U.S.-Russian Relations Can Still Get Worse
Over the past year, Russia has torn down the last vestiges of cooperation with the West, most ominously with regard to nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. This is evident in Moscow’s approach to the 10th Review Conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and its recently-announced decision to suspend participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). As a result, measures put in place to manage the risk of nuclear confrontation during the Cold War are breaking down, right when they’re needed most.
As Russia and the West run out of dossiers to compartmentalize, Moscow will likely confine cooperation to issues that it does not view as central to the confrontation over Ukraine, or those that benefit its war aims — such as the delivery of cross-border aid into Syria. To respond, the West should be prepared to adopt a range of approaches: bargaining with Russia through third parties, overruling it, going around it, hindering it, and clearly exposing its responsibility for undermining nuclear arms control.
No More “Business as Usual”
It was the West that initiated the trend of abandoning compartmentalization in relations with Russia after the illegal annexation of Crimea in February 2014. In the months following the annexation, Western capitals narrowed the space for cooperation with Moscow considerably. NATO suspended all practical cooperation with Russia in April of that year, with its secretary-general coining the mantra of “no business as usual.” Just before, the Obama administration had championed an effort to halt Russia’s membership in the G8. A wariness to compartmentalize also affected collaboration in specific areas, as the United States ceased joint operations with Russia on dossiers including space exploration, missile defense, Afghanistan, peaceful atomic energy, and law enforcement. Cooperation with Russia on Syria’s chemical disarmament marked a rare exception to the rule, with several U.S. officials creating a “firewall” around the collaborative effort, notwithstanding considerable pushback from some within the Obama administration.
Washington viewed the suspension of routine business with Russia as punishment, yet also signaled that it was aimed at eliciting a change in Russian behavior: “if the Russian leadership stays on its current course,” President Barack Obama vowed in a speech in Brussels in March 2014, “together we will ensure that [Russia’s] isolation deepens.” The Europeans, by and large, followed Washington’s abandonment of “business as usual,” as governments suspended annual intergovernmental consultations with Russia, alongside other measures.
Russia’s recent refusal to compartmentalize therefore imitates a practice initiated by the United States. Its reticence is now affecting an already dwindling set of issues that the two sides had, for the most part, managed to wall off from tensions: nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.
Russian-U.S. strategic arms control began in earnest in the early 1970s, with an Interim Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty ending a long period of unmanaged nuclear competition. The former imposed temporary restrictions on both sides’ numbers of strategic ballistic missiles, whereas the latter stipulated limitations on their deployments of missile defense systems. Such arms control was aimed at stabilizing the U.S.-Soviet arms race, while also enhancing crisis stability by inhibiting the emergence of especially destabilizing capabilities. The agreements were later complemented or superseded by an evolving set of constraints on the size and character of Russian and U.S. nuclear forces. Of those constraints, New START — which caps the deployment of warheads at a maximum of 1,550 on 700 delivery vehicles for both countries — is the lone survivor today. In August 2019, the United States withdrew from another landmark agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, citing continued Russian violations.
But New START is now barely on life support due to Russia’s brinkmanship. On Nov. 28 of last year, Russia unilaterally postponed a meeting of the treaty’s Bilateral Consultative Commission at the last minute. In the meeting, the United States had hoped to make progress on the revival of on-site inspections under the treaty. Such inspections had been suspended in early 2020 by mutual agreement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and their resumption was complicated by Russia deciding to “temporarily exempt” its facilities from inspection activities on Aug. 8, 2022. Observers had also hoped that the commission would facilitate urgent discussions on a framework for a follow-on agreement to succeed New START in 2026.
By indefinitely postponing the Bilateral Consultative Commission meeting, Moscow insinuated that the Russian-U.S. standoff over Ukraine precluded any further compartmentalization of nuclear arms control. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned that Russia was not going to discuss New START while Washington kept arming Ukraine. After the United States and European states pledged the provision of main battle tanks to Ukraine in January 2023, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov reiterated that the broader situation remained unconducive to setting a new date for the Bilateral Consultative Commission. Suggesting that the United States “knows perfectly well which de-escalation steps (Russia) expects,” he essentially admitted that Russia is trying to blackmail the United States into abandoning military support for Ukraine by threatening disruption of New START.
In response, the U.S. State Department for the first time accused Russia of noncompliance with New START, though stopped short of saying that they were violating its warhead caps. Moscow’s response was defiant, warning that any Russian “positive signals or concessions” related to New START would be “unjustified, untimely, and inappropriate until Washington reviews its hostile policy towards Russia.” In his address to the Russian Federal Assembly on Feb. 21, President Putin escalated the issue even further, announcing that Moscow will suspend implementation of New START—a step which will at least partially end its exchange of notifications and information under the treaty. In this latest iteration of blackmail, Russia upped the ante, demanding not only on that the United States change its course on Ukraine, but also expressing concerns over the French and British nuclear arsenals —matters entirely separate from New START. Russia’s withdrawal of engagement on the treaty, aimed at changing its opponent’s behavior, has mirrored a practice the West introduced in 2014 — yet on an issue both sides had thus far treated as sacrosanct. Russia’s gamble is now clearly threatening the survival of the last existing nuclear arms control treaty.
Russia’s attitude towards other areas of nuclear diplomacy has been similarly unhelpful. Amid enhanced reliance on Iran for battlefield support, Russia broke with past practice and ceased to compartmentalize efforts to restore the Iran nuclear deal. Then last August, at the 10th review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Russia isolated itself as the only state party unprepared to adopt the draft final outcome document. Reflecting on this at a closed-door meeting, at which the author was present, a senior Russian official contended that the confrontation over Ukraine had become “far more important than this or that language in a review conference final document.” Admittedly, prospects for common ground in these areas had already deteriorated prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The 10th Nonproliferation Treaty review cycle, which had begun in 2015, had been adversely affected by the crisis in U.S.-Russian arms control — reflected in the U.S. abandonment of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and U.S. and Russian withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies — while a plethora of problems had stymied efforts to restore the Iran nuclear deal over the course of 2021. Still, Moscow has clearly seen less benefit in cooperating on these issues since its invasion of Ukraine.
The Slow Death of Compartmentalization
Russia’s recent support for U.N. Security Council resolution 2672, which endorsed the continuation of humanitarian cross-border aid into northwest Syria, offers insights into the conditions under which Moscow might still opt for compartmentalization. Prior to the vote in January, there was a concern that Russia would use its veto. In July 2022, when it last endorsed a similar extension in resolution 2642, Moscow made sure to extract commitments from other council members, including on greater support for “early recovery” assistance for Syria. As tensions over Ukraine mounted through the fall, observers worried that Russia might not play along again.
Those fears did not come to pass. Russia supported resolution 2672, probably calculating that it would be shooting itself in the foot by killing off cross-border aid. Since Syria serves as a platform for Russian power projection into the eastern Mediterranean and vis-à-vis NATO, Russia is eager to protect its existing presence there — which requires a modicum of stability, especially at a time when its own military remains bogged down in Ukraine. Since resolution 2672 is a “confirmation” of the existing authorization delineated in resolution 2642, Moscow could also be sure to retain its levers vis-à-vis Western states on “early recovery” assistance. Russia’s vote was also likely intended to placate Turkey, which has a vital interest in the continuation of such aid and has accumulated considerable leverage over Russia since the invasion. And so, Moscow compartmentalized — because non-cooperation would have afforded it few additional leverage gains against the West, because it could placate its partners, and because it was the prudent decision given Russia’s own resource constraints.
Today, Russia and the West are running out of issues to compartmentalize. Having framed the war against Ukraine as an all-encompassing struggle for its sovereignty, its identity, and the future of global order, Russia believes that it needs “unfettered hands” vis-à-vis Western states. Pending a fundamental improvement in Russia’s relations with the West — which would require a resolution to Russia’s grievances against the existing European security order, something surely not in the offing with the current Russian regime — this reality is not going to change.
Both sides should abandon any remaining pretenses that cooperation can be treated like a reward that will be granted pending the other side’s fundamental change in behavior. Any Western hope post-2014 that suspending collaboration with Russia would force a course correction in Moscow proved futile. There is little reason to believe that Russia’s current attempt to imitate the same approach will produce a different result. Washington will not drop its support for Ukraine, caving to a Russian government that is holding nuclear arms control hostage.
And so, the Russian-Western collaborative agenda will continue to atrophy. Russia’s recent support for resolution 2672, for instance, does not guarantee that future talks to extend the mandate for delivering cross-border aid into Syria will be smooth — as recent Russian statements, following the devastating earthquake in Syria and Turkey, already indicate. With Russia lately announcing that it will quit the International Space Station after 2024 — saying it needs to “reconsider its priorities” — joint Russian-Western projects are set to become even rarer. Western states will do their bit to contribute to the degeneration of a shared agenda, having, for instance, halted collaboration with Russia in the Arctic. Engagement with Russia in legacy multilateral institutions will continue. But, judging from Moscow’s voting record on the U.N. Security Council in 2022, finding common ground will keep getting harder.
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to replace the dying practice of compartmentalization.
In multilateral bodies where decisions require majority support rather than consensus, Washington and its European allies should work to rally broad-based backing for their policies, including from routinely abstaining and adversely voting states susceptible to Russian influence. This could work, for instance, in the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, whose voting process might still allow the organization to operate effectively. It will be harder in fora where Russia can single-handedly block decisions — like Nonproliferation Treaty review conferences. In this context, upcoming meetings will likely remain beholden to Russian-Western confrontation. States might therefore consider pursuing progress on nuclear risk reduction or the disarmament agenda through other avenues, including more dialogue between states parties and non-adherents to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
On select issues negotiated outside of multilateral organizations, there might be room for Washington to seek the support of those that retain leverage over, or goodwill with, the Kremlin. Turkey, for instance, will likely continue to be useful on Ukraine, where Ankara has already played a mediating role with Russia on grain exports and prisoner exchanges. For other dossiers, such as humanitarian aid, Western states should devise contingency plans that go around Moscow entirely. Humanitarian actors have long called for hastened efforts to work out the legal, financial, and logistical requirements for helping Syrians if Russia blocks U.N. Security Council action in the future. These pleas have intensified in the wake of the devastating earthquake affecting northern Syria. Further north, the United States is now also sidestepping Moscow in pursuing the resumption of projects in the Arctic Council that do not involve Russia.
There will also be issues where outvoting or circumventing Moscow will not suffice. Here the West should aggressively push back against the Kremlin. If Russia — as some fear — proves more open to supporting would-be nuclear proliferators like Iran, Western states should considerably step up their counterproliferation game in order to check Moscow.
Strategic nuclear arms control is in its own category. Given the stakes, Washington should still use all available means to reverse Russia’s decision to suspend the implementation of New START. If the parties abandon New START before it expires in 2026, or fail to follow it up with some sort of arrangement, they will lose the limits on their deployed strategic nuclear warheads, as well as their ability to predict one another’s nuclear acquisitions and activities. A new nuclear arms race may well ensue, consuming resources Washington would be better off investing in new technological frontiers, further undermining America’s ability to engage China on arms control, and making future military crises with Russia more dangerous.
However, the longer that Moscow tears at the fabric of the treaty for political gains, the louder the voices in Washington opposing any arms control with Russia will become. Its latest decision unfortunately suggests that Moscow might already have adopted a post-New START calculus. By piling on further demands unrelated to the treaty, the Kremlin appears to be seeking to deliberately provoke a situation in which the United States will feel no choice but to leave it — letting Moscow then blame Washington for its demise. The Biden administration should forcefully preempt such a move, exposing Russia’s calculus and willingness to endanger global strategic stability. Washington should also signal that, if Moscow wants to risk a new arms race, the United States will have an increasingly strong hand as the war takes its toll on Russia’s economy. One must hope that the Kremlin will recognize that it still benefits from nuclear arms control — if not, U.S.-Russian relations can still get much worse.
Hanna Notte, Ph.D. is a senior research associate with the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, where she focuses on arms control and security issues involving Russia, the Middle East, their intersection, and implications for U.S. and European policy. She holds a doctorate and M.Phil. in international relations from Oxford University and a B.A. in social and political sciences from Cambridge University. Her contributions have appeared in The Nonproliferation Review, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and Carnegie, among others.
Image: The White House