Expectations are low that Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin can reach any significant accommodation during their first presidential summit on Wednesday in Geneva — with one possible exception: nuclear arms control.
Washington and Moscow have publicly expressed a desire to use the summit to reestablish formal talks on an exigent issue they have traditionally sought to shield from their many disputes. But it won’t be easy to keep it from being dragged into their growing combativeness in the air, on land and sea and in cyberspace.
In the days leading up to the tense meeting, ex-defense chiefs, foreign ministers and retired nuclear commanders from both nations also proposed a series of steps the two leaders could take to help constrain the world’s deadliest arsenals as both countries are fielding new weapon systems.
Those range from a simple pledge to resume regular negotiations to seek further reductions, to a more ambitious but nonbinding public commitment to reduce current arsenals, if only modestly, as a goodwill gesture for future negotiations.
The fact that these recommendations come from military and diplomatic veterans in both countries sets the issue apart from the host of other thorny security issues crowding the summit agenda where there appears to be little if any diplomatic daylight. Those include Russian election meddling and cyber attacks to its invasion of Ukraine and support of the Syrian government’s massacre of civilians.
“There’s going to be a lot of airing of differences and grievances, but I think there also is some opportunity for progress on the area of strategic stability and arms control,” said Lynn Rusten, former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation on the National Security Council during the Obama administration and an ex-State Department official. “I think the whole meeting is going to provide a new grounding.”
No one is banking on detailed agreements to emerge from Geneva; even the definition of strategic threats has only grown more complex now that cyber attacks, political warfare and other forms of mischief can destabilize entire nations as massive military conflict could in previous generations.
But both governments have been striking a similar tone in recent days on the nuclear front, at least rhetorically.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan expressed the administration’s desire to get back to a regular dialogue with Moscow on nuclear matters as a first step. “We believe the starting point for strategic stability talks should be the very complex set of nuclear arms issues that face our two countries,” he told reporters ahead of Biden’s European trip.
Sullivan’s comments came a day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in typically verbose Russian diplomatic language, also hinted at a desire to reach common ground on nuclear issues as part of broader discussions.
“We advocate a comprehensive approach and taking into account all, without exception, factors influencing strategic stability in our dialogue with the United States,” he said. “I mean nuclear and non-nuclear, and offensive and defensive weapons.
“Anything that affects strategic stability must be discussed during a dialogue,” he continued. “I hope that, based on the preliminary work and consultations in preparation for this summit, President Vladimir Putin and President Joseph Biden will be able to determine a strategic policy for future work in these areas.”
A common push
Both presidents are also getting a rare push from a range of respected voices who spent decades in government trying to avoid a U.S.-Russian nuclear conflict.
Former nuclear officials and arms control experts in the United States, Europe and Russia have jointly issued a flurry of recommendations for how to revive a formal dialogue to reduce the nuclear danger.
“Clashing national interests, insufficient dialogue, eroding arms control agreements, advanced missile systems, and new cyber and hypersonic weapons have destabilized the old equilibrium and are increasing the risk of nuclear conflict,” a loose collection of notables calling themselves the Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group wrote in outlining a series of principles to guide Biden and Putin.
The signatories include a range of former military leaders and strategists who served on opposing sides of nuclear war planning, such as the ex-head of Russian strategic rocket forces and the top U.S. and NATO military commanders in Europe. Also lending his voice was Putin’s first foreign minister and former head of his security council, Igor Ivanov.
At minimum they are urging Biden and Putin to declare in a joint statement that the two countries are committed to regular, senior level talks to discuss “strategic stability,” a process that foundered over the last four years, in which the two sides met face-to-face only twice.
“We cannot have strategic stability without dialogue,” the arms control veterans wrote. “The absence of dialogue erodes stability. The tools of communication are not being used as they should be.”
In a separate public appeal, U.S. and Russian nuclear veterans also called on both leaders to “commit to a bilateral strategic dialogue that is regular, frequent, comprehensive and result oriented leading to further reduction of the nuclear risk hanging over the world and to the re-discovery of the road to a world free of nuclear weapons.”
Both leaders are believed to be going into the day-long summit with the intention of reaching some agreement on the way forward even if most of their meeting is spent leveling charges and countercharges.
“I think arms control is seen as the only area where progress is possible,” said Nikolai Sokov, a former Russian Foreign Ministry official who helped negotiate several arms control agreements between the United States and Russia. “Both sides want to isolate arms control from the rest of the issues.”
“I think we are going to see some progress there,” Sokov, who is now a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, added in an interview. “It is hard to know exactly how much progress, but I would say the most likely outcome is they will decide to launch some strategic stability talks on the issues. Maybe they will give it a different name. What’s really needed right now is what is the scope of the agenda, what will be on the table?”
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a leading disarmament group, also said he is hopeful that an agreement to restart formal nuclear talks is in the offing.
“Both governments, not just the two presidents, have made it clear that they see that as being their own self-interest and mutual interests,” said Kimball, who met with Biden’s National Security Council staff ahead of the summit to discuss ways that such a dialogue could be developed.
“Strategic stability talks are fundamentally about reducing the factors that can increase the risk of conflict spilling into the nuclear realm,” he added. “If they don’t achieve that, it will be very disappointing.”
Just days after Biden took office in January, the United States and Russia agreed to a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which limits both sides’ most powerful nuclear arms to 1,550 deployed weapons. But there is little agreement on what might come next for further arms control agreements.
The Russians have insisted publicly that any future pact must also cover missile defense systems, which Moscow views as destabilizing and Lavrov’s pre-summit statement alluded to when he referred to a desire to discuss “offensive and defensive weapons.” That has been a non-starter for U.S. negotiators for years.
The United States, meanwhile, has maintained that Russia’s thousands of reported tactical nuclear weapons, which are not covered by New START, must also be on the table. Russia is believed to maintain significantly more battlefield nuclear weapons than the United States.
One of the most complex issues involves shorter-range nuclear-tipped missiles that were previously banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a 1987 pact that Russia violated and both countries recently scrapped.
“We’ve extended New START for five years. But what comes after that?” Sullivan asked last week. “How do we deal with the fact that the INF Treaty is no more, how do we deal with our concerns about Russia’s new nuclear systems?”
Setting the agenda
One of the recommendations offered by the arms control advocates ahead of the summit is for Biden and Putin to “implement a ban on the deployment of Russian and U.S. land-based INF-range missile systems.”
NATO leaders issued a communique on Monday in which they declared “we have no intention to deploy land-based nuclear missiles in Europe.”
But a number of close observers see it as unlikely that Biden and Putin will make such a pledge, given the Russian violation of the INF Treaty and little confidence in Washington that Moscow’s word can be trusted without strict verification measures.
“Russia has deployed nuclear missiles in Europe. That’s why the INF Treaty doesn’t exist anymore,” said Tim Morrison, a senior fellow at the hawkish Hudson Institute who was deputy assistant to President Donald Trump for national security. “So are we making a unilateral concession? That’s never a good idea. Even if it was a bilateral agreement that either the U.S. or Russia deploy nuclear missiles in Europe, Russia couldn’t honor it when it was a treaty. Why would we have any reason to believe Russia would honor such an agreement now?”
Chances are considered a bit better, if still a long shot, that the two leaders might agree to a “voluntary non-binding commitment” to lower their number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,400 this year, such as the long-range missiles in underground silos, aboard submarines or outfitted on bomber aircraft.
Both countries have already declared under the reporting requirements of New START that they are well below the limit of 1,550. Agreeing to keep to a lower level “should be feasible and would be symbolically important,” the ex-American, European and Russian officials argued last week.
Biden and Putin are also being encouraged to use their Geneva meeting to reaffirm the joint statement made at the height of the Cold War in 1986 by then-Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Advocates contend that such a declaration would send a strong signal of a collective commitment to ratchet down the nuclear rivalry.
Morrison said “I wouldn’t be surprised” if that happens, though he said the Trump administration opted against such a statement without some commitment from Russia that it is actually reducing the role of nuclear weapons in its military planning.
What’s clear is that U.S allies in Europe are banking on at least some modest breakthrough on the nuclear front.
Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, told the German parliament last week that he has conveyed to the Americans his hope that nuclear disarmament will be at the top of the Biden-Putin agenda.
Still, the relationship is so fragile that any new confrontation, such as another cyber attack traced to Moscow or more military action in Ukraine, could derail nuclear talks before they even get going.
“The extent to which you can isolate arms control from everything else is a big question,” said Sokov. “It is a delicate balancing act. If the balance is off, everything begins to crumble.”