U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed during their June summit to relaunch a bilateral strategic stability dialogue focused on “ensuring predictability,” reducing the risk of nuclear war, and setting the stage “for future arms control and risk reduction measures.”
The announcement marked the first step in what could be a long, contentious process to make further progress on nuclear arms control after over a decade of deadlock and before the last remaining arms control agreement between the world’s two largest nuclear powers expires in five years.
In a joint statement on strategic stability released following their June 16 meeting, Biden and Putin said the strategic stability dialogue would be “integrated,” “deliberate,” and “robust.”
The two presidents also reaffirmed the 1985 statement by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Biden said at a news conference after the summit that the dialogue would “work on a mechanism that can lead to control of new and dangerous and sophisticated weapons that are coming on the scene now that reduce the times of response, that raise the prospects of accidental war.” He did not detail what specific weapons systems he has in mind.
Biden said that “we’ll find out within the next six months to a year whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue that matters.”
The date and location of the dialogue is not yet set but will soon be determined by officials at the U.S. State Department and Russian Foreign Ministry, Putin noted during his post-summit news conference.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said June 22 at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference that Moscow has proposed to Washington “as a first step a joint review of each other’s security concerns.” The next step, he continued, would be to “outline possible ways how to address these concerns,” with the goal being an agreed framework that “will be instrumental for further engagement in actual negotiations on eventual, practical agreements and arrangements.”
A strategic stability dialogue was last held in August 2020 under the Trump administration in the lead up to the expiration of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in February. But two days before the treaty’s expiration, Biden and Putin agreed to extend New START by five years until 2026.
Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) welcomed the news of the dialogue’s resumption. “President Biden made clear his administration understands the critical principle that we have to engage with Russia on arms control issues to ensure a nuclear war never happens,” he said in a June 16 statement.
The ranking member on the committee, Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), however, expressed his disappointment in the outcome of the summit, stating that “Biden made no efforts to address Russia’s Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty violations.” The U.S. withdrew from the 1987 INF Treaty in 2019, claiming that Russia had violated the treaty by testing and deploying a banned missile system.
Dozens of international nuclear policy experts and former senior government officials had who had, before the summit, encouraged the two presidents to reaffirm the Reagan-Gorbachev principle and announce the resumption of a strategic stability dialogue, welcomed the outcome.
In the communiqué released after the June 14 summit involving leaders of the member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization also expressed “their strong support for its [New START’s] continued implementation and for early and active dialogue on ways to improve strategic stability. Allies will welcome new strategic talks between the United States and Russia on future arms control measures, taking into account all Allies’ security.” —KINGSTON REIF, SHANNON BUGOS, and HOLLIS RAMMER
U.S., Russia Outline Differing Priorities for Dialogue
The United States and Russia, not surprisingly, appear to have different priorities for discussion in the upcoming strategic stability dialogue.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said June 10 that the Biden administration will aim to discuss “the very complex set of nuclear arms issues that face our two countries,” such as what may come after New START, “how do we deal with the fact that the INF Treaty is no more, [and] how do we deal with our concerns about Russia’s new nuclear systems.” Washington has also previously expressed its desire to address Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons and bring China into the arms control process.
Sullivan added that “whether additional elements get added to strategic stability talks in the realm of space or cyber or other areas, that’s something to be determined as we go forward.”
As for Russia, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said June 9 that “anything that affects strategic stability must be discussed during a dialogue,” including “nuclear and non-nuclear, and offensive and defensive weapons.” Russia additionally has suggested the inclusion of not only China in arms control but also France and the United Kingdom.
Ryabkov added June 22 that “The parties may decide to adopt a package of interrelated arrangements and/or agreements that might have a different status if necessary. Moreover, it might be possible to design some elements in a way to make the room for others to join.”
“China welcomes the agreement reached between the U.S. and Russia on engaging in a bilateral dialogue on strategic stability,” commented Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian June 17. “China always actively supports international efforts in nuclear arms control and will continue to hold discussions on a broad range of issues bearing on strategic stability with relevant parties within such frameworks as the cooperation mechanism of the five nuclear weapon states, Conference on Disarmament, and the UNGA [United Nations General Assembly] First Committee.”
“We also stand ready to have bilateral dialogue with relevant sides with mutual respect and on an equal footing,” he added.
A few days earlier, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had also called for the five nuclear weapon states to reaffirm the Reagan-Gorbachev principle.
During a round of the strategic stability dialogue in June 2020, the United States and Russia agreed to form three working groups, which met in July of that year. A U.S. official at the time said that the topics for the working groups were nuclear warheads and doctrine; verification; and space systems.
Whether those groups have continued their work since then is unclear.
The strategic stability dialogue would be separate from any future negotiations on a potential arms control agreement to follow New START, but it could help set the foundation for those formal follow-on talks.
Rose Gottemoeller, chief U.S. negotiator of New START, emphasized in a June 14 Politico op-ed that the goal for the strategic stability dialogue should be “a good discussion rather than a treaty, although over time the two sides may agree to some measures to build mutual understanding, confidence and predictability.”
Regarding future negotiations on a replacement for New START, Gottemoeller urged Biden and Putin to “issue clear, simple guidance about what exactly the new treaty will cover and when it should be completed.”
NATO Reiterates Rejection of Deploying Ground-Based Nuclear Missiles
Leaders of the 30 member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expressed their intent not to field ground-based nuclear missiles in Europe, repeated its rejection of Russia’s proposal for a moratorium on missiles formerly banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and emphasized their support for further arms control measures between the United States and Russia during their June 14 summit in Brussels.
“All leaders agreed that, in an age of global competition, Europe and North America must stand strong together in NATO to defend our values and our interests,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the conclusion of the meeting, “especially at a time when authoritarian regimes like Russia and China challenge the rules-based order.”
The communiqué issued following the summit condemned “Russia’s aggressive actions [which] constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security” and said NATO “remains clear-eyed about the challenges Russia poses.” The document specifically lodged concern with Russia’s arsenal of nonstrategic nuclear weapons and deployment of the 9M729, a ground-launched cruise missile that the alliance says violated the INF Treaty.
In addition, NATO leaders reiterated that the alliance has “no intention to deploy land-based nuclear missiles in Europe.” Stoltenberg has repeatedly made this stance clear over the years, including in June 2019 when he said that NATO has “no intention to deploy new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe. We will not mirror what Russia does. We do not want a new arms race.”
The communiqué also repeated NATO’s stance that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal of a moratorium on missiles formerly banned by the INF Treaty is “not credible and not acceptable.” Putin first put the proposal forward following the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty in 2019, and NATO rejected it at the time. Moscow has since expanded the proposal to include mutual verification measures focused on Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense systems deployed at NATO bases in Europe and on Russian military facilities in Kaliningrad.
NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu told Defense News June 12 that Putin’s proposal “disregards the reality on the ground” as Russia has deployed the 9M729 which violated the INF Treaty and led to its demise. “Unless and until Russia verifiably destroys the [9M729] system, this moratorium is not a real offer.”
Lavrov said June 9 that “we will certainly bring this up at the Geneva summit on June 16,” referring to the moratorium proposal, but the joint statement from the two presidents following the meeting did not comment on whether it was discussed.
Russia to Withdraw from Open Skies Treaty
Russia announced, following President Vladimir Putin’s endorsement in June, that it will officially withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty in December. The news came on the heels of the Biden administration’s decision that the United States would not seek to rejoin the accord. While some remaining states-parties have since expressed an intent to maintain the treaty, Russia’s impending exit has sparked concern that the accord may largely lose its rationale.
Russia submitted notice of its withdrawal to the treaty depositories, Canada and Hungary, June 18, which kickstarted the six-month waiting period before the withdrawal officially takes place. Belarus will also withdraw from the accord alongside Russia, the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed, as the two countries are paired as a group of states-parties.
The U.S. withdrawal from the treaty in November 2020 “seriously upset the balance of interests of states parties to the Treaty that was attained during its signing,” stated the Kremlin in a June 7 statement that announced Putin’s signature of the Russian law denouncing the treaty. “This seriously hampered the Treaty’s implementation and undermined its significance for strengthening trust and transparency and also threatened the national security of the Russian Federation.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov emphasized June 10 that “There is no turning back, the chapter of Russia’s participation in the Open Skies Treaty is closed forever.” Until then, he had consistently insisted that Moscow communicated to Washington that the treaty could still be preserved.
“We continue to aspire to a constructive relationship with Russia, when Russia’s actions make that possible,” said NATO in a June 18 statement. “We urge Russia to use the remaining six months before its withdrawal takes effect to reconsider its decision and return to full compliance with the Treaty on Open Skies.”
Moscow began the domestic procedures necessary to withdraw from the accord in January. The State Duma (Russia’s lower house of parliament) approved the formal legislation endorsing the move May 19, followed by the Federation Council (the upper house) June 2. Russia last year sought written guarantees from the remaining states-parties that they would neither continue to share data collected under the treaty with the United States nor prohibit overflights of U.S. bases in Europe. But states-parties dismissed the request, which Moscow has said contributed to its decision to withdraw.
Putin’s signing of the law came after the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman informed Ryabkov May 27 that the Biden administration determined the United States would not seek to return to the treaty. The Russian Foreign Ministry denounced the decision as “yet another crude political mistake” in a May 28 statement.
President-elect Joe Biden condemned the Trump administration’s announcement in May 2020 of its intent to withdraw the United States from the accord, but he stopped short of committing to reenter the agreement. His administration opened a review of “matters related to the treaty” upon taking office and held consultations with U.S. allies and partners earlier this year.
A State Department spokesperson attributed the administration’s decision in May to “Russia’s failure to take any actions to return to compliance” with the treaty. Washington has raised concerns that Moscow is in violation of the treaty because it has limited the distance for observation flights over the Kaliningrad region to no more than 500 kilometers from the border and prohibited missions over Russia from flying within 10 kilometers of its border with the conflicted Georgian border regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia has denied all alleged violations, condemning them as “fallacies.”
As a sign of the dwindling chances that Washington would seek to rejoin the treaty, reports emerged in April that the U.S. Air Force planned to retire the two Boeing OC-135B aircraft used to conduct Open Skies overflight missions. The first was officially sent to the scrapyard in Arizona in May, followed by the second in June.
Alexander Graef, a researcher at the Institute for Peace, Research, and Security Policy, suggested June 7 that “if Ukraine remains committed to the Treaty, there is a good chance that the State Parties can save it for now.” In 2014, six states-parties, including the United States, used the treaty to conduct an overflight of eastern Ukraine following a Russian attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea and as Kyiv said Russia was increasing its forces near the Ukrainian border.
Nevertheless, Graef said, for the remaining states-parties, “it is true that…the Treaty loses its rationale” without Russia.
Entering into force in 2002, the Open Skies Treaty aims to increase confidence in and transparency of military activities by permitting each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data. Following the withdrawal of Russia and Belarus in December, there will be 31 states-parties remaining.
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