One of President Biden’s first foreign policy tests will be brokering an extension of a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia that expires in just two weeks.
Negotiating the renewal of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or New START is complicated by Mr. Biden’s vows to punish Moscow for the recent SolarWinds hack and tensions with the Kremlin over meddling in the 2016 presidential race and allegations of putting bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
It presents Mr. Biden, who prides himself as a foreign policy whiz, with a difficult diplomatic needle to thread in the early days of his new administration.
The Biden administration plans to seek a five-year extension of the deal, The Washington Post reported on Thursday, citing two senior U.S. officials.
Antony Blinken, Mr. Biden’s pick to be secretary of state, said this week that they would get right to work on seeking an extension but demurred on a possible time frame.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki eased up on talk of retaliation for the SolarWinds hack, a cyberespionage campaign blamed on Russia that invaded systems throughout the federal government and corporate America.
“Of course, we reserve the right to respond at a time and in a manner of our choosing to any cyberattack, but our team is of course just getting on the ground today. They’re just getting onto their computers,” Ms. Psaki said on Wednesday at the first White House briefing of the Biden administration.
She also said that she did not have an announcement about plans for a call to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Mr. Biden’s first round of calls with foreign leaders. She said those calls will be to “partners and allies.”
He feels it’s important to rebuild those relationships and to address the challenges and threats we’re facing in the world,” she said.
Mr. Putin floated a short-term extension to the New START treaty, but negotiations with the Trump administration didn’t bear fruit.
“I think that there is pressure on both sides here to use the START treaty as a tool for engagement and for the setting of long-term strategic positions for both their countries,” said Matthew Schmidt, a national security professor at the University of New Haven.
Under the 10-year agreement, which took effect Feb. 5, 2011, the U.S. and Russia are limited to 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and nuclear-capable heavy bombers, 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed weapons, and 800 launchers and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear weapons.
There’s an option to extend the treaty for up to five years without having to consult with Congress.
Mr. Blinken said the incoming administration couldn’t engage on the issue during the transition because Mr. Biden wasn’t officially president yet.
“This is something that we will be coming to you on pretty much immediately after the president is sworn in,” Mr. Blinken told senators at his confirmation hearing this week. “I know that [Biden] does intend to seek an extension, and he will have to make a decision as president about what duration we would seek.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said this week that Russia is prepared to strike a deal on an extension.
“The most important priority is the absolutely abnormal situation in the sphere of arms control,” Mr. Lavrov said. “We have heard about the Biden administration’s intention to resume a dialogue on this issue and try to agree on the New START treaty’s extension before it expires on Feb. 5. We are waiting for specific proposals. Our stance is well-known.”
Part of the Trump administration’s objections to a straight extension was that Russia is building up a stockpile of non-strategic nuclear weapons that aren’t covered by the deal, said Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
“So basically any weapon system you can imagine, Russia puts a nuke on,” he said.
Coloring the renewal negotiations is what Mr. Biden plans to do to respond to the massive SolarWinds hack of federal agencies and major U.S. corporations. U.S. intelligence has officially fingered Russia as the likely culprit.
Adding to the tensions with Moscow, incoming National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan signaled that this week’s arrest of Putin foe Alexei Navalny, suspected of being poisoned by allies of the Russian president, is unacceptable.
“Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable,” he said on Twitter.
Mr. Kroenig said some instincts from members of Mr. Biden’s team would be to try for a clean five-year extension.
“But the arms control experts on the Biden team agree that China is a problem. They agree that the non-strategic nuclear weapons are a problem.” Mr. Kroenig said. “And so there are some, I think, in the Biden camp who would say the Trump team was kind of on to something — let’s just extend for a year or two to put pressure on the Russians.”
He said one counter-argument among members of Mr. Biden’s nuclear weapons team would be that the treaty is so vital that securing an extension is more important than trying to play games or extract political leverage from the negotiations.
“I think in this case the benefit of extending this arms control agreement is going to outweigh, or at least coexist side-by-side, [with] his determination to try to show that he’s tough on Russia in other ways,” Mr. Kroenig said.
The Trump administration had tried to loop China into the negotiations but got rebuffed.
Mike Pompeo, former President Trump’s secretary of state, and Marshall Billingslea, Mr. Trump’s special presidential envoy for arms control, said recently that Beijing refuses to disclose how many nuclear weapons it has, how many it plans to develop, or what it plans to do with them.
“Any successor to New START must be expanded to include China. The United States has done its part to reduce nuclear dangers; it is time that China stopped posturing and began to comport itself responsibly,” Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Billingslea said in an opinion piece published in Newsweek.
John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser for Mr. Trump, said this week that Mr. Biden should shoot for a six-month extension to try to keep the heat on Moscow and loop in Beijing, France, and Great Britain in the talks.
“All five legitimate nuclear-weapons states would thus be involved, depriving China of ground to complain,” Mr. Bolton said in a piece for the Wall Street Journal. “Is the U.S. supposed to wait until China reaches its comfort level of strategic warheads, and only then commence negotiations about reducing its capabilities? Contemporary arms control isn’t a serious effort if China is a bystander.”
Rapid advances in technology, research and development are also coloring the negotiations.
“Looming over all of this is the revolution in hypersonic weapons,” Mr. Schmidt said. “To some degree, the long-term interest of the United States is to get control over that and somehow fold those weapons into this treaty, which is not going to be easy to do.”
Hypersonic weapons fly at speeds of at least five times the speed of sound and experts have warned that the U.S. is falling behind both China and Russia on the development of the weapons.
“It’s not the 1970s anymore — strategic nuclear weapons aren’t the only strategic weapons,” Mr. Kroenig said.