Ukraine war bleeds into Russia-US nuclear talks

Rock-bottom relations between the U.S. and Russia amid the Ukraine war are bleeding into one of the most high-stakes area of the relationship: strategic communication over nuclear weapons.

Russia’s rejection of meeting U.S. officials in Egypt for nuclear talks over a soon-to-expire treaty is raising the risk that Washington is losing its ability to communicate with Moscow, even over one of the most fragile and preserved issues of mutual importance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has appeared to tone down rhetoric threatening the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but experts say the loose talk, coupled with a breakdown in diplomacy, has put the risk of nuclear conflict nearly on par with the Cold War.

“Even during the worst of the Cold War, we were still talking to one another,” said Jim Townsend, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO during the Obama administration.

“We want these things to happen because it means we’re trying to bring some sanity to the nuclear world.”

Contact between U.S. and Russian officials have shrunk to the most senior levels and focused on the most sensitive of issues, in particular the fate of Americans unjustly detained in Russia and managing risk related to nuclear weapons use.

This includes a reported meeting between CIA Director Bill Burns and his Russian counterpart in Ankara last month. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has privately warned Russian officials, including his counterpart, of the consequences if Moscow used nuclear weapons.

Still, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that a “fear” remains that Russia could use a nuclear weapon. “We’re not ruling it out,” he said in an interview with French media.

The latest breakdown in talks between the U.S. and Russia are related to the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC), bi-annual, technical consultations as part of the nuclear arms treaty, New START, and that was signed by both Washington and Moscow in 2011.

The talks were expected to take place in Cairo between November 29 and Dec. 6, but were “unilaterally postponed by the Russians,” the State Department told The Hill.

The meetings, which were already delayed for a year, were meant to iron out how the U.S. and Russia could resume onsite inspections of each other’s nuclear weapons arsenals required by the treaty.

“It is unusual — I wouldn’t say it’s a disaster yet — but it is very unusual for either side to break off normal working meetings to implement a treaty that both countries say they support,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

“This is really not good.”

The inspections were initially suspended because of the COVID pandemic, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last week it was “naive” for the Biden administration to think the Kremlin would discuss nuclear stability while the U.S. was aiding Ukraine, in Moscow’s view, to “destroy Russia.”

“It is crystal clear that it is impossible to discuss strategic stability today while ignoring everything that is happening in Ukraine. Because the goal in Ukraine has been declared – not to save Ukrainian democracy, but to defeat Russia on the battlefield, or even destroy Russia,” he said, according to Reuters.

National Security Spokesperson John Kirby on Friday called it “deeply regrettable” that the Russians canceled that meeting, saying the BCC talks had “nothing to do with the war in Ukraine.”

“And yet that seems to be some of the squawking we’re hearing out of Russia about why they didn’t want to do it,” he said. “This is about New START, a bilateral arms control treaty and making sure that both sides are complying appropriately with it. So we look forward to being able to have that conversation and get the BCC back on the calendar.”

Laura Kennedy, who served as ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva during the Obama administration, called Lavrov’s remarks “disingenuous with regard to the U.S. interest in resuming regular BCC meetings and resuming New START inspections — there’s nothing ‘naive’ about that.”

She added, “My assumption is, it was probably either engineered, or at a minimum agreed to by Mr. Putin. If it’s some sort of attempt at political coercion, I don’t think it’s going to work.”

Kennedy said that the U.S. and Russia have historically worked to insulate cooperation on existential issues, like reducing the risk of nuclear weapons, from broader political disagreements.

But the latest tensions around New START are undercutting the treaty’s historic successes.

“It’s really, very disappointing to see these technical talks dragged by the Russians into the geopolitical arena where indeed, we do have very, very deep disagreements,” she said.

Townsend, who also serves as a senior fellow with the Center for New American Security, said Lavrov’s position is in line with more of the hybrid, and gray-war tactics Moscow appears to be conducting on the fringes of its war in Ukraine.

He pointed to the mysterious explosions in September on natural gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea that European and U.S. officials have described as sabotage, and Russia’s intentional bombing of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and electrical grid.

“[The Russians are] turning arms control into a game, they’re using it as a weapon if you will,” Townsend said.

“It’s like bombing the electrical grid in Ukraine to torture the civilians there. [Putin’s] not out to make friends, not out to be a good citizen of the world, enhance stability, and keep nukes under control,” he added.

Lynn Rusten, vice president for the Global Nuclear Policy Program with the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative, said the apparent politicization of the BCC talks is a worrying signal for the future, and a new nuclear arms treaty.

“To some extent the U.S. has signaled that it’s not yet ready to get back to the table with Russia and that one of the things it wants to see first is a resumption of inspections under New START, but also it hints about other signs of good will on the Russian side,” Rusten said.

“My sense is probably the U.S. government, if you asked someone to take a truth serum, hasn’t decided for itself what needs to happen, like a ceasefire [in Ukraine]. All of this suggests that the ability to get back to the table with the Russians is getting more politicized, certainly on the Russian side, and maybe even on our side too, so that’s not a good sign.”

Kimball added that Lavrov’s remarks signaled a “new position” for Moscow, but that Russia was unlikely to cut off nuclear talks completely because of its war.

Still, he worried that the delay of the BCC could have a domino effect on talks between Washington and Moscow to negotiate a successor to New START when it expires in 2026.

“That’s in roughly 1,200 days, which in treaty terms is not a long time. If there’s not a negotiation on some sort of replacement treaty, there will be no agreement for the first time since 1972 that limits the world’s two largest nuclear superpowers arsenals,” he said, referring to the first pair of treaties that sought to restrict the number of nuclear-capable missiles on each side and where they were deployed.

“That would make an already fraught relationship between the U.S. and Russia all the more difficult,” he said.

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