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Last week Vienna hosted consultations of cross-ministerial delegations from Russia and the United States, the largest in the past few years. Its members discussed issues of strategic stability and tried to develop the "rules of conduct" in the new era. Participants in expert groups on space security, doctrines and capabilities, transparency and verification spent four days discussing urgent disarmament issues. The Russian delegation was traditionally headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
No significant breakthroughs were expected this time. However, the last day of the talks, July 30, was marked by a small sensation: Washington seems no longer insistent on China's engagement in arms control. This fact somewhat opens the door to the extension of the Russian-American Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, also known as START-3.
Please note that one of the preconditions for the contract renewal due to its upcoming expiry on February 5, 2021 was the US demand to involve China to the negotiations, to which Beijing answered with a plump "no". And now the American side seems to have realized the utter futility of its attempts and is no longer going to press this condition. By the way, a statement to this effect came on Friday from US President Donald Trump before boarding a helicopter at the White House. When asked about engaging China in the Russian-American nuclear arms control talks, he said the following: "We'll talk about it later. First, we will deal with this [negotiations with Russia], and then we'll see."
President Trump got on with nuclear disarmament the same day, speaking outside Tampa at a meeting with Florida representatives dedicated to combating the coronavirus outbreak and steps taken by the US authorities as regards the hurricane season. "We are working with Russia right now on a non-proliferation agreement, nuclear non-proliferation. If we get something like that, it would be great," the American leader said. Trump did not provide any details about the mentioned Russian-American interaction. But apparently, the US President was referring to the Russian-American consultations on prospects for arms control and disarmament in Vienna, where START-3 was mainly discussed.
The Russian side was apparently satisfied with the outcome of Vienna talks. Thus, the official Russian Foreign Ministry's message in follow-up of the meeting reads: "The conversation turned out to be specific and professional. The parties will have to analyze its results in detail. Russia is open to proceeding with its dialogue with Washington on various aspects of strategic issues. We give pride of place to it so as to try to prevent any further destruction of international agreements in this area. At the same time, we intend to build further relations with the United States in arms control on a strictly parity basis and backed by the principle of considering mutual interests and concerns of the parties."
However, the further fruitful Russian-American nuclear disarmament dialogue requires an early extension of START-3, which is currently the only deterrent to a global arms race. Mind you, by mutual consent of the parties the contract can be extended for no more than five years, i.e. until 2026. Moscow has repeatedly urged Washington not take too long with the decision on a possible treaty renewal and describes it as the gold standard in disarmament. As Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed out in an interview with the Financial Times back in June 2019, if this treaty ceases to exist, "there would be no other tools in the world containing the arms race."
It is entirely possible that Washington has finally realized this, at least as Donald Trump's latest statements indicate. However, one ought to bear in mind that any announcements by the current US President should be treated with extreme caution, since they are not always translated into practice. The future will be only determined by specific moves of people in his administration who are directly responsible for disarmament relations with Russia, namely Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea. So far, the official has not been particularly enthusiastic about entering into any agreements in this area, preferring to leave a margin for Washington to win the arms race and bring the rivals to utter exhaustion, as he would put it. Things may change now, following President Trump's latest statements.
At the same time, it should be borne in mind that there are exactly three months left before the US presidential election. And it's not all that difficult to assume that Donald Trump is not up to international treaties, even crucial ones like START-3. All the more so as opinion polls point to his election fight gap with the key competitor, Democrat Joe Biden. If Trump wins on November 3, there will be some chances for extending the treaty. But his failure does not bode well for the disarmament process, as testified to by Biden's anti-Russian statements.
In this regard, Russia already needs to gear up for any scenario inside the United States, including a new president assuming power. Even today, one can easily predict that after the election, America will remain a profoundly divided country, which will give hell to any coordinated arms control approach by Washington. But even after the election, Moscow should be ready to meet with the US leadership to discuss arms control and build a new security system amid the wreckage of what is left. Disarmament partnership will be particularly important, especially given that the general picture of Russian-American relations in many other areas is likely to remain hostile.