Since American demands do not follow from ensuring the national security of the United States, Russia can assume that the Trump administration could sacrifice them in pursuit of their electoral interests. Russia could stay in its position and watch as the US requests taken off the table, one by one, writes Valdai Club expert Andrey Baklitskiy.
I tried to guess what was going on behind closed doors in Helsinki, where another round of Russian-American talks on strategic stability took place in early October – a thankless task. But, in accordance with common practice, anonymous American sources shared the details with reporters. This provoked a backlash from Moscow and highlighted not only the meeting in the Finnish capital, but the entire process of consultations between Russia and the United States on arms control.
The American media – the Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Bloomberg, Axios – announced a breakthrough. According to them, an agreement had been reached in principle between Russia and the United States at a meeting of the heads of the two countries’ security councils, Nikolai Patrushev and Robert O’Brien, in Geneva. After that, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and Special Representative for Arms Control Marshall Billingsley were urgently sent to Helsinki to finalise the details. American officials were optimistic in their conversations with the media, so the remaining issues, they said, could be resolved within a week. Later, practically using the same words, Mr. Billingsley repeated what they’d said.
Finally, even the President of Russia spoke out. According to Vladimir Putin, “candidate Biden has publicly said that he is ready to extend the New START Treaty or to conclude a new treaty on the limitation of strategic offensive arms, and this is already a very serious element of our possible interaction in the future.” It is hard to imagine that the latest statement was made in a world where Russia has just reached an agreement with the current US administration. The roles of Moscow and Washington in the dialogue on the future of strategic arms control seem to have reversed.
Back during the summer, the task facing Russian diplomacy seemed impossible. Moscow was interested in extending the New START, the last treaty to limit the strategic arms of the two countries. Russia was also ready to negotiate further steps, taking into account its concerns. The Donald Trump administration, which had withdrawn from the Iranian nuclear deal, followed by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and then the Open Skies Treaty, was clearly not interested in arms control. Marshal Billingsley asked ironically why Russia is so “desperate” to prolong the START. However, while the United States could consider such a scenario, Russia would have to pay dearly. Moscow would have to bring China to the negotiating table, agree to limit its non-strategic nuclear weapons, and adopt onerous controls. But even in this case, the US administration is not ready to extend the agreement for a full five years.
At the same time, the Russian side had almost no trump cards in the negotiations. The demands of the American negotiators were incredibly ambitious (at some point Marshall Billingsley said that Russia should simply abandon Poseidon, Burevestnik and its other new nuclear systems), but not too important for the United States. Moscow, in any case, could not have brought China to the negotiating table against its will. For the most part, Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons were unable to directly threaten the United States. And given the fact that due to the coronavirus epidemic, mutual inspections of nuclear forces stopped in March without much visible concern, the emphasis on verification was more ideological than substantive. Well, if Moscow tried to build up its strategic forces after the end of the New START Treaty, the US administration was ready to ruin Russia financially in a new arms race. So Washington could make maximalist demands without fear of losing anything, and with the opportunity to gain something. There was no question of taking into account Russian positions on missile defence, space or American nuclear weapons in Europe.
The Russian diplomats were in a difficult situation, but they methodically continued to do their job: to hold meetings, refuse unacceptable American conditions, prepare counter-proposals, and communicate and explain their position. With time, the situation began to change. The less time remained until the presidential elections in the United States and the higher the rating of the Democratic candidate Joseph Biden climbed, the more Washington paid attention to the dialogue with Russia. Arms control was still not important to the Republican administration, but any foreign policy success would go into President Trump’s piggy bank, increasing his chances of re-election. Moreover, these were deals on an agreement with Russia, which Democrats – supporters of arms control – could not openly criticise. So, the American negotiators were ready to even lower their requests, while emphasising that after the re-election of the president, the price would increase.
So Moscow got its first, albeit rather significant, trump card. Since American demands did not follow from ensuring the national security of the United States, Russia can assume that the Trump administration could sacrifice them in pursuit of their electoral interests. Russia could stay in its position and watch as the US requests taken off the table, one by one. This was especially noticeable with regard to the requirements that China participate, which practically disappeared at a certain point. Moscow could, without prejudice to itself, agree to sign an agreement with Washington on the extension of the New START Treaty (ideally for five years) and adopt the most abstract designation of the parameters, pending further negotiations. So far, the American position, for all appearances, has not yet reached such a state, and, perhaps, will never reach it. However, in this case, there will be a rather high probability of victory in the elections for a Democratic candidate, who has already promised to extend the agreement without preconditions.
Now Russian diplomats can ask their “desperate” American colleagues how they want to conclude an agreement with Moscow before November 3, and what they are ready to offer in return.