month, the Biden administration informed the Russians that it would not reenter the treaty, and last week Putin confirmed Russia’s exit.
Biden and Putin now face choices about how and when to restart a dialogue over 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 arms control issue may get overshadowed at the Biden-Putin summit, given heightened U.S. focus on ransomware attacks, alleged Russian interference in U.S. elections, Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s border and allegations that the Kremlin was behind the SolarWinds hacking campaign.
International arms control groups are pressing the Russian and American leaders to start a push for new arms control by holding “strategic stability” talks — a series of government-to-government discussions meant to sort through the many areas of disagreement and tension on the national security front. There also are calls for such consultations to include Europe because the talks could cover a wide range of issues including cyberthreats, space operations and missile defenses, in addition to nuclear weapons.
Officials in Moscow and Washington have indicated they see value in strategic stability talks, which probably would not be an arms control negotiation but rather a series of discussions at lower levels aimed at deciding how to organize and prioritize an eventual arms control agenda.
“What we are looking to do is for the two presidents to be able to send a clear signal to their teams on questions of strategic stability so that we can make progress on 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. SOVEREIGNPH