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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
U.S.-Russian Arms Control Working Groups Meet
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U.S.-Russian Arms Control Working Groups Meet

Delegations representing the United States and Russia met in Vienna from July 27-30 for four days of talks on space security and nuclear arms control amid the Trump administration’s continued push for an unprecedented new trilateral arms control deal and uncertainty about the fate of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

The four days of meetings marked the most sustained period of dialogue on arms control issues between professional experts from the two sides since the Trump administration took office. But few details have emerged about what transpired at the talks, whether progress toward negotiations on a new arms control agreement was made, who participated, and when the two sides might meet again.

The two countries met in Vienna for working group meetings on three subjects: space; nuclear doctrines and warheads; and transparency and verification. Unnamed officials from the Departments of Energy, State, and Defense, plus the National Security Council made up the U.S. delegation.

President Trump July 30 characterized the talks as “formal negotiations with Russia on arms control.” But the working group meetings, as well as a June meeting between U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, would be more accurately described as the continuation of a long-standing, on-again, off-again, less concrete dialogue on strategic security.

National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said in an Aug. 2 The Washington Post op-ed that, “In June, the United States commenced talks with Russia on the New START accord.” He added that “President Trump and President Vladimir Putin had a cordial call July 23 during which both leaders pledged their best efforts to extend New START and make it even better.”

The Trump administration remains officially undecided about whether to extend the treaty, the sole remaining arms control agreement limiting the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Billingslea has conditioned an extension on making progress toward a new trilateral arms control agreement that has strong verification measures, covers all nuclear warheads, and involves China.

A White House readout released after the Trump-Putin call did not mention New START.

New START caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each. The treaty expires Feb. 5, 2021, unless Trump and Putin agree to extend it by up to five years. Russia has repeatedly stated that it is ready to extend the treaty without any preconditions and warned that there is not enough time to negotiate a new agreement to replace New START before next February.

The first day of talks in Vienna focused on space security. The talks reportedly lasted for 13 hours.

The State Department released a statement after the space dialogue, saying that “the two sides exchanged views on current and future space threats, policies, strategies, and doctrine, and discussed a forward-looking agenda to promote safe, professional, and sustainable activities in space.”

But the Trump administration to date has not commented on the final three days of talks on arms control issues.

A July 30 statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry said that “a meeting of interdepartmental delegations of Russia and the United States took place in the framework of a bilateral strategic dialogue in the format of successive expert working groups on space security, doctrines and potentials, transparency and verification.”

The statement noted that “the experts discussed the respective doctrinal guidelines of the parties, conducted a detailed review of their approaches to arms control in the context of factors affecting strategic stability, with a particular focus on the impending expiration of the [New] START Treaty, and exchanged views on the topic of transparency and verification.”

“The parties agreed to maintain contacts on all these issues,” the statement concluded.

Billingslea in June pinned a potential second meeting with Ryabkov on “sufficient progress” in the working group meetings.

Meanwhile, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford invited Ryabkov July 9 for a round of the U.S.-Russian strategic security dialogue. The two last met in January in Vienna. Whether Russia has accepted the invitation or whether a date for the dialogue has been set is unknown.—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, and SHANNON BUGOS, research assistant


China Willing to Join Talks if U.S. Reduces Arsenal

China would consider participating in arms control talks with the United States and Russia if Washington reduces its nuclear arsenal to Beijing’s level, a proposal that is undoubtedly a non-starter with the Trump administration.

China’s Director General of the Department of Arms Control and Disarmament Fu Cong said July 8 that “it is unrealistic to expect China to join the two countries in a negotiation aimed at nuclear arms reduction” given the differences in sizes of nuclear arsenals. The United States and Russia are currently believed to possess about 6,000 total nuclear warheads apiece, including retired warheads, while China has roughly 300.

“I can assure you, if the U.S. says that they are ready to come down to the Chinese level, China would be happy to participate the next day,” Fu said. “But actually, we know that’s not going to happen.”

Fu also accused the United States of using Beijing’s refusal to join trilateral talks as “a ploy to divert world attention and to create a pretext under which they could walk away” from New START.

Fu added, “China stands ready to discuss all issues related to strategic stability and nuclear risk reduction in the framework of P5, i.e., among China, Russia, U.S., UK, and France.”

On July 9, the State Department released an official statement in reply to Fu’s comments.

“The United States welcomes China’s commitment to engage in arms control negotiations,” said Spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus. She recommended that China meet with each the United States and Russia on a bilateral basis as well as join the trilateral talks.

China has long refused to join trilateral arms control talks.

“I think of a Chinese idiomatic phrase that perfectly describes it: a bright person who plays dumb,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian July 10. “It is China’s clear position that we oppose so-called trilateral arms control negotiations, and the U.S. knows it only too well.”

Despite suggestions by the State Department, the remarks by Fu and from the Chinese Foreign Ministry do not reflect an evolution in the Chinese position but rather are a reiteration of Beijing’s longtime position. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in March that “We stand ready to strengthen communication and collaboration with all parties within existing frameworks such as the mechanism of five nuclear-weapon states and engage in discussions over a wide range of issues concerning global strategic stability.”

Nevertheless, the Trump administration continues to push China to join arms control talks.

“China’s nuclear expansion and its refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue will affect stability on multiple levels,” said Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Anderson in a July 29 op-ed in The New York Times.

Arms control talks “need not focus on making China part of an extended New Start agreement,” said Anderson. “But renewing the treaty for the United States and Russia without conditions for bringing China into a broader arms control process carries risks for future security, even if today it seems the easiest course to take.”

Anderson did detail what the “conditions” for China’s participation should be.

The United States has urged Russia to convince China to come to the trilateral negotiating table, but Moscow has declined to force Beijing to do so. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said July 10 that the Trump administration has not even “put on paper anything of what they said about the need for transitioning to a multilateral format.”

“Let them at least document what they have in mind,” said Lavrov.

Moscow also says that should the United States continue to insist on China’s include in arms control negotiations, then France and the United Kingdom should join as well.

“We make no secret that this is our priority,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov July 26.

Since December, Russia has said that it is willing to extend New START immediately and without any preconditions. However, Lavrov said July 10 that he is “not optimistic” about the treaty and that Moscow will not insist on an extension if the United States refuses to do so.

Trump told reporters July 30 that, regarding China, “We’ll talk about that later…China right now is a much lesser nuclear power—you understand that—than Russia.” He suggested that first, the administration would focus on arms control with Russia and then “go to China together.”

His remarks echo those he made in December and August that the United States would want an arms control agreement that would “include China at some point.”

DOD, NNSA Unprepared for New START Expiration, GAO says

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Defense Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have not considered how the potential expiration of New START may affect their nuclear modernization plans and spending.

“DOD is basing its plans on the assumption that New START will be extended, and it currently has no plans to change its force structure,” the GAO said in a July 30 report requested by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

“NNSA similarly has not considered the implications of the potential expiration of New START on the assumptions underlying its overall program of record and future-years funding projections as described in the fiscal year 2021 budget justification,” the GAO noted.

Former Military Leaders Continue to Back New START

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently became the latest former high-profile Pentagon official to express support for an extension of New START.

“I really hope that they will renew New START, both for verification purposes and because of the predictability it brings into the arms control, into the strategic arms arena,” said Gates in June.

Gates said that including China in U.S.-Russian arms control, while a good idea in theory, is not possible. “The Chinese have no incentive whatsoever to participate, and the irony is if they were to level out their military, their number of nuclear weapons, an agreement would have to authorize the Chinese to build dramatically more, far more, nuclear weapons than we think they have at the current time to get level with the United States in China,” he said.

In addition, more than 60 members of the American College of National Security Leaders released a letter July 8 calling for the extension of New START.

“Without New START, our military servicemen and women, as well as national security experts, would be forced to guess on how best to protect against Russia’s strategic capabilities,” they wrote. “Many of us know that conjecture and rumors only lead to heightened tensions and the increased chance of dangerous escalation. With the United States and Russia owning 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, there is no room for conjecture.”


Russia to Respond if U.S. Deploys INF-Range Missiles

Russia will respond immediately if the United States follows through on deploying missiles formerly banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on the first anniversary of the treaty’s demise.

“Russia cannot ignore the potential risk of additional missiles adjacent to its territory, which would be of a strategic nature for us,” according to an Aug. 3 ministry statement. “This would require an immediate response regardless of whether these are nuclear or conventional missiles.”

Following the U.S. withdrawal in Aug. 2019, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he would like to see the deployment of U.S. conventional, ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Europe and Asia, ideally as soon as possible. The United States conducted two tests of such missiles in Aug. and Dec. 2019.

In August 2019, Putin proposed a moratorium on deploying missiles once banned by the INF Treaty. NATO officially rejected the proposal in September 2019, while France and Italy acknowledged the moratorium proposal as an opportunity for dialogue.

Billingslea dismissed the idea of a moratorium during a June 24 press briefing.

“I really wouldn’t spend a lot of time thinking about or worrying about an INF moratorium because, simply put, that’s not going to happen,” said Billingslea.

When asked again recently about potentially basing ground-launched intermediate-range missiles in Australia, Esper did not dismiss the possibility.

“I think it’s important as we think forward about how do we deter bad behavior in the Indo-Pacific and how we defend the international rules-based order—in this case specifically with regard to China,” said Esper July 28.

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.


Members Discuss Open Skies Treaty After U.S. Decision to Withdraw

The remaining members of the 1992 Open Skies Treaty are moving forward with determining how the treaty will function following the likely withdrawal of the United States in November.

On July 6, the states-parties gathered for a videoconference to discuss the May announcement by the Trump administration that the United States will withdraw from the accord in November, citing issues with Russian compliance with and implementation of the treaty. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said May 21 that Washington might reconsider its decision should Russia return to compliance.

Hosted by the treaty depositories Canada and Hungary, the conference brought together 188 representatives from all 34 countries, according to a July 7 statement from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). A representative from the United States attended the meeting.

The representatives discussed “the overall impact on operational functionality of the Treaty, the impact on the allocation of observation quotas and on financial arrangements within the Treaty, and other potential effects on the Treaty,” said the OSCE statement.

After the conference, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, who led the Russian delegation, told Russian news agency TASS that “many participants in the videoconference spoke about the United States’ withdrawal in November as something foregone.” He further commented that Russia does not “view the U.S. as a partner who is able to negotiate.”

On July 8, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement alleging that the remaining states-parties “have not yet shown their willingness to assume responsibility for the treaty, to give a principled assessment of the actions of the U.S. administration, and to engage in a truly meaningful dialogue with Russia in order to resolve mutual claims.”

“Russia will continue to assess its partners’ willingness to fully comply with their obligations under the treaty and seek mutually acceptable solutions to emerging problems,” but ultimately “no scenario can…be ruled out,” said the statement.

The United States did not release a statement following the conference.

The states-parties will next convene in October, at which time flight quotas for 2021 will be determined.

Since March, flights have been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. On July 7, Oleg Bushuyev, an official from the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Department, said that during the conference, “many member states confirmed their plans to resume flights under the Open Skies Treaty as soon as lockdowns are lifted.”

On July 14, the U.S. Air Force officially cancelled the recapitalization program for the two Boeing OC-135B aircraft used for treaty overflights. Congress appropriated $41.5 million last year to continue replacement efforts for these aircraft, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper in March told Congress that he halted the funding until a decision on the future of the treaty was made.

The House Appropriations Committee included a provision in their version of the fiscal year 2021 defense appropriations bill that would rescind $158 million from fiscal years 2019 and 2020 in funding for the program and prevent it from being reprogrammed. The House passed the bill July 31.

Meanwhile, the House passed its version of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) July 21. The legislation expresses the sense of Congress that the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty did not comply with the fiscal year 2020 NDAA, which required the administration to notify Congress 120 days before announcing an intent to withdraw from the treaty.

Signed in 1992 and entered into force in 2002, 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. All imagery collected from overflights is then made available to any of the 34 states-parties.

Russia Tests Anti-Satellite Weapon, U.S. Says

U.S. Space Command alleged that “Russia conducted a non-destructive test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon” July 15, though Moscow has disputed the claim.

In a July 23 statement, Gen. John W. Raymond, commander of U.S. Space Command, said that the test “is further evidence of Russia’s continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems, and consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk.”

Space Command said a Russian satellite, Cosmos 2543, “operated in abnormally close proximity to a U.S. government satellite in low-earth orbit before it maneuvered away and over to another Russian satellite, where it released another object in proximity to the Russia target satellite. This test is inconsistent with the intended purpose of the satellite as an inspector system, as described by Russia.”

The United States has previously suggested that such an object can be used as a weapon to target other satellites.

The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the statements by the United States and the United Kingdom and said that the test had “not endangered any other space object” or “infringed on any norms and principles of international law.”

“The inspector satellite was launched to inspect a Russian satellite at close range, using special equipment for this purpose,” said the ministry. “This mission has collected valuable information about the technical maintenance status of the inspected spacecraft and transmitted it to the ground-based command system.”

This latest test comes after Space Command alleged that Russia tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile in April and two Russian satellites, Cosmos 2542 and Cosmos 2543, made maneuvers near U.S. government satellites in February.

In June, the Department of Defense released the Defense Space Strategy, which said that “China and Russia each have weaponized space as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness and challenge our freedom of operation in space.”

Ahead of the July 27 U.S.-Russia space security dialogue in Vienna, Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation and International Security Christopher Ford said that “while our efforts are aimed at finding constructive paths forward for space security, we will certainly emphasize our great concern with ongoing Russian as well as Chinese efforts to weaponize the space domain.”

Ford said that “our hope is that this meeting will allow us to explore ways to increase stability and security in outer space, as well as to advance the cause of developing norms of responsible behavior in that vital domain.” He later mentioned applying “the usual international humanitarian law or Law of Armed Conflict rules” to space and establishing “operator-to-operator engagement” as specific potential goals.

That same day, Ford also released a paper on arms control in outer space in which he urged Russia and China to “abandon your dreams of counterspace warfighting, and your unverifiable, ineffective, and disingenuous arms control proposals, and join with the United States in a new space security initiative.”

Billingslea Nomination Advanced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced Marshall Billinglsea’s nomination to be undersecretary of state for arms control and international security July 29. The committee voted in favor of the nomination on an 11-10 party-line vote, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) abstaining.

Billingslea, currently the U.S. special presidential envoy for arms control, sat before the committee July 21 for his nomination hearing.

In his opening remarks, Billingslea touted his “support for arms control that advances U.S. security, and which is both enforceable and verifiable.”

Billingslea was formerly an adviser to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), an ardent opponent of many arms control agreements.

Committee Chairman Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) asked Billingslea for his “thoughts on the fact that” the administration’s arms control efforts are “probably going to be bilateral as opposed to trilateral,” referring to the administration’s desire for a new arms control agreement with not only Russia but also China.

Billingslea responded that efforts with Russia and China “need to converge in the direction of a trilateral arms control arrangement that brings back many of the most effective verification mechanisms that we once had in the original START treaty and which also address the unconstrained warheads that Russia is now building.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) asked Billingslea about the Trump administration’s thinking on the future of New START.

Billingslea said, “We have not arrived at a decision one way or another on extension of the agreement and if so for what period of time.”

In addition to New START, Billingslea also faced questions about hypersonic weapons from Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

Billingslea said that some of the new strategic nuclear weapons Russia is developing, such as the hypersonic glide vehicle called Avangard, would be covered under New START. “But other of these weapons, I would not want to say they should be captured because we frankly don’t think these weapons should exist at all,” he said.

In his questioning, Sen. Barrasso additionally received confirmation from Billingslea that the United States would not “restrict our missile defense options” in any arms control negotiations with Russia.

Russia Continues to Plan P5 Summit

Russia still hopes to convene the leaders of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council later this year to discuss international security, including arms control.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held a call July 14 during which they “had a detailed discussion of the preparations for the meeting of the leaders of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council proposed by Russia,” according to a Russian statement.

A statement by the State Department on the call said that the two “discussed convening P5 leaders in the near future to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.”

The annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), scheduled to begin its 75th session on Sept. 15, will be virtual this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Putin first proposed the idea of a P5 summit in January. The Russian Foreign Ministry suggested in February that the summit could take place on the sidelines of UNGA.

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin also discussed the summit during a July 23 call, according to the Kremlin.

The two “noted the great importance of Russia’s initiative to hold a summit of the permanent members of the UN Security Council on a wide range of international security problems,” said the Kremlin statement.


Comparing the Senate and House Versions of the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control

Senate NDAA House NDAA
No provisions on the Open Skies Treaty. Expresses the sense of Congress that the decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies did not comply with Section 1234(a) of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act and that confidence and security-building measures remain vital to the strategic interests of our NATO allies and partners. Requires a notification upon U.S. withdrawal from the treaty that the United States has concluded agreements with states-parties who host U.S. military forces that the United States will be given sufficient notice of treaty overflights. Requires reports on the implications of U.S. withdrawal from the accord.
No provisions on New START. Fences funding for the office of the Defense Secretary in order to obtain reports on New START required in the FY2020 NDAA that are past due. Requires the Defense Secretary to provide a briefing to the House Armed Services Committee not later than September 1, 2020, on the status of nuclear arms control negotiations with Russia.
No provisions on the INF Treaty. Fences funding for the office of the Defense Secretary in order to obtain reports on the post-INF Treaty landscape required in the FY2020 NDAA that are past due.



Aug. 6 75th anniversary of Hiroshima bombing
Aug. 9 75th anniversary of Nagasaki bombing
Aug. 26 The President of the UN General Assembly will convene an event to commemorate the International Day Against Nuclear Tests in an informal, virtual format
Aug. 29 International Day against Nuclear Tests and the 71st anniversary of Russia’s first nuclear test
Sept. 15-30 United Nations General Assembly, New York City
Sept. 26 International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons
Oct. 2 The high-level event to commemorate and promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons will be held as a formal event of the UN General Assembly