Last Tuesday, two-day talks on strategic stability between members of the high-ranking delegations of Russia and the United States ended at the Vienna Niederösterreich palace. This meeting was second in recent months: the previous one took place on June 22-23 in the same Vienna. Moreover, late July saw consultations between cross-ministerial delegations of Russia and the United States taking place in the Austrian capital, during which they also discussed issues of strategic stability and the framing of conduct principles for the new era. At the current negotiations, the Russian and American delegations were headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and US President's Special Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea, respectively.
The negotiations did not yield any dramatic performance. But they were not actually expected, as Sergei Ryabkov told reporters in advance of the talks. " I do not expect any breakthrough at the meeting because the positions of the sides radically differ in certain aspects. And progress, if there is one, is fixed very slowly. As for concluding agreements, I would be a little more careful here," the diplomat said. However, according to Ryabkov, a meaningful conversation with the US is crucial, because back two or three months ago "there was no dialogue at all".
Moscow deems it essential that the Russian side get the necessity to consider all the factors affecting strategic stability in the world across to the US colleagues, and to move beyond warheads or transparency. Besides, Russia is sure that disarmament negotiations should zero in on the issue of carriers. The Russian side also insists on the need to clearly fix synergies between strategic offensive and defensive weapons.
To continue a fruitful Russian-American nuclear disarmament dialogue, Russia believes that the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, also known as START 3, should be extended in the nearest possible time. To date, the Treaty is the only deterrent to a global arms race. It expires on February 5, 2021, and Moscow urges Washington not to not take too long with deciding on the possible extension and describes it as the gold standard of disarmament.
Unfortunately, there are no substantial shifts in prolonging START 3. Late last month, there seemed to be little progress on the issue, with American delegation members saying at the July Vienna consultations that Washington no longer insisted on China's engagement in arms control. This fact seemed to point the way to extending the START 3 Treaty. However, a couple of weeks later, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo once again urged China to join the talks. Beijing, be it noted, has repeatedly stressed it would never resort to such a move.
Having probably realized the fantastic nature of involving the PRC in the negotiation process, Billingslea said in an interview with the Japanese Nikkei newspaper just before the current Vienna meeting that the US may conclude a bilateral nuclear disarmament agreement with Russia, but expects it to yield agreements with Beijing over time. It's not by chance that in Vienna, Billingslea provided the Russian side intelligence with data on China's actions in nuclear weapons development. As you can see, the PRC makes America restless, and the disarmament process becomes unpredictable. Apart from that, Washington constantly switches its position, obscuring its true intentions in the area: Billingslea says one thing, Pompeo says another, and US President's National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien says something else.
The stance taken by the US President himself is not entirely clear. Donald Trump was reported to maintain an attitude of a possible START extension "if conditions are met", with the latter being unspecified. And according to a recent NBC report, the White House head even intends to hold a summit with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin before the November presidential election, so as to announce a START extension, in an ideal scenario.
Earlier, American and Russian officials argued that no summit of the two countries' leaders was planned before and immediately after the elections. But, speaking at a telephone briefing in Vienna, Billingslea suddenly said that the US State Department allowed for a meeting between Trump and Putin if so arranged. But these negotiations witnessed no significant breakthroughs. Nevertheless, the US side was cautiously optimistic about progress in strategic stability consultations with Russia.
The Russian Foreign Ministry was more restrained. Its official message to the media following the talks in Vienna reads: "As directed by the presidents of the two countries, the sides continued to discuss approaches to maintaining strategic stability and prospects for arms control, including the extension of the START Treaty, as well as the two countries' doctrinal provisions in the nuclear sphere. They confirmed mutual interest in a further dialogue on security, stability and arms control. It was agreed upon further interaction on the topic with due regard to interests and concerns of the parties."
And still, the Russian-American talks that have just ended in Vienna inspire the hope that the United States will take a more pragmatic approach to nuclear disarmament, and START-3 will eventually be extended. In the meantime, Washington rather provides disarmament pledges instead of taking specific steps in this regard. This challenging problem requires more than words and promises alone.
It is entirely possible that something will change following the November 3 elections. After all, former US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a short while ago that should the Democrats win the race, new President Joe Biden might venture upon extending START-3. Well, let's wait and see. The countdown has begun...