Extending New Start Is a Good Idea but It Won’t Fix American-Russian Relations

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January 24, 2021 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: RussiaJoe BidenArms ControlNew STARTNATO

Extending New Start Is a Good Idea but It Won’t Fix American-Russian Relations

It will take a lot more to try and tone down the rising confrontation with Moscow.

The White House’s push to extend the New START nuclear treaty with Russia will give it space to impose penalties on Moscow’s antagonistic behavior without worrying about the collapse of the two countries’ last remaining major arms control agreement. On Jan. 21, U.S. Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed previous media reporting when she formally announced that President Joe Biden would seek a five-year extension of New START, which limits the two sides’ nuclear arsenals and is due to expire on Feb. 5. 

  • On the campaign trail, Biden expressed support for extending the nuclear arms control treaty, but until now had not committed to a precise length of time. Some advisers had called for a shorter extension to pressure the Kremlin to more quickly negotiate an updated agreement.

  • Multiple Russian officials have already called for a five-year extension, contingent on the details of the U.S. proposal, making it a less contentious option and thus a relatively straightforward process. 

  • Former President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces and Open Skies agreements over Russia’s alleged repeated violations of both treaties. His administration was also skeptical of New START, arguing that China needed to enter it and that it enabled Russia to build up its nuclear forces in ways not covered by the treaty’s terms, even as last year the White House unsuccessfully sought a short-term extension.

Washington will pair its bilateral engagement on nuclear arms control with resistance to what it sees as Moscow’s malfeasance in multiple other areas. The Biden administration is preparing to impose unnamed penalties on Russia, pending intelligence assessments into the Kremlin’s alleged interference in the 2020 election, attempted assassination of opposition leader Alexei Navalnyinvolvement in the SolarWinds cyberattack and placement of bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. 

  • In a Jan. 21 memo obtained by NBC News, the U.S. State Department warned diplomats abroad that Washington’s relationship with Moscow was “likely to remain challenging” and that the Biden administration would work with allies “to hold Russia to account for its reckless and aggressive actions.”

  • During his confirmation hearing, Biden’s nominee to become secretary of state, Antony Blinken, called for aggressive responses to Russian actions. Before the new administration even took office, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also tweeted that “the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on [Navalny’s] life must be held accountable.”

  • In December, prior to taking office, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain also said Biden’s response to alleged Russian involvement in the SolarWinds cyberattack would go beyond “just sanctions.”

A New START extension, however, will not yield a bigger thaw in the White House’s otherwise icy and time-consuming relationship with the Kremlin, given the broader list of policy and personal disputes that remain between the two sides. Officials say Biden has ruled out a “reset” in bilateral relations and that his team fundamentally sees Russia as an adversary, despite small windows for collaboration. Aside from the specific allegations for which Biden has requested intelligence assessments, Washington and Moscow have opposing views on a number of policy fronts — including over conflicts in Belarus, Syria and Ukraine, as well as Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany (and energy policy, more broadly), in addition to general human rights concerns. These disputes will persist, even if the two sides resolve some of their immediate points of friction, and Congress could also amplify tensions by pursuing its own aggressive sanctions or other penalties. As a result, the Biden administration will be forced to spend more political and diplomatic capital on Russia, despite wanting to focus on a plethora of other foreign policy areas, namely curbing China’s rise as a global power.

  • On the campaign trail, Biden repeatedly made promises to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin and labeled the country “the biggest threat to America.”

  • Many of Biden’s nominees for key national security and diplomatic posts previously served in positions in which they frequently sparred with their Russian counterparts. Under Secretary for Political Affairs nominee Victoria Nuland, for example, was the lead U.S. representative for the 2013-2014 crisis in Ukraine, during which she prominently backed Kyiv and criticized Moscow.

  • On Jan. 20, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said any improvement in tense U.S.-Russia relations “will depend on Mr. Biden and his team.”

Biden’s Proposed New START Extension Won’t Restart U.S.-Russia Relations is republished with the permission of Stratfor Worldview, a geopolitical forecasting and intelligence publication from RANE, the Risk Assistance Network + Exchange. As the world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor Worldview brings global events into valuable perspective, empowering businesses, governments and individuals to more confidently navigate their way through an increasingly complex international environment. Stratfor is a RANE (Risk Assistance Network + Exchange) company.

Image: Reuters.