GP Insights

GP Insights # 375, 27 June 2020

After the withdrawal, the US-Russia START talks returns in Austria
Harini Madhusudan

What happened?
The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that was signed in 2010, the last remaining bilateral treaty on nuclear weapons between the US and Russia is set to end in 2021. On 22 June, Sergei Ryabkov, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, and Marshall S Billingslea, the US Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control, met for two days to negotiate an extension to the START treaty, in Vienna. 

The US side stated that the talks have been productive enough to establish several technical working groups and take the initiative further. Russia welcomed the initiative but called the need to invite China, "unrealistic" and China showed no intention of taking part. 

What is the background?
First, START talks come amid the US withdrawal from global treaties. The negotiations come at a time when the US has been consistently walking away from previous treaties. Both the US and Russia suspended their obligations last year under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and recently the open skies treaty. 

Second, the US has wanted China onboard its arms control regimens for a while now. The Chinese spokesperson stated that its stockpile is not as large as that of the US or Russia and the "time is not right" for China to be a part of these negotiations. The US and Russian sides have agreed to meet for another talk at a later date. Billingslea said that the working groups would delve deeper into the issues that exist and would work towards a second round of talks by late July or early August. 

Third, international environment is different now. Though the deal to reduce long-range nuclear warheads and launchers was made in 2010, the limits did not take effect until 2018. With February 2021 as a deadline in mind, the US is seen trying to formulate a "perfect combination" for the next treaty. However, the conditions for the same no longer exist. Both the US-NATO and the US-EU relations are at an all-time low. Right from the troops' reduction in Germany and the disenchantment with NATO, the US does not have many allies like it did in 2010. 

What does it mean?
The US is trying to negotiate a deal at a time when its relations with the rest of the world are dicey. The insistence on wanting China onboard the new deal might slow down the process. It is also unclear if the renewal of the treaty in a trilateral setting would be sufficient for strategic arms control. It remains to be seen as to whether it be a better option to extend the previous treaty for a couple of years and negotiate a strategic treaty that encompasses all aspects of arms control.

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