US-Russia Nuclear Arms Control Talks `Without Preconditions’: Somebody Has to Make the First Move

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke to the annual meeting of the Arms Control Association on June 2, and as organization chairman, it was my honor to introduce him. Sullivan said just what needed to be said about the continuing risk of nuclear conflict: that the Biden administration would continue the long U.S. tradition of leadership in finding ways to reduce that danger.

In particular, he said the United States is ready – “without preconditions” — to discuss with the Russian Federation how the two countries together could 1) manage nuclear risks, and 2) develop a new nuclear arms control framework before the last remaining agreement limiting their massive arsenals, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), expires in 2026. It was a forward-leaning message, one that was important to be heard by the American public, the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and by Moscow. Sullivan described the cracks in the post-Cold War nuclear foundation, and the urgency of meeting that challenge, even as he cautioned that “`without preconditions’ does not mean `without accountability.’”

His speech drew initial skepticism from the Russian Foreign Ministry, but days later, on June 5, the Kremlin welcomed the remarks in a statement, and indicated that Russia would study with care any proposal for discussions that would come from Washington. This response, though cautious, was also in keeping with a long-standing tradition: for 60 years – through wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq – Washington and Moscow have found a way to separate issues, to keep the imperative of avoiding the existential threat of nuclear war separate from all the other bilateral tensions.

Read the full op-ed, published September 12, 2023, in Just Security.