How Biden can build on the New START renewal to mend US-Russia relations
The big news from President Biden’s Tuesday call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his first since taking office, was the leaders’ agreement to re-up the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — or START— treaty for five years ahead of the renewal deadline in early February.
The Trump administration had signaled it wouldn’t recommit the United States to the arms control deal in vain pursuit of an expanded treaty, and before this call, it wasn’t clear whether Biden would assent to the full, five-year extension Moscow offered.
Renewing New START was the right choice. The treaty limits U.S. and Russian deployment of nuclear warheads and some conventional weapons and provides for inspections of each country’s nuclear stockpiles. It’s widely popular with the American public and broadly deemed successful.
But this renewal should be the basis for a Biden administration mending of U.S.-Russia engagement, not its apex. Biden should build on this early foundation of goodwill to stabilize the bilateral relationship and steer away from potential theaters of violent conflict. His goal should be realistic diplomacy that avoids both dissembling about Moscow’s malfeasance and risking U.S. security in a needless great power war.
For the past four years, all interaction between the White House and the Kremlin was colored by allegations of collusion and other misconduct by former President Donald Trump, members of his family and staff from his 2016 campaign. The long drama of the special counsel investigation and the 2019 impeachment proceedings — as well as Trump’s public obsequiousness toward Putin — often focused attention on personal behavior more than policy. Trump’s stated aim of improving U.S.-Russia relations was cast as suspect in that context, and many of his critics advocated a more aggressive U.S. stance toward Moscow, even at risk of open battle in Syria or Eastern Europe.
What that Trump-Russia narrative missed, however, was Trump’s destructive approach to diplomacy between Washington and Moscow. His administration dangerously weakened the de-escalatory infrastructure designed to preserve peace between the world’s two greatest nuclear powers. Threatening to leave New START was just one part of that destruction, so renewing it should be just the first step in rebuilding that diplomatic infrastructure.
With New START’s fate now secured, Biden can move on to reviving two other U.S.-Russia pacts the Trump administration scuttled. The Kremlin’s readout of Tuesday’s call led with a push for “normalization of relations [to] meet the interests of both countries … taking into account their special responsibility for maintaining security and stability in the world.” Restoring both of these treaties would fit the bill.
One is the Open Skies Treaty, which was negotiated during the George H.W. Bush administration (1992) and took effect during the George W. Bush administration (2002). Trump withdrew the United States in late November, and Russia followed suit this month. Biden should rejoin Open Skies immediately and aim to persuade Moscow to come back by the end of his term.
Though compliance wasn’t perfect, Open Skies was an important de-escalatory arrangement. It permitted member states to conduct surveillance flights over each other’s territories as a means of reassurance that no one is planning a surprise attack, and the United States flew three times as many reconnaissance missions over Russian territory than vice versa. This was a beneficial agreement for Washington, and Biden should restore it if he can.
The Biden team should also initiate talks with the Kremlin to craft a new iteration of the Reagan-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which Trump jettisoned in 2019 and Russia left the next day. Though Washington and Moscow each accused the other of violating the treaty and denied their own violations in turn, the INF had proved functional and durable. The Trump administration dumped it in hopes of getting a stricter treaty that would add China as a member. Predictably, they ended up with no treaty at all and, evidently with no lessons learned, went on to repeat this failed and reckless approach with New START.
The New START renewal could be an opening to a more secure, realistic and productive U.S.-Russian relationship than the Trump years wrought. That shift is needed, as the president’s confrontational agenda in his call with Putin made clear. Biden raised topics including “the SolarWinds hack, reports of Russia placing bounties on United States soldiers in Afghanistan, interference in the 2020 United States election, and the poisoning of Aleksey Navalny.” In these and other arenas, tension and incompatible interests in the U.S.-Russian relationship are inevitable. The task at hand is to build a diplomatic and arms control environment geared toward de-escalation, restraint, and peace.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.