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Kingston Reif

New START Deal to Wait for Biden

December 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The Trump administration and Russia signaled a willingness in November to reach a deal involving an extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and a freeze on all U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads following the U.S. presidential election, but the two sides remained at odds about the specific terms of such a deal.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a meeting in Italy in February. On Nov. 12, he said that the question of extending New START would need to wait for the U.S. presidential election to be resolved.  (Photo: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)As a result, the fate of the treaty likely rests on Russia and the incoming Biden administration resolving the issue. President-elect Joe Biden has expressed support for the treaty’s extension. According to a Nov. 25 Reuters article, there is continued debate among Biden's advisers over how long the extension should be. The treaty allows for an extension of up to five years so long as the U.S. and Russian presidents agree to it.

After taking office, Biden would have just 16 days to seal an extension before the treaty expires on Feb. 5, 2021.

“The Russian Federation is certainly making a calculation based upon whether they want to lock into agreement with an extension now or wait until after Jan. 20 to see if there is a better offer that they can possibly acquire,” said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun on Nov. 9. “I think that’s still a little bit of a gamble, perhaps less so than it might have been two weeks ago.”

Biegun said that stumbling blocks include how to define a nuclear warhead under a freeze and the U.S. demand that a freeze be verified. Nevertheless, he said, “as far as this administration is concerned, we’re prepared to go forward with an agreement.”

The following day, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov reiterated that Russia stands prepared to extend New START and agree to a freeze on all warheads for one year so long as the United States puts forward no additional conditions, particularly with respect to verification of the freeze. But he remained pessimistic that a deal would be reached.

“As of today, as it was before U.S. election, we don’t see a basis to reach such an agreement. There’s nothing new in [the] U.S. position,” he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Nov. 12 that he has seen “rather fidgety comments from Washington” regarding the fate of New START. “Considering the current commotion in the United States caused by the ongoing vote recount, lawsuits, and other perturbations, we cannot expect any coherent proposals from either [U.S. President Donald] Trump’s people or Joe Biden’s team,” said Lavrov. “So, we will wait until the dust settles.”

In October, the United States proposed a politically binding one-year extension of New START and a one-year freeze on all U.S. and Russian nuclear warhead levels. Russia, which had previously called for a five-year extension of New START as allowed by the treaty, proposed a one-year extension and the concept of a warhead freeze, but rejected any verification of the freeze, in particular portal monitoring, at this time. (See ACT, October 2020.)

Lavrov said that as part of the warhead freeze, the Trump administration is demanding that Russia “recount” the warheads “and check which category these warheads belong to and immediately establish control over the facilities producing these warheads.”

“We have already been in a situation when American inspectors sat outside the checkpoints of our military plants
in the 1990s,” Lavrov added. “There is no coming back to this system.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to aggressively call on China to join arms control talks with the United States and Russia.

The administration had earlier insisted that China immediately participate in trilateral arms control talks with the United States and Russia, but Beijing repeatedly rejected the demand. The Trump administration later dropped it as a condition for considering an extension of New START. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

“China has stubbornly refused to date to participate in those discussions, but as we approach the review conference of the [nuclear]Nonproliferation Treaty next year, I believe pressure will continue to grow on China to enter those discussions,” Biegun said.

At the EU Consortium on Nonproliferation and Disarmament Conference on Nov. 12, Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, echoed Biegun.

“It is becoming obvious to everyone that Beijing is not taking seriously its responsibility as a nuclear power to engage in meaningful arms control negotiations, and it continues to shun arms control negotiations with us on effective measures to prevent a new nuclear arms race spiral,” he said.

Fu Cong, director-general of the Department of Arms Control in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, replied to Ford by saying that Beijing has communicated with Washington by phone, email, and letters.

Fu also said that he had talked directly with Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. special envoy for arms control. “We even had a phone conversation, even though that conversation was not very pleasant,” he said.

He emphasized China’s view that “the immediate priority now is to urge the United States to respond as soon as possible to Russia’s call for the unconditional extension of the New START.” When asked if China would join trilateral arms control discussions if the United States and Russia agree to reduce their nuclear arsenals, Fu replied, “I would say that is a big ‘if’—if the U.S. agrees to reduce.”

New START caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each.

Despite signs of flexibility in talks on extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, a deal appears unlikely before the Trump administration is replaced.

Russia Highlights Unresolved Open Skies Issues

November 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

Russia has emphasized its concerns with how the remaining states-parties to the 1992 Open Skies Treaty will handle information obtained under the treaty after the likely U.S. withdrawal in late November.

An image taken from a 2007 Open Skies overflight is examined under a viewer. Russia has raised concerns that the United States will continue to have access to such imagery, even after it withdraws from the treaty. (Photo: OSCE)During the fourth review conference for the treaty, which began Oct. 7, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that U.S. allies who remain party to the treaty will face “a conflict of obligations.” The meeting was the first review conference held since the Trump administration on May 21 announced that the United States would withdraw from the treaty six months later. (See ACT, June 2020.) Once the U.S. withdrawal is complete, Moscow is concerned that Washington will maintain access to information collected during the treaty activities through its allies who remain states-parties, particularly those who are NATO members.

Ryabkov specifically pointed to Article IX of the treaty, which stipulates that all information gathered during overflights be made available to any of the states-parties and be used exclusively for achieving the objectives of the treaty. Treaty provisions that restrict the data only to states-parties, Ryabkov argued, should be prioritized.

He said Russia has proposed that U.S. allies express their commitment to uphold the treaty’s provisions through the exchanging of diplomatic notes, but has been “disappointed” in the reaction of other treaty members to this proposal.

“A lack of willingness to clearly reaffirm their contractual obligations raises serious concerns about their true intentions,” he said. “The conversation on this topic is not over.”

In his remarks, Ryabkov said that Moscow has recently shown goodwill under the treaty. Russia allowed, for example, a February 2020 flight over Kaliningrad that exceeded the 500-kilometer flight path restriction that Russia has imposed since 2014. (See ACT, May 2020.) This goodwill by Russia stands in contrast, he alleged, to other countries that have “impede[d] the normal functioning of the treaty,” including Canada, France, Poland, and the United Kingdom.

The review conference was chaired by Belgium, which pledged to “make room for a constructive open dialogue with the aim of reaffirming the importance of the Open Skies Treaty and the engagement of states-parties to continue to implement the treaty.”

Prior to the review conference, Germany moderated an Oct. 5 discussion titled “The Quota Coordination and Deconfliction for Open Skies Flights in 2021.” According to Ryabkov, the distribution of quotas was successful.

Signed in 1992 and entered into force in 2002, the treaty permits its 34 states-parties to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities. Since its entry into force, treaty parties have undertaken 1,534 observation flights, according to a Belgian description.

Russia questions whether Washington will continue to receive treaty imagery after the U.S. withdrawal.

Russia Expands Proposal for Moratorium on INF-Range Missiles

November 2020

Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested adding “mutual verification measures” to his proposal for a moratorium on the deployment of missiles formerly banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

These measures, he said on Oct. 26, would focus on Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense systems deployed at NATO bases in Europe and on Russian military facilities in Kaliningrad. Putin claimed that the latter measure would confirm the absence of the 9M729, a ground-launched cruise missile that the United States says violated the INF Treaty and cited as a reason for U.S. withdrawal from the accord in Aug. 2019. (See ACT, September 2019.)

Putin also reiterated that Russia believes the missile was compliant with the treaty and that Russia will continue “not to deploy 9M729 missiles in European Russia” as long as NATO members do not field similar missiles in Europe.

Thus far, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have acknowledged Putin’s offer, but none have definitely accepted or rejected it. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea called the proposal "a non-starter."

The United States believes that Russia has deployed four battalions of the 9M729, for a total of about 100 missiles, in areas of the country able to strike NATO countries. (See ACT, March 2019.)

Washington is moving quickly to develop and deploy this type of missile, according to Trump administration officials, but questions remain about exactly what missiles would be developed and where they would be based. (See ACT, October 2020.)

Putin first proposed the idea of this moratorium in Aug. 2019. NATO rejected it the following month. The United States has also dismissed the idea.—KINGSTON REIF and SHANNON BUGOS

Russia Expands Proposal for Moratorium on INF-Range Missiles


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