Is an emaciated sparrow in the hand worth two plump quails in the bush? Probably not, say the Russians—at least when it comes to choosing between the last-minute arms control deal on offer from the Trump administration and the approach that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden says his team will pursue.
At issue is the fate of the New START accord, which entered into force in 2011 as the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s ill-fated “reset” policy toward Russia, and which is due to expire on February 5, 2021 unless both sides agree to extend it. The accord limits the number of strategic bombers, missiles, and deployed warheads each side can have, and couples these restrictions to a set of strict verification requirements. Its expiration—following the demise of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty under George W. Bush and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty under Donald Trump—would leave the U.S. and Russian militaries unconstrained by bilateral arms control treaties for the first time since the 1960s.
Trump officials have attempted to use the looming threat of a twenty-first-century arms race to press Russia for several concessions. Earlier this year, they insisted that Moscow push China to join trilateral negotiations over a successor to New START, but the Russians simply refused, questioning why Washington was so insistent on corralling a Chinese nuclear arsenal that remains a small fraction of its U.S. and Russian counterparts. More recently, the Trump team offered to extend the treaty by one year if Russia would agree to a politically binding framework that pledged both sides to freeze current levels of non-strategic nuclear warheads—a class of weapons in which Russia enjoys a numerical advantage over the United States. Biden, on the other hand, has called for extending New START without conditions for five years, the maximum allowable under the treaty.
Moscow has made its distaste for the Trump proposal clear. After U.S. arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea told reporters last week that the sides had reached a “gentlemen’s agreement” to freeze warhead levels and extend the treaty, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov flatly contradicted him. He called the U.S. proposal “unacceptable” and warned, “If the Americans need to report to their superiors something about which they allegedly agreed with the Russian Federation before their elections, then they will not get it.” Earlier, the typically tactful Ryabkov had angrily accused the U.S. Republican Party of tearing down the edifice of international arms control treaties.
Nonetheless, the Russians have not closed the door entirely to an extension deal with Trump. Russian President Putin followed Ryabkov’s statement by calling for extension of the treaty by at least a year without conditions, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that intense discussions are continuing over New START’s fate. A Russian Foreign Ministry statement on October 20 indicated that Russia could in principle agree to a warhead freeze as part of a one-year treaty extension, but underscored that the United States could not “advance any additional conditions with regard to freezing the arsenals.” This statement was presumably a reference to additional verification measures U.S. officials have advocated. In addition, Moscow said that negotiations on a bilateral successor treaty must include “mandatory discussion of all factors that can influence strategic stability” —almost certainly meaning American missile defense systems that Washington has long been loath to put on the table. Although Moscow is signaling that it remains open to a deal, it has also shown that it is in no mood to giftwrap any arms control concessions for the White House, despite explicit threats by senior American officials to let the treaty expire absent a pre-election deal.
The Kremlin’s willingness to risk such a development speaks volumes about its current views of Trump and of his prospects for reelection. Moscow is clearly frustrated that Trump’s policies toward Russia have been much more hostile in practice than he had forecast in his warm 2016 campaign rhetoric. Trump’s policies have featured several rounds of toughened sanctions, new weapons supplies to Ukraine, the reinforcement of U.S. troops in eastern Europe, and withdrawals from arms control treaties. The Russians undoubtedly also recognize that polling data indicate Trump’s chances of reelection are less than rosy.
By contrast, the Russians have reason to suspect that Biden is cynically turning Trump’s warm-words-but-harsh-actions act on its head. They cannot have failed to note that the Biden campaign has underscored the importance of “maintaining strategic stability” with Russia through arms control, even though Biden has also called for “confronting Russian aggression.” Moreover, Russian officials know and respect several people expected to play senior national security roles in a Biden administration. These include former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, who earned a reputation in Moscow for tough but fair pragmatism during his time as U.S. ambassador to Russia, and Rose Gottemoeller, who was Russian ambassador Anatoly Antonov’s American counterpart in negotiating the New START treaty, and one of the authors of an open letter calling for a more balanced and pragmatic approach to dealing with Russia. Biden’s tough talk about standing up to Putin aside, the Kremlin probably expects it could do business with his team on strategic issues.
These factors explain Russia’s caution in considering Trump’s proposal on New START extension. Should he pull off an upset reelection victory, Moscow would remain positioned to move quickly on a formal agreement to extend the treaty and proceed with negotiations on its successor. Should Biden win, the Russians would have done little to alienate the new administration by providing Trump with a pre-election foreign policy win. In an American election in which neither contender wants the taint of Russian support, keeping these options open is no easy task.
George Beebe is the Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for the National Interest, former head of Russia analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency, and author of The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral into Nuclear Catastrophe.