It was announced this week that President Joe Biden will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16 in Geneva. As one who focuses on non-proliferation and arms control for a living, I hope these issues will feature prominently on the agenda. And, as one who spent many years preparing policy makers for high-level meetings, I cannot help but to think about how I would advise President Biden to approach this key aspect of relations with Moscow.
One of the advantages of my new job at the Center is that I can offer such recommendations on their own merits, independent of the many serious political issues and disagreements that add layers of complexity to international diplomacy. Making these recommendations is relatively easy; getting action on them will prove far more difficult, but the potential advantages in terms of improving U.S. and global security are such that it would be well worth the considerable effort required to try to reinvigorate a process on nonproliferation and arms control. What follows is the text of the sort of memo that I would send President Biden – one that I’m sure his staff is eagerly preparing – on how to approach arms control in his meeting with Putin.
TO: The President of the United States
SUBJECT: Arms Control Discussions With Russia
Since the 2010 negotiation of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), arms control with Russia has seen little activity, and where it has, the news has not been good. Russian violations of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty led to the end of a landmark arms control agreement in 2019, and Russia has shown little interest in returning to arms control, except where it concerns limiting strictly U.S. capabilities. In the meantime, however, the global threat of nuclear weapons continues to grow, and the United States and Russia share an interest in avoiding nuclear war. As the owners of 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, it makes sense for the two countries to talk about ways to reduce this danger regardless of disagreements on other issues.
Every U.S. administration comes into office knowing that its predecessor had a bad relationship with Moscow and convinced that it can do better. Putin knows this and will try to take advantage by suggesting the United States start the process with some unilateral concessions to improve the atmosphere. You should resist this. It is a longstanding Soviet negotiating practice to demand a price merely to start a negotiation process – a way to get something for nothing. It is probable that what Putin will ask will be unilateral limits on missile defense. It matters little that U.S. missile defenses are not even minimally effective against Russia’s deterrent or that trying to make them so would face prohibitive technological and financial obstacles. The Russians perceive missile defense as a potential future negation of their nuclear deterrent. As Russia contemplates its decline as a great power, its nuclear capabilities assume a larger role in its sense of its own power and place in the world, so removing a potential threat to that deterrent likewise assumes a high priority.
It has been the Russian position that there can be no further progress on arms control unless missile defense is on the table, but this does not mean that we should self-impose limits on our own capabilities only for a promise of discussions that could lead to negotiations that could lead to an agreement that could possibly reduce the number of nuclear weapons. However, it is also not advisable to give Putin an excuse to avoid serious talks on arms control. We should be open to hearing Russia’s concerns and be prepared to offer further rounds of discussion to ensure that Russia’s fears remain groundless. The main argument against missile defense in the United States has always been the difficulty, and huge cost, of building an effective system. We should be prepared to use this with Putin to show that the limited defenses being built can be no threat to Russia. As two leading experts have argued, missile defense need not be incompatible with arms control, nor a substitute for it; therefore, by avoiding the trap Putin will set, we can leverage our capabilities to get a better result.
It is clear that we should avoid basing the entire arms control agenda on what the Russians want, but what do we want? We should go into the discussion with a set of proposals that bear reasonable expectations of making progress. The Russians will expect us to go in needing to make a deal or giving them our bottom line up front, both situations in which they could gain a favorable position. Instead, we should stick to items where we can find common interests and find ways to move forward. Such an approach should consist of four elements:
- A reaffirmation of the Reagan-Gorbachev statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought.” This could be amplified by three principles to guide further efforts: 1) an arms race is in no one’s interests and should not be run; 2) the world will be safer with fewer nuclear weapons; and 3) proliferation of nuclear weapons and associated technologies risks undermining the progress we have made since the end of the Cold War.
- A decision to launch a series of formal arms control talks in which all issues, including missile defense and non-strategic weapons could be raised. These talks would be the “new start” promised by the treaty and would be aimed at finding new directions for ultimately reducing numbers of nuclear weapons. They should avoid attempting to recreate the past, for example, reviving the INF Treaty when Russia has no interest in doing so.
- An acknowledgment that arms control and nonproliferation increasingly need a global context and should be approached globally. If more nations are building more nuclear weapons and others are considering doing so, it will ultimately impact decisions to proceed with disarmament, even if U.S. and Russian numbers are far larger. This does not mean the unworkable idea of trying to force China into New START, but it will be increasingly important to take global trends into account, especially given the inherent dangers of more nuclear weapons in the world.
- Openness to new avenues for dialogue. Consistent with the idea of a global context, making real progress on arms control will require progress on related security issues. The United States and Russia could discuss such areas as nuclear security, terrorism, network security and climate change. The idea should be to build understanding through open exchange of information and should include both official and Track II components.
Will this approach work? That will depend on President Putin. Historically, when it comes to arms control, Russia has initially resisted “win-win” solutions, preferring to see if they can wait out the United States and get something for nothing. There are several good reasons, however, for Putin to consider working under this agenda, beginning with that Russia can afford an arms race at this time even less than can the United States . In recent years, Putin has been able to promote a narrative where he has not had to consider arms control while the United States has taken the blame for no progress. By going in to the Geneva meeting with a positive program, even if Russia balks, we can change the narrative and prepare the ground for when Putin is ready.