The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Tuesday that surprised arms control experts in both Russia and the United States. The ministry unexpectedly announced that Moscow is ready to extend the Strategic Offensive Arms Treaty (START) for one year and, at the same time, is not opposed, together with Washington, to undertake a political commitment to “freeze” the number of nuclear warheads held by the parties for this period. Earlier, Russian officials called the demand to freeze the entire nuclear arsenal “unacceptable.” As Kommersant found out, the decision to soften the position was taken in the Kremlin. Experts interviewed by Kommersant doubt that Russia will benefit from this. And the American ones – that the United States will accept the announced proposal.
A couple of days ago, it seemed that the talks between Russia and the current US administration on the extension of the START Treaty expiring in February could be put to an end. After Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 16 proposed to extend the agreement for one year without any preconditions, and the adviser to the head of the White House, Robert O’Brien, Twitter answered that this idea is “doomed to failure”, most experts believed that further events will develop in one of two ways. If Donald Trump wins the November 3 elections, START will soon cease to exist, and with it the arms control regime in its present form will remain in history. If Democrat Joe Biden becomes president, who promised in advance to extend START for five years, the treaty will continue to operate, which will give the parties enough time to negotiate a subsequent bilateral or multilateral agreement.
But the statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry nullified all forecasts. It begins with the words that Russia would still like to receive an official response to Vladimir Putin’s proposal of October 16, which was put on paper on the same day and sent to the American side in the form of a diplomatic note. The Russian side does not consider “separate comments of American officials in social networks” for the answer, as follows from the message of the Foreign Ministry. “Given the contradictory reaction to the current situation, we want to clarify,” the statement said. This is followed by a phrase that produces exactly the opposite effect.
«Russia proposes to extend the START Treaty for one year, and at the same time is ready, together with the United States, to take on a political commitment to “freeze” the number of nuclear warheads held by the parties for this period, ”the statement says.
The willingness to extend the START Treaty for a year instead of the five permitted by the treaty itself is a concession to the Donald Trump administration. The current US authorities made it clear long ago that they do not want to extend the treaty for five years, since they consider it more beneficial for Russia than for themselves. Russian officials about a year ago began publicly permitting a renewal of the contract for less than five years, although they emphasized that it would be better to talk about an extension for a full term. Vladimir Putin’s proposal of October 16, thus, has already become a demonstration of readiness to meet the United States halfway.
But Washington’s demand to “freeze” all nuclear arsenals (that is, not only strategic, but also tactical, not falling under the current treaty) as a condition for extending the START Treaty was previously called “unacceptable” in Moscow. The head of the Russian delegation at the talks with the United States, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Sergei Ryabkov spoke about this many times. A few days ago, he tightly linked the possibility of not building up nuclear warheads with regard to Russia’s concerns in other areas affecting strategic stability, such as missile defense, space militarization and new conventional weapons. In addition, Russian officials previously insisted that in addition to warheads, carriers and launchers must certainly be taken into account.
The readiness to “freeze” the number of nuclear warheads available to the sides for a year is thus a significant concession to the American side.
According to two informed sources of Kommersant, the decision to adjust the position was made in the Kremlin. The Foreign Ministry only announced it. Kommersant’s interlocutors insist that we are not talking about a radical revision of the position. “We only expressed our readiness to freeze the arsenals for a year, that is, for the period of the START extension and the development of new agreements. If during this time our concerns on other aspects are not properly addressed, this commitment will not be renewed, ”one of them explained.
Another interlocutor drew attention to the fact that, while expressing its readiness to “freeze” the arsenals, the Russian side “clearly indicated where its borders are.” The Foreign Ministry’s statement on this matter says that the freezing of warheads “will not be accompanied by any additional demands from the United States.” This means that Russia is still not ready to tighten and expand verification measures (including external control over the production of nuclear weapons), which the United States has been pushing for in recent months.
Another ‘red line’ is drawn in the penultimate phrase of the statement: “If this approach suits Washington, then the time gained as a result of the START extension can be used to conduct comprehensive bilateral negotiations on the future control of nuclear missile weapons with the obligatory consideration of all factors affecting on strategic stability ”. The emphasis on the fact that the negotiations should be precisely bilateral contradicts the US demand that China should certainly be involved in this process in the near future.
Gift to Donald Trump
But even with all the reservations, Russian experts saw many pitfalls in the change in position. “If we ignore the context, the Russian proposal looks like an interesting compromise – a political statement about not building up arsenals without verification does not bind Russia to anything and avoids the START expiration in February 2021. The Cold War saw many examples of such temporary political “freezes”, in particular with regard to nuclear tests, “Andrei Baklitsky, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Studies of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told Kommersant.” But whatever motivates Moscow in this case, in Washington it is will be unambiguously read as the success of the American diplomatic campaign, leading to further demands and new pressures. “
According to the expert’s forecast, the US administration will insist that the freezing of arsenals is impossible without declaring the number of Russian warheads, including tactical warheads (and this has been a taboo for Moscow for thirty years), and strict verification, which the Russian leadership had previously sharply criticized. “And if Donald Trump had agreed to an agreement without verification, Moscow would have been accused of violation the very next day without the opportunity to justify itself. All this makes the prospects for such an agreement dubious, ”the source of Kommersant believes. At the same time, Andrei Baklitsky warned that now, even if Joe Biden wins the presidential election, the next Russian-American negotiations “will begin with the conviction of the Americans that Moscow already agrees to freeze arsenals, just a little pressure is enough.”
“The rather unexpected statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about its readiness to extend the START Treaty by just one year and to carry out a mutual freeze of nuclear arsenals contradicts almost all the main Russian approaches in the field of arms control of recent times,” a researcher at the Center for International Security of the IMEMO RAS, co-founder of the Vatfor project told Kommersant. “Dmitry Stefanovich. – Of course, traditionally, the need for bilateral (but not multilateral) negotiations on the entire spectrum of” factors affecting strategic stability “was mentioned, but on the whole it looks like a concession to American pressure on two points in the context of” strategic departments “(the first was agreement to extend the START Treaty for a period of less than five years) ”.
Mr. Stefanovich also predicts that in the near future the issue of toughening and expanding verification measures, which worries the United States, cannot but arise, while issues of concern to Russia (missile defense, space, and so on) threaten to be left out of brackets. “What is the reason for such compliance is still difficult to understand,” the expert told Kommersant. “Perhaps there is a desire to further strengthen the country’s image as responsibly approaching strategic stability, ready to show flexibility in order to preserve those elements of the arms control architecture that are still can be saved. ” Moreover, according to Dmitry Stefanovich, it is possible that the United States will not accept Russia’s proposal and put forward additional conditions, “which will further highlight the constructive approach of the Russian side.”
However, the US responded to the statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry with great enthusiasm.
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the US “appreciates that Russia is ready to try to make progress on arms control.”
The American negotiators, she said, are ready to “immediately” meet with their Russian counterparts to “finalize the verifiable agreement.” “We expect Russia to authorize its diplomats to do the same,” added Morgan Ortagus.
The word “verified” here is clearly not accidental and means that the United States is not ready to abandon the requirement to tighten and expand mechanisms for verifying compliance with agreements. This means that negotiations on the fate of the START Treaty with the current administration may still follow a negative scenario.
Hans Christensen, director of information projects related to the nuclear sphere at the Federation of American Scientists, in an interview with Kommersant, did not undertake to predict whether the White House would accept the Kremlin’s new proposal. According to him, for this, the Donald Trump administration would have to abandon a number of its earlier requirements: from amending the START itself to introducing new tough verification measures and connecting China. “The fact that Russia has accepted the idea of a nuclear warhead freeze as such is important, even if it is only a political commitment for a year. Thus, Russia is showing readiness to discuss the key concerns of the United States, concerned about the buildup of its arsenals, ”the expert said. At the same time, the interlocutor of Kommersant noted that, judging by the statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Russia is not ready to accompany the freeze with additional verification measures. “If the Donald Trump administration agrees to this, that is, if it accepts the idea of an“ unverifiable freeze, ”then it will become, albeit politically important, but a little strange victory for him. After all, Donald Trump’s main complaint against START was that the United States had no confidence that Russia was fulfilling this treaty in good faith, ”Hans Christensen recalled. Meanwhile, he did not rule out that the White House would accept this “gift” from the Kremlin, since any foreign policy victories are now important for Donald Trump.