Russia Open to Hearing U.S. Arms Control Proposal

Russia expressed a willingness to consider the proposal by U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in June to engage in a bilateral dialogue on nuclear risk reduction and arms control "without preconditions."

“Rather than waiting to resolve all of our bilateral differences,” said Sullivan in a June 2 address at the Arms Control Association’s annual forum in Washington, “the United States is ready to engage Russia now to manage nuclear risks and develop a post-2026 arms control framework.” The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last remaining U.S.-Russian arms control agreement, expires in 2026.

On June 5, Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, described Sullivan’s remarks as “important and positive,” noting that “we are expecting it to be supported with steps that will be made de facto through diplomatic channels.”

Nevertheless, in a June 16 address, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed ongoing resistance to talks on tactical nuclear weapons. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov reiterated in a June 21 prepared address Russia’s position that unless “Washington and the West as a whole do not radically revise their aggressive anti-Russian policy…productive negotiations on arms control will hardly be possible.”

However, suggesting some room for discussion, Ryabkov noted June 8 that, once Washington sends an official diplomatic proposal to Moscow, “we will consider it.”

Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden acknowledged June 17 his ongoing worry that Putin might employ tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The possibility is “real,” he said.

Russia and Belarus claimed in June that the transfer of Russian tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus has begun. (See below for more information.) Moscow launched part of its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 from neighboring Belarus.

Yet, the United States and NATO both reiterated assurances in mid-June that they continue to monitor Russia’s behavior and that neither see a reason to adjust their respective nuclear postures in response.

“We don’t see any indications that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon,” Blinken emphasized. In May, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testified to Congress that “it is very unlikely” that Russia will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. —SHANNON BUGOS, senior policy analyst

New START Stands on Increasingly Shaky Ground

The United States announced in early June “lawful,” “proportionate,” and “reversible” countermeasures to Russia’s ongoing violations of New START, which Moscow claimed to suspend in February.

Washington and Moscow continue to adhere to the central limits on strategic nuclear forces imposed by New START, which caps U.S. and Russian arsenals at 1,550 strategic warheads deployed on 700 delivery vehicles.

“It is in neither of our countries’ interests to embark on an open-ended competition in strategic nuclear forces—and we’re prepared to stick to the central limits as long as Russia does,” noted Sullivan June 2.

In addition, the United States and Russia will continue to notify Russia ahead of ballistic missile launches and major nuclear exercises under ongoing 1988 and 1989 agreements. Recent ballistic missile tests by both countries demonstrate the importance of such notifications.

In April, Russia conducted a successful test of what the Russian Defense Ministry described as an “advanced” ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from the Kapustin Yar test site. A week later, the United States tested a Minuteman III ICBM equipped with a reentry vehicle at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

Washington will also keep up with the “public release of U.S. aggregate data corresponding to the New START Treaty central limits” twice a year, the last of which occurred in March, but cut out the more detailed, comprehensive data that is usually part of the exchange, according to a June 1 fact sheet by the State Department.

As of June 1, the Biden administration has also suspended day-to-day notifications, prohibited on-site inspections on U.S. territory, and committed to withholding telemetric information on ballistic missile launches. The daily, rolling notifications, of which more than 25,000 have been exchanged since the treaty entered into force, include those on the status and the location of treaty-accountable items.

“These steps will help guarantee that Russia does not receive benefits from a treaty they refuse to abide by, and that the principle of reciprocity—a key tenet of strategic arms control—is upheld,” explained Sullivan. “It will also demonstrate to Russia the benefits of returning to full compliance” with New START.

Russia has suspended the majority of treaty activities under its suspension, a move not actually allowed for by New START. Moscow stated in May that the suspension “may be reversible.”

“For this, the United States must show political will and abandon its aggressive policy of undermining the security of our country, taking practical steps towards a real de-escalation,” said the Russian Foreign Ministry.

New START faces additional challenges in the U.S. Congress, with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introducing legislation May 18 that would require the United States to withdraw from New START. The bill would also call for the United States to increase the size of its nuclear arsenal and stipulate that any potential future arms control treaty must include the United States, Russia, and China and cover all Russian nuclear weapons, including tactical weapons.

U.S. and Russian Implementation Status of New START
Treaty Activity
United States
Central limitsYesYes
On-site inspectionsNoNo
Biannual data exchanges on the deployed strategic warhead numbers deployed and the numbers of strategic delivery vehiclesYes, but will release aggregate numbers onlyNo
Daily notifications on the status, basing, or facility assignment of all strategic delivery vehicles and launchersNoNo
Telemetric informationNoNo
Ballistic missile launch notificationsYes, under 1988 agreementYes, under 1988 agreement
Nuclear exercise notificationsYes, under 1989 agreementYes, under 1989 agreement
Bilateral Consultative CommissionYes, as will hold a session if Russia agrees to do soNo

U.S. Outlines New Arms Control Strategy

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan outlined the Biden administration’s new strategy to reducing the risk of nuclear conflict and advancing arms control measures in his June 2 address.

The strategy consists of three new approaches for “this changing nuclear age,” Sullivan said, which include:

  1. Engaging Russia and China in bilateral arms control discussions without preconditions.

    On this point, Sullivan lamented the lack of willingness from Beijing to engage and stated that the size of and the capabilities in China’s nuclear arsenal will influence any potential limits on the U.S. nuclear arsenal in a new arms control arrangement with Russia after 2026.

    At the same time, “the United States does not need to increase our nuclear forces to outnumber the combined total of our competitors in order to successfully deter them,” he stated.
  2. Engaging in multilateral arms control and risk reduction efforts.

    Sullivan specified that this work could be undertaken in the P5 Process, which includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The P5 last met in Cairo, Egypt, in mid-June at the “experts” level.

    He proposed as an initial step that the five nuclear-armed countries undertake the “straightforward” and “common-sense” step of formalizing a missile launch notification regime.
  3. Helping to “set the norms and shore up the values of the new nuclear era.”

Sullivan’s address marked a notable shift by the United States from encouraging Russia to return to compliance with New START to instead focusing on launching talks with Russia on a future arms control arrangement to follow New START.

Russian Tactical Nuclear Weapons Enter Belarus, Moscow Says

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced June 16 that the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus has begun, though experts have expressed skepticism over the assertion.

“The first nuclear warheads have been delivered to Belarus, but only the first batch,” said Putin. “By the end of the summer, by the end of this year, we will complete this work."

Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko warned June 13 that “there will be no hesitation [to use these weapons] in the event of an aggression against us,” but added that he would “coordinate launching a strike” with Putin beforehand.

Pavel Podvig, a senior researcher at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, tweeted June 10 that he remains “skeptical about the prospects of nuclear weapons being physically transferred to Belarus (though cannot rule it out).”

Russia and Belarus first struck the deal to transfer Russian tactical nuclear weapons in June 2022 and formalized the deal May 25. While Belarus is expected to host the weapons, Russia has said that Putin will retain control over their use.

Russian-made Su-25 fighter jets in service with the Belarusian air force have been retrofitted for the weapons, according to Russian and Belarusian officials. Lukashenko said that Belarus completed reequipping its aircraft in August. Russia said that it began training Belarusian crews April 3 and completed the training April 14.

Putin announced in March that the construction of a special storage facility in Belarus for Russian tactical nuclear weapons will finish up in early July. The Federation of American Scientists identified April 19 that Belarus’ Lida Air Base, located 40 kilometers from Lithuania’s southern border, is the most likely candidate for housing the Russian nuclear warheads and the retrofitted aircraft.

“We are proceeding on schedule with regard to the most sensitive issues,” said Putin June 9.

The United States has criticized the Russian-Belarusian arrangement, which State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller described in May as “the latest example of irresponsible behavior that we have seen from Russia since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine over a year ago.”

G7 Leaders Reiterate Commitment to Disarmament

At the May meeting of the Group of 7 (G7) members in Hiroshima, the G7 leaders reiterated their commitment to pursuing nuclear disarmament and denounced Russia’s behavior and rhetoric in Ukraine in a first-ever joint statement specifically on nuclear matters.

“The overall decline in global nuclear arsenals achieved since the end of the Cold War must continue and not be reversed,” stated the joint statement outlining the leader’s vision for nuclear disarmament. “We deeply regret Russia’s decision to undermine the New START Treaty and call on Russia to enable a return to full implementation of the Treaty.”

The G7 leaders also released a statement on Ukraine, which said that “Russia’s irresponsible nuclear rhetoric, undermining of arms control regimes, and stated intent to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus are dangerous and unacceptable.”

“In this context, we reiterate our position that threats by Russia of nuclear weapon use, let alone any use of nuclear weapons by Russia, in the context of its aggression against Ukraine are inadmissible,” they added. The G7 includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the leaders May 21, urging “Russia [to] abandon radiation and nuclear blackmail of the world.”

In a May 21 press briefing, U.S. President Joe Biden commented on the venue for the G7 leaders summit of Hiroshima, Japan, where the United States dropped an atomic bomb in 1945.

“Being in this city and visiting the memorial on Friday was a powerful reminder of the devastating reality of nuclear war and our shared responsibility to never cease our efforts to build for peace,” said Biden. “And together with the leaders of the G7, we have reiterated our commitment to continuing to work toward a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons.”

The leaders also published an official communiqué, in which they expressed support for nuclear disarmament and emphasized continued dedication to “the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all.”

In addition, the G7 leaders denounced “China’s accelerating build-up of its nuclear arsenal without transparency nor meaningful dialogue” and underscored their continued commitment “to upholding the global norm against nuclear explosive testing until it is legally binding.” The leaders called “on all states to declare new or maintain existing moratoriums on nuclear weapon test explosions or any other nuclear explosions” in light of Putin’s statement in March that Russia is prepared to resume nuclear weapons testing.

Before the summit, U.S. members of Congress and civil society urged Biden to deliver an address in Hiroshima that would acknowledge the horrific, long-lasting suffering the 1945 bombings inflicted on the hibakusha, reiterate the invitation to Russia for bilateral arms control talks, and reiterate the invitation to China for bilateral risk reduction talks. Biden did not give such an address.

For further coverage of the G7 Leaders Summit in Hiroshima, see: “G7 Leaders Confront Human Cost of Nuclear War,” by Daryl Kimball, Arms Control Today, June 2023

50 Years Ago: The Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War

Five decades ago, as the United States and the Soviet Union pursued the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, the two countries began the process of reshaping their relations on the basis of peaceful cooperation and agreed that one of the primary goals in their relationship was the prevention of nuclear war.

During Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev’s visit to Washington in June 1973, Brezhnev and U.S. President Richard Nixon concluded and signed a formal “Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War.”

Through the pact, which remains in force, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to make the removal of the danger of nuclear war and the use of nuclear weapons an “objective of their policies.” The two states pledged “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the other Party, against the allies of the other Party and against other countries, in circumstances which may endanger international peace and security." The agreement also requires that “if at any time there is the risk of a nuclear conflict,” each side “shall immediately enter into urgent avert this risk.”

The full text of the agreement is online via the U.S. Department of State.

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