U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Watch, March 13, 2020

Trump Officials Remain Bullish on Trilateral Arms Control and Bearish on New START

President Donald Trump said recently that he is open to meeting with the other heads of state of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to discuss arms control and will soon put forward a trilateral arms control proposal with Russia and China. But China continues to express its opposition to trilateral talks and has yet to respond to U.S. overtures to begin a bilateral strategic security dialogue.

At the same time, the U.S. administration continues to deflect questions about its stance on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is due to expire in 2021.

Trump told reporters Feb. 29 that Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France “all want to now discuss arms control” and that the leaders of those countries will likely discuss the subject at the UN General Assembly in New York in September.

Russian President Vladimir Putin first proposed the idea of a P5 summit earlier this year to discuss a broad range of security topics, including arms control. “We have discussed this with several of our colleagues and, as far as I know, have received a generally positive response to holding a meeting of the heads of state of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council,” Putin stated during a late-January trip to Israel.

In a March 5 statement commemorating the 50th anniversary of the entry into force of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), President Trump said he “will be proposing a bold new trilateral arms control initiative with Russia and China to help avoid an expensive arms race and instead work together to build a better, safer, and more prosperous future for all.” Trump said a trilateral approach is needed because “[o]ver the next decade, China seeks to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile while Russia is developing expensive and destabilizing new types of delivery systems.” He first proposed a trilateral approach to arms control nearly a year ago.

Neither the president nor other officials have provided a timeline for when the administration would release a proposal.

Nevertheless, a senior state department official told reporters March 9 that “we’re optimistic that it will be possible to engage both with Russia and with China, and to bring those bilateral engagements forward into a trilateral engagement that will ultimately result in the kind of agreement that President Trump has tasked us with trying to come to.”

“So we are cautiously optimistic, and hope very much to be engaged with both, not just one, of those two parties in the very near future,” the official added.

In an interview with Arms Control Today Feb. 5, Amb. Jeffrey Eberhardt, special representative of the president for nuclear nonproliferation, said that “a new signed, sealed, delivered agreement” with China is “not possible” by 2021. But he argued that “it is possible to have a negotiation underway or agreed to by then.”

China, however, continues to say that it is not interested in a trilateral approach. “China has repeatedly reiterated that it has no intention of participating in the so-called trilateral arms control negotiations with the U.S. and Russia,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said March 6.

In addition to pursuing trilateral talks with Russia and China, Christopher Ford, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, invited China in December to begin a bilateral strategic security dialogue.

Director-General of the Department of Arms Control of China’s Foreign Ministry Fu Cong said Feb. 12 that Beijing would answer Ford’s proposal “soon,” but Beijing has yet to do so. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said March 6 that “China is always open to bilateral exchange with the U.S. in the field of strategic security.”—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, and SHANNON BUGOS, research assistant


Washington’s Stance on Treaty Remains Murky

The Trump administration’s continued pursuit of a trilateral arms control discussion comes as the clock continues to tick toward the February 2021 expiration of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)—unless the United States and Russia exercise the option to extend the agreement by up to five years.

The Trump administration has yet to make its decision regarding the future of the accord. The senior state department official said the administration is evaluating a decision on an extension in the context of whether prolonging New START aids or sets back the pursuit of limits on additional types of Russian nuclear weapons not covered by the treaty and bringing China into the arms control process.

“We are not forecasting what that answer is,” the official said.

The official would not comment on what the administration’s specific goals are for trilateral arms control or whether the administration would consider extending New START to buy additional time to engage China.

The official added that there remains plenty of time to extend the treaty before it expires and that an extension could be quickly accomplished with “nothing more than an exchange of diplomatic notes.”

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Feb. 19 that should the United States “proceed with New START,” then “we [must] capture the new Russian strategic weapons. I also believe that the Russians should bring underneath that treaty the nonstrategic nuclear weapons. And then, of course, the Chinese.”

Moscow has expressed its readiness to extend New START immediately and without any preconditions, but warned that time is running out and any proposal to include Russian weapons not covered by the treaty would require an amendment to the agreement.

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, commented March 4 that, “An extension will require quite a lengthy period of time in order to fulfill all relevant requirements at national level, at least in Russia.”

Vladimir Leontyev, deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control, said in February that the United States rejected a proposal from Russia to hold “a lawyers’ meeting to…work out an understanding of the technical aspect of the extension process.”

“No follow-up agreement is in sight, and it is clear that there is no chance of producing anything meaningful over the time left” before the treaty expires, Leontyev noted.

Russia has also maintained that it “will not try to convince China” to join trilateral talks, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “If the Americans are quite sure that it makes no sense to take any further steps on the New START…without China, let them get down to business on this all on their own,” he said Feb. 10. “Even if a multilateral process gets under way, it will be utterly protracted,” and “we ought to have a safety net in an extended New START.”

“We have told the Americans as much,” he said. “They are still silent.”

A reported hindrance to the U.S. effort to negotiate a more comprehensive replacement for New START has been the Trump administration’s inability to find a lead negotiator for the undertaking. Politico reported Feb. 12 that the administration has offered the role to several potential candidates, but struggled to find someone to take it. The Guardian reported March 4 that the White House has chosen Marshall Billingslea, current assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department and former Bush administration official, for the role.

New START caps U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads, 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers, and 800 deployed and nondeployed missile launchers and bombers each. It also put into place a rigorous inspection and verification regime, on which the U.S. military relies for knowledge about the Russian arsenal.

International Support for New START Grows

Calls from key foreign leaders and former officials to extend New START have intensified amid the administration’s continued indecision on the future of the accord.

“It is critical that the New START treaty be extended beyond 2021,” said French President Emmanuel Macron in a Feb. 7 speech on defense and deterrence. The uncertainty regarding the treaty’s future, he said, contributes to “the possibility of a return of pure unhindered military and nuclear competition by 2021.” Macron joined other U.S. allies, such as Finland, Germany, and the United Kingdom, in endorsing the treaty’s extension.

The Aspen Ministers Forum, a group of former foreign ministers from around the world, released a statement Feb. 10 also supporting prolonging the treaty. “Extending New START would lay solid groundwork and build momentum toward increased international cooperation in the new decade,” they stated.

During a meeting of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva Feb. 24, Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Ann Linde called for Washington and Moscow to agree to extend New START. “This treaty is a crucial component of global security and would provide a key scene setter for the Review Conference,” she said.

In addition, the Stockholm Initiative, a group of 15 ministers from around the world, met in Berlin Feb. 25 for a meeting led by Linde and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. They released a statement that included a list of “stepping stones” for “advancing nuclear disarmament.” One such stepping stone, they said, is for the United States and Russia to extend New START and “engage in talks on its possible expansion.”

New START a Focus at Congressional Hearings

Admiral Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), told the Senate Armed Services Committee Feb. 13 that the “New START treaty has been valuable to this nation and to my command.” Richard, however, expressed concern that the treaty does not cover all types of Russian nuclear weapons and only includes two states.

“Ultimately a decision to extend the treaty is a political decision,” he said. “I do provide best military advice down the lines of what I just offered to my department to contribute to that.”

On China, Adm. Richard told the House Armed Services Committee Feb. 27 that he “would love to convince China of the benefits of arms control in general, forget the numbers…I would like to encourage China to understand the benefit of arms control, mutual confidence-building measures, transparency, avoiding miscalculation. That's what I would like to see added to the table.”

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette told the House Committee on Appropriations that same day that the administration has “not yet begun the conversations on New START, but I fully expect that they will start soon.”

Senators Urge New START Extension

Five Democratic senators wrote to Esper Feb. 19 expressing concern about the recent deployment of a new low-yield nuclear warhead for U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles and called for extending New START.

The senators included Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

“It is inconsistent for the United States to begin fielding new nuclear weapons while we urge other countries not to do so,” they wrote. “We should be focusing on diplomatic solutions, and we ask that you urge President Trump to extend New START before it expires next year in order to begin negotiating a successor treaty that addresses U.S. security needs.”

The senators asked that Esper respond specifically to five questions, including whether the Defense Department aims to remain compliant with New START limits in fiscal years 2022 and 2023.


Russia Continues Pushing for INF-Range Moratorium

Only France and Italy have acknowledged President Putin’s proposal for a moratorium on the deployment of ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles previously prohibited by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Russia’s Foreign Minister said last month.

Most countries who received the proposal “have not given concrete responses yet,” Lavrov said Feb. 18. “President of France Emmanuel Macron was the only exception.”

“I noted with satisfaction that several days ago Foreign Minister of Italy Luigi Di Maio also said in an interview that Italy saw no reason to decline President Putin’s invitation for a dialogue,” he added.

Though not mentioning Putin’s proposal specifically, Macron addressed the post-INF Treaty situation during his Feb. 7 speech on defense and deterrence. He argued that the end of the INF Treaty symbolized the “disintegration” of “the whole security architecture in Europe.”

“Europeans must collectively realize today that without a legal framework, they could quickly find themselves at risk of another conventional and even nuclear arms race on their soil,” he said.

Following the demise of the INF Treaty in August 2019, Putin proposed a moratorium on deploying ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles once banned by the treaty. NATO officially rejected the proposal in September.

Signed in 1987, the INF Treaty led to the elimination of 2,692 U.S. and Soviet Union nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.


Future of U.S. Open Skies Participation Still to Be Determined

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Congress in March that he is halting funding to replace the Pentagon’s aging aircraft used for flights under the Open Skies Treaty until the administration makes a final decision regarding the future of U.S. participation in the treaty.

“So far, no formal final decision has been made. In due course, we will be getting together to do that, to decide the best path forward for our nation,” said Esper at a press briefing Feb. 20.

Esper also commented that “the Russians have been noncompliant with the treaty for years,” referring to Russia’s restriction of observation flights over Kaliningrad to no more than 500 kilometers and within a 10-kilometer corridor along Russia’s border with the Georgian border-conflict regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The United States has responded by restricting flights over the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii and the missile defense interceptor fields in Fort Greely, Alaska.

Esper said during a March 4 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that “until we make a final decision on the path forward, I am not prepared to recapitalize aircraft.”

“I want to make sure we understand what the direction is,” he said. “I would note that many of our allies that are in the Open Skies Treaty…have the means to conduct the overflights. We still have the means to conduct the overflights…But at this time we’re holding until we get better direction.”

The United States maintains two Boeing OC-135B aircraft based at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska for treaty overflight missions. Congress appropriated $41.5 million last year to continue replacement efforts for these aircraft. The Air Force was planning to seek $76 million in fiscal year 2021 to continue the replacement, but the final request published in February did not include any ask for funding.

In a statement to Defense News reacting to the decision to halt the funding, Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said, “By not recapitalizing the Open Skies aircraft, we are adding risk to our aircrews.”

Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Feb. 28 opposing a potential withdrawal of the United States from the Open Skies Treaty.

“If this administration moves forward with a precipitous unilateral withdrawal from the Treaty the United States will be less safe and secure,” they wrote.

However, Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) sent a letter to President Trump March 12, in which they argued against keeping the United States in the treaty.

"It is well past time to withdraw," they wrote, citing concern about the costs of the OC-135B replacement efforts and suggesting that the United States receives few benefits from the accord.

Meanwhile, Director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency Vayl Oxford commented Feb. 11 before the House Armed Services Committee that the United States has had “a lot of consultation with our treaty partners,” who view Open Skies as “very valuable.”

Oxford also said that, “If we fly all the missions currently planned this year, it’d be the busiest Open Skies season ever.”

U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe James Gilmore March 2 described the most recent mission that took place over Kaliningrad as “very cooperative.”

Russia’s imposition of a distance limit on treaty flights over Kaliningrad, as well as prohibitions on flights over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has prompted the United States to charge Russia with breaching the agreement.

Gilmore also noted that “the reports that we’ve had are that some of their reluctance to let us fly over one of their major exercises, they’re saying they’re not going to do that, they’re not going to make that objection anymore.”

“However, we don’t believe that that’s good enough,” he noted. “We think that we have to be holding the Russians strictly to account on the Open Skies Treaty.”

Signed in 1992, the Open Skies Treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed, observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities. The treaty entered into force in January 2002 and currently has 34 states-parties, including the United States and Russia. Since 2002, there have been nearly 200 U.S. overflights of Russia and about 70 overflights conducted by Russia over the United States.

Leaders Respond to Russian P5 Summit Proposal

Russia has received a positive reaction to President Putin’s proposal to hold a summit on international security with the leaders of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

“We can hold it in any country, in any place that our colleagues would find convenient. Russia is ready for such a serious discussion,” Putin said in January.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Feb. 14 this summit could be held in September on the margins of the high-level UN week in New York.

A senior Trump administration official said Feb. 28, “The United States will use this opportunity to bring both Russia and China into the international arms control framework and head off a costly arms race.”

Though China has spoken favorably about the idea of a five-power summit, it is not clear if Beijing has accepted Putin’s invitation. “China supports Russia's proposal to hold the P5 summit and stands ready to stay in communication and coordination with Russia and other permanent members of the Security Council,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying Jan. 24.

In an interview March 5, Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov stated that “the five countries will have to do some serious preliminary work” ahead of the summit.

“The initial proposal made by President of the Russian Federation, who initiated the idea in the first place, provided for holding discussions on a very broad range of matters. Arms control issues, even though they are extremely important, cannot overshadow everything else,” Ryabkov said.

P5 Discuss Arms Control in London

Officials representing the five permanent members of the UN Security Council discussed a range of arms control issues during a Feb. 11–12 meeting in London in advance of this year’s NPT review conference scheduled to begin in April. They were joined by participants from 16 non-nuclear-weapon states to address topics such as nuclear transparency, disarmament, and verification.

Thomas Drew, a senior UK Foreign Office official, chaired the conference. Ford led the U.S. delegation, while Leontyev represented Russia and Fu Cong represented China. David Bertolotti, director of strategic affairs, security, and disarmament in the French Foreign Ministry, represented France.

Fu said the nuclear-weapon states are “responsible for strengthening coordination and cooperation and ensuring the success” of the NPT review conference, according to a Feb. 14 statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

He also commented on efforts by the Trump administration to engage Beijing in arms control talks with the United States and Russia. “It is neither fair nor reasonable to encourage the Chinese side to join trilateral arms control negotiations,” he said.

The United States nevertheless continued to press for Chinese participation. “Beijing poses a serious threat to strategic security given the trajectory of its nuclear build-up,” said Robert Wood, U.S. permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament, in a Feb. 19 tweet about the meeting.

Russia Denounces U.S. Deployment of New Low-Yield Warhead

Russia criticized the Pentagon’s announcement in February that the U.S. Navy has for the first time begun fielding a low-yield nuclear warhead (the W76-2) on some of its submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

The decision “reflects the fact that the United States is actually lowering the nuclear threshold and that they are conceding the possibility of them waging a limited nuclear war and winning this war. This is extremely alarming,” said Ryabkov Feb. 5.

A Defense Department spokesperson countered that Russia possesses approximately 2,000 nonstrategic nuclear warheads, none of which are limited by any current arms control treaties.

"If Russia believes the W76-2 lowers the threshold for nuclear use, then it must explain why its own non-strategic, low-yield nuclear weapons don't likewise increase the likelihood of a conflict going nuclear," the spokesperson told Newsweek March 6.

"It is more likely that Russia recognizes the W76-2 deployment as a demonstration of U.S. resolve, thereby contributing to deterrence of any nuclear attack."

During a Feb. 21 background briefing, senior officials from the Defense Department said the W76-2 is “a very reasonable response to what we saw was a Russian nuclear doctrine and nuclear capability that suggested to us that they might use nuclear weapons in a limited way,” stated one official.

The officials also said that while visiting U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska in mid-February, Esper participated in a military exercise that simulated a “limited” nuclear exchange with Russia, which “struck a target in Europe.” The officials did not say whether the secretary employed the new warhead but added that “we simulated responding with a nuclear weapon.”

The W76-2 was first proposed in the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review report. The report stated the weapon would “ensure a prompt response option that is able to penetrate adversary defenses” and “help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities.” The report argued that the low-yield warhead would counter Russia’s alleged “escalate-to-deescalate” strategy of threatening to employ tactical nuclear weapons in a conventional confrontation so as to deter further aggression and deescalate the conflict “on terms favorable to Russia.” Moscow denies having this strategy.



March 5 50th Anniversary of the entry into force of the Nonproliferation Treaty
March 24-25 G-7 Foreign Ministers Meeting (via teleconference)
April 8 10th Anniversary of New START’s signing
April 27 – May 22 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, New York, NY
May 11 25th anniversary of NPT’s indefinite extension
June 10-12 46th G-7 Summit, Camp David