Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series analyzing the nuclear diplomacy challenges the incoming Biden administration will face. In Part 1, USIP’s Robin Wright looks at the short window of time the Biden team will have to get nuclear negotiations on track with Iran. In Part 2, Frank Aum and Amb. Joseph Yun explain why domestic priorities may limit U.S.-North Korea engagement.

With relations between the United States and Russia at a low point, the incoming Biden Administration faces the challenge of finding the right balance between showing firmness toward the Kremlin and engaging on issues of mutual interest, above all arms control. President-elect Joe Biden has indicated he may agree to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years, a decision that could clear the way for further negotiations. But while extension of New START could lead to discussions on other areas of arms control, the potential for breakthroughs in the U.S.-Russia relationship appears dim.

Then Vice President Joe Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, March 10, 2011. (David Lienemann/White House)
Then Vice President Joe Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, March 10, 2011. (David Lienemann/White House)

The Biden administration will have ample reasons to take a hard line with Moscow. Its malign activities in recent years include aggression in Ukraine; interference in U.S. domestic politics, including alleged hacking of U.S. government computer systems; assassinations and attempted killings of critics at home and abroad; propping up of authoritarian regimes in Syria and Venezuela; and much more. Meanwhile, despite conflicting interests in several crucial areas, the United States and the Russian Federation share a fundamental objective in assuring strategic stability. 

Ultimately, the two countries will need to understand how to ensure such stability in an increasingly complex and unpredictable world, one in which the United States and Russia remain primary players, China is rapidly enhancing its capabilities, and regional powers can be disruptive. This approach must involve not only agreements on nuclear weapons or other traditional weapons of mass destruction but, if possible, understandings on new technologies—such as hypersonic weapons, unmanned nuclear vehicles, weapons in space, and potential cyber strikes—which could undermine missile command and control networks or vital infrastructure and could allow governments to circumvent the existing New START treaty and other previous accords. 

Ultimately, the two countries will need to understand how to ensure such stability in an increasingly complex and unpredictable world, one in which the United States and Russia remain primary players, China is rapidly enhancing its capabilities, and regional powers can be disruptive.

Some American proponents of arms control argue that new talks with the Russians could open the door for budget savings by scaling back the U.S. nuclear modernization effort, and Biden has promised to reduce “excessive” spending on nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal. But others argue that updates, though expensive, are overdue. This debate over the future of the strategic forces also has been driven by the president-elect’s campaign pledge to narrow the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. military doctrine. Biden has stated that their “sole purpose” should be to deter or respond to a nuclear attack. This approach would depart from current doctrine, which cautions that the United States might use nuclear weapons to respond to “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” in “extreme circumstances.” Such a doctrinal modification would necessitate strengthening conventional military capabilities, which in turn could put a premium on containing nuclear costs by deferring some systems and increase the incentive to negotiate nuclear weapons reductions with Moscow. (An extension of New START alone would not require the Pentagon to change its modernization plans, as they fall within the treaty’s limits.)

The View from Moscow

President Putin, meanwhile, sees Russia as a great power, a claim based substantially on its formidable nuclear arsenal. He also seeks to challenge U.S. global leadership, restore Russia’s predominant influence over the country’s neighbors, and preserve the current regime, which he sees threatened by Western influence. The Kremlin’s foreign policy, moreover, is often reflexively anti-American. For some Russian elites, the significance of Russia to the United States—depending on the scale and severity of the problems Moscow can create for Washington—is a key measure of Moscow’s self-assessment as a global power. Thus, they worry less about the chilly state of relations than signs the Biden administration might downgrade these relations (in line with President Obama’s 2014 assessment that Russia was only a “regional power”). These factors could make agreement on steps to continue the arms control process difficult.

Moscow, nevertheless, has favored a five-year extension of New START, even while the Kremlin does not expect an improvement in overall relations anytime soon. A renewal of the treaty would provide Moscow predictability about its rival’s intentions, contain American power, and buy time to discuss how to bolster strategic stability, especially in areas where Russia may be unable to compete. This is “a complex process that requires time, [and] thoughtful analysis,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov said in a recent interview. Indeed, any negotiations could require not only consideration of the impact of new systems and technologies but hard bargaining over issues such as further reductions, Russia’s numerical advantage in shorter-range and non-deployed nuclear arms (which have not been limited in previous accords), and the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense System. A modification of U.S. nuclear doctrine, moreover, would require the Russians to rethink their own.

A key indicator of the sides’ interest in any future agreement will be their willingness to separate nuclear or strategic stability talks from other differences, such as over the future of Ukraine, which are already highly confrontational. Linkage may be an especially tempting approach for the United States, which appears less interested in bilateral arms control than is Russia.

Whatever the prospects for arms control, the competition between the two countries is likely to continue in nonnuclear areas, such as conventional military, regional conflicts, and information operations. The Kremlin often tries to sow chaos among its adversaries to gain strategic advantage. In recent years, Russia has moved from a “classical, conventional power to a hybrid threat,” former Trump adviser Fiona Hill has noted. The Kremlin is thus likely to relish causing headaches for the Biden administration well away from the negotiating table.

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