Russia has called off what were supposed to be routine talks on implementing the new START missile treaty, signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden in the first week after he took office in 2021.
Moscow blamed US "toxicity and animosity" for the postponement of what should have been low-level talks that are required by the new treaty. The meeting had been due to take place in Cairo between November 29 and December 6 but now will be held "at a later date." The Kremlin gave no concrete reason for postponing the talks.
The new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) is a key piece of security infrastructure that was due to expire just as Biden took over the presidency, and limits the number of missiles the US and Russia can have.
By rushing through a deal to renew the treaty, Biden signalled to the Kremlin that he was prepared to reverse a two decade-long policy of dismantling the security agreements between Russia and the US and make a fresh start on arms control talks.
The problems started when the Kremlin was incensed after former president George W Bush unilaterally withdrew from the ABM treaty in 2002 that limits ballistic missile defence systems that can be used to protect against ballistic missile attacks. Specifically, the treaty puts restrictions on how close missile defences can be to borders.
The US followed up with the creation of a “missile shield” in Europe and put Patriot missiles into Poland and Romania, close to the Russian border to protect against “rogue states” such as North Korea. The Kremlin argued that this was a thinly disguised ruse to point missiles at Russia that would have been banned under the terms of the ABM treaty.
Former president Donald Trump also withdrew from the INF treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) in 2018, that limits the deployment of land-based nuclear and intercontinental missiles, another key piece of Cold War arms control infrastructure. Two years later the US pulled out of the Open Skies treaty in 2020 that allows for mutual aerial inspections of each other’s military facilities.
Russia welcomed Biden’s offer to renew START. Immediately after the treaty was signed by Putin and Biden, the Kremlin called for talks to begin on reactivating the INF treaty as well.
Biden’s decision to end this policy was taken as a hopeful sign that a new detente could be achieved with Russia after relations had significantly decayed in the preceding years. As a senator in 2002, Biden had argued strongly against withdrawing from the ABM treaty and is a known advocate of re-establishing the international security infrastructure.
While the Kremlin welcomed the gesture and was keen to continue the arms talks to put the old infrastructure back in place, the issue of Ukraine’s membership overshadowed everything else. The two men met in Geneva that summer to lay the groundwork for a new relationship, but little progress was made, although both agreed to more arms control deals.
Another online summit was held in December 2021 but by then Russia had been building up its troops on Ukraine’s border as Putin continued to ratchet up the pressure to show he was serious about extracting a promise of no more Nato expansion from Biden. But Biden refused to soften his position. The encouraging beginning made with agreeing on a new START treaty faded away and became a crisis when, in the middle of that December, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an eight-point list of demands headed by a “legal guarantee” that Ukraine never join Nato, which was the first step towards war.
Despite the deterioration in relations the new START treaty remains in place, but the cancellation of the meetings in Cairo mean it is not being implemented. The treaty calls for regular inspections of arms facilities to ensure the treaty is being adhered to. No inspections have been conducted in person for two years since before the start of the pandemic.
Moscow suspended all US inspections of its military sites under the treaty in August, saying it was responding to American obstruction of inspections by Russia.
“Across all spheres, we are seeing the highest level of toxicity and hostility from Washington," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said.
Zakharova also said Washington continued to ignore Russia's concerns about inspections, without detailing what those concerns were.
“The United States is ready to reschedule at the earliest possible date, as resuming inspections is a priority for sustaining the treaty as an instrument of stability,” A US official was quoted by newswires saying.
Signed in 2010 by Barack Obama and then-President Dmitry Medvedev, the agreement limited the arsenals of the two countries to a maximum of 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads each – a reduction of nearly 30% from the previous limit set in 2002.
Zakharova said it was impossible to talk to Russia about "transparency and predictability" in arms controls while at the same time the US was "helping the Kyiv regime kill our troops and civilians in Russian regions". But she added that the Kremlin hoped the “right conditions to resume inspections could be created by Washington “next year.”
The stalled START treaty is particularly relevant after Putin has suggested that Russia may be willing to use a tactical nuclear weapon in its Ukraine campaign. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a warning in September to Putin about the “catastrophic consequences” of the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
Specifically, Russia cancelled a meeting of the Bilateral Consultative Commission – the implementation body of the New START treaty – a day before it was supposed to begin in Cairo. Previously, similar events were held in Geneva; however, Moscow no longer considers Switzerland a neutral country. Switzerland froze Russian assets worth CHF7.5bn ($7.95bn) in April in cash and properties. Under the terms of the agreement the commission must meet at least twice a year, up to a maximum of 18 meetings a year.
“The fact that a BCC meeting – normally a pretty low-key technical event – got so much media attention tells you a lot about how bad US-Russian relations in the nuclear sphere [have] got. There are no other bilateral formats to talk about nuclear arms control left,” Andrey Baklitskiy, who works at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, said in a tweet.
START provides for regular mutual checks at ICBM bases, strategic submarine bases and strategic aviation air bases, as well as at loading, storage and repair sites. From 2011 to 2020, the parties carried out 328 such checks, but mutually agreed to suspend them after the pandemic broke out.
It was the American side that wanted to resume inspections this summer, according to Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, adding the Russian side considered the request to be "on a whim", which they regarded as "an outright provocation." It was at that point the Russian foreign ministry officially suspended the co-operation and issued its own complaints, mostly related to the Western sanction’s regime.
“We are talking about the absence of normal air traffic due to the fault of the West, ignoring our requests to confirm the possibility of our aircraft flying with inspectors through the airspace of transit countries, visa problems during transit, difficulties in making payments for services during inspections,” Ryabkov explained.
Some US experts were quick to say that Russia is in violation and is hiding something, but the Biden administration took the “no worries, we’ll figure this out” approach and tried to solve the issue at the working level, according to Baklitskiy. “The BCC would be a logical place to do it,” Baklitskiy adds.
Experts say that neither side wants to withdraw from the treaty, but the latter has become caught in a tug of war and the Kremlin is using the issue to try to weaken sanctions. However, Ryabkov has been explicit that an inspection will be organised. “The BCC meeting was postponed, not cancelled. New dates will be proposed soon, but not immediately. The BCC meeting will hardly happen before the year-end,” Ryabkov told the Russian press.