Can Shared US–Russian Interests Lead to Joint Action?

January 13, 2021
William C. Potter and Anton Khlopkov

The following article originally appeared in the Russian-language Kommersant on January 13, 2021.

As the world enters the new year with a new US administration waiting in the wings, it is tempting to assume that the downward spiral in US-Russian relations can be slowed, if not reversed. Nowhere is the need for this change in trajectory more acute than in the sphere of nuclear arms control, where little remains of the once robust mix of formal accords, informal policy coordination, and routine consultations. The situation, arguably, is the worst it has been since Washington and Moscow ushered in the nuclear nonproliferation regime more than 50 years ago.

Speaking in an interview on CNN in early January 2021, Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security advisor, said he “very much believe[d] that the United States and Russia can act in their national interests to advance an arms control and strategic stability agenda”. He added that Moscow and Washington cooperated on arms control and nuclear nonproliferation issues even at the height of the Cold War.

Speaking earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also stressed the special importance of US-Russian dialogue for strengthening the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) nonproliferation regime. He noted that “It was our two states that were at the cradle of the common framework for multilateral cooperation to prevent WMD from falling into the hands of non-state actors and to combat acts of nuclear terrorism”.

Given the past record of US-Russian nonproliferation cooperation, what accounts for our current inability to respond to the existential threat posed by proliferation and use of nuclear weapons?   Have the memories of prior close calls such as the Cuban Missile Crisis faded?  Do we no longer recognize our shared interests and responsibilities in preventing a nuclear catastrophe?  Is it possible for us to rediscover the prior habit of cooperation to forestall the spread of nuclear weapons to other state and non-state actors?

There are no easy answers to these questions, and many different factors are involved, including personalities, domestic politics, overconfidence in technology, and misplaced faith in the continuation of good luck. What can be said with confidence is the urgent need for Russia and the United States to reassess the nature and scope of their shared interests with respect to nuclear challenges.

What might this look like in practice under the new Biden administration, and how could the required dialogue on nuclear issues be facilitated?

A good starting point would be for the two parties to undertake parallel nuclear threat assessments, ideally by government experts in each country.  Such an exercise would help to clarify prevailing perceptions of paramount nuclear dangers and preferred arms control and nonproliferation strategies. It also would reveal the degree to which one can still speak of a convergence of perceived threats and interests.  In addition, a comparative assessment would indicate areas in which cooperative action might be relatively easy to achieve, as well as those in which divergent assessments of threats make collaboration more difficult. If it proved impractical to conduct this exercise at a government level, it would be worthwhile to undertake a joint Russian and US Academies of Sciences study on the topic or, alternatively, to commission a pair of surveys by a team of US and Russian think tanks or research centers.

In terms of facilitating a structured dialogue, a very useful step would be to revive the once routine but long-dormant practice of convening bi-annual meetings at the assistant/under-secretary or deputy foreign minister level at which all nuclear proliferation issues of interest to either party were on the table for discussion. Such meetings are valuable both for the sharing of substantive concerns about proliferation developments and the process of enhancing communications and personal ties among policy makers, which can reduce misperceptions.  More routine interactions also are important means to build trust, restore respect, and increase empathy—features that are noticeable for their absence in current US-Russian nuclear (and other) relations.

In addition to intensifying contacts between the US Department of State and the Russian Foreign Ministry, it is necessary to initiate regular working meetings on nuclear issues between senior Defense Department/Ministry officials, as well as the organizations that oversee the US and Russian nuclear energy complexes. We wrote about the need for such regular meetings in another article in Kommersant about 30 months ago. We believe the need is even greater today.

It also would be worthwhile to resurrect, perhaps in a new format and with a revised scope, a number of the arms control, nuclear energy, and nuclear security working groups that were originally established under the bilateral US-Russian Presidential Commission.  The work of these groups was suspended in 2014, but they are very familiar to officials in both Moscow and the Biden team.

Additionally, there are many multinational fora where the United States and Russia often engaged cooperatively on nuclear matters, even if their interests and preferred strategies did not always coincide.  These venues included the meetings of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the First Committee of the U.N. General Assembly (dealing with disarmament issues), and the quinquennial review conferences of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). These venues still exist, but cooperation has been noticeably absent in recent years, and bilateral interactions have tended to be undiplomatic and counterproductive.

It is unrealistic to expect that the arrival of a new US administration will, by itself, remove all the obstacles that have impaired US–Russian arms control and nonproliferation cooperation. The tangle of problems in bilateral relations cannot be quickly unraveled, and the level of mutual mistrust is simply too great to dissipate quickly.  There will be opportunities in early 2021, however, for the United States and Russia to replace “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” approach to nuclear relations with a “step by step” approach in which each joint action creates a more favorable climate for additional constructive actions.

The first such opportunity concerns the looming expiration of the New START Treaty on 5 February. Action must be taken quickly to secure its extension. The Biden Administration also will have a very limited window of opportunity in which to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action before that nuclear deal becomes hostage to the presidential elections in Iran set for mid-June 2021. Washington and Moscow both played a key role in negotiating the deal and should be equally interested in restoration of its effectiveness.  A third opportunity for constructive joint action involves the 10th NPT Review Conference scheduled for August 2021 in New York.  As the two principal architects of the NPT, there would be no better occasion for Russia and the United States to demonstrate by cooperative engagement that regardless of their different visions of the current world order they remain committed to the Treaty’s underlying goals of nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

William Potter is Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar Professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Anton Khlopkov is Director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies in Moscow.

Read the original Kommersant in Russian.


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