Biden and Putin expected to launch arms control talks with Reagan-Gorbachev echo

BRUSSELS — President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to announce a new arms control dialogue this week, U.S. and European sources expect, as the Cold War-era rivals try to manage their nuclear arsenals before the last remaining pact expires in 2026.

“We have lots of disagreements about what’s the trade space,” a U.S. official familiar with the plan told the Washington Examiner. “So starting talks now is probably an imperative because it’s going to take a long time to get to an agreement.”

To finalize that plan, they are convening in Geneva, Switzerland, the scene of a historic 1985 meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, where they are expected to affirm their predecessors’ then-landmark statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” That’s perhaps “low-hanging fruit,” the official acknowledged, but it also reflects alliance misgivings about Russia’s stated interest in using nuclear weapons to win a quick victory against one of its neighbors.

“That is designed to show the world that we’re still working towards disarmament and that we recognize the risks that an arms race would induce would be quite problematic,” the official said of the Reagan-Gorbachev echo, adding that “combined with the announced resumed dialogue, [the statement] attempts to set boundaries on renewed competition.”


Biden and the rest of the transatlantic alliance used a summit Monday in Brussels to set the stage for the Putin meeting. “Allies will welcome new strategic talks between the United States and Russia on future arms control measures, taking into account all Allies’ security,” a joint communique released Monday after the Brussels summit emphasized. “Allies will support further arms control negotiations, with the aim of improving the security of the Alliance, taking into account the prevailing international security environment.”

As the last-minute negotiations continued over the weekend, the alliance seemed poised to buttress that endorsement with a pledge that NATO will renounce the deployment of land-based nuclear weapons in Europe. France and Germany have favored such a gesture, which would not apply to the nuclear weapons hosted by Turkey and several Western European countries, as Russia’s flouting of the 1987 ban on land-based intermediate-range cruise missiles, and the subsequent U.S. withdrawal from the treaty in 2019, has raised the specter of an arms race on the continent.

Still, Russia hawks on both sides of the Atlantic, including in the NATO member-states that gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, are wary of disarmament pronouncements that seem too ambitious, in light of Russia’s ominous overhaul of their nuclear arsenal.

“The key part of NATO’s security is based on the nuclear component,” a senior Baltic official said. “So, that component is there, and we wouldn’t want ambiguity on that.”

The final version of the Brussels communique reiterated that “we have no intention to deploy land-based nuclear missiles in Europe,” hewed to the position articulated by the NATO defense chiefs in 2019.

“The reality is of course that Russia has deployed these systems in Europe, whereas the U.S. and the allies have not,” a source familiar with the dialogue said. “Of course, there are different positions in the alliance on any issue you could name, and some allies that probably would have preferred less decisive language than that … it is a consensus text, and it is a long-standing position of the alliance.”

That still leaves the dilemma of how to manage the emerging Russian nuclear threats in the region. The Reagan-Gorbachev meeting in 1985 led to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but Putin’s team ignored that ban. And while previous rounds of arms control talks involved renouncing or moderating similar kinds of weapons, any forthcoming negotiations will take place as U.S. and Russian negotiators disagree about what should be on the table. U.S. officials want to defang Russia’s capacity to use a nuclear weapon against its neighbors, while Moscow claims that U.S. missile defense systems violate the INF Treaty.

“It’s not clear we’ll ever get to an agreement,” the U.S. official said. “The talks might also move down a path that is less formal, and that’s where you could have voluntary agreements that capture different kinds of weapons that aren’t formal treaties, that don’t require Senate confirmation.”

That prospect might seem familiar to arms control observers who tracked the crafting of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

“The ideal is to have a formal treaty,” the official said. “The trade-offs are probably too difficult to get to a formal treaty, and even if you could wind up with an agreement between us and them, getting the legislative branch to ratify what was agreed to is probably a bridge too far.”

In any case, the task at hand is not to try to prevent a regime from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the innovations of the world’s two largest nuclear powers.


“It’s not just the tactical nuclear weapons,” the official added. “It is the short-range stuff. It is ballistic missiles and cruise missiles in the INF class, which is a lot of weapons on the Russian side that we would like to see captured in a new regime.”

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Original Author: Joel Gehrke

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