President Biden’s high-stakes summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to be dominated by friction over Russian-linked cyberattacks, election interference and human rights abuses and what U.S. officials see as a meddlesome Kremlin foreign policy aimed at undermining efforts to promote stability and democracy around the world.
Beyond the headline clashes, however, a growing concern is lurking in both Washington and Moscow over China’s rise as a nuclear-armed global power. Beijing is not constrained by once-revered but now increasingly outmoded U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control architecture.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin are unlikely to see eye to eye during their one-day summit in Switzerland on dealing with China, let alone find a way to cooperate on containing Beijing‘s increasingly advanced weapons development and ability to project power.
Some analysts, however, say the two leaders could agree in Geneva on the need for talks to update the crumbling slate of Cold War-era agreements designed to stave off a global nuclear war.
“If there is a real agreement on anything during this summit, it will be an agreement between the two sides to talk more about this issue,” said Donald Jensen, a former senior U.S. diplomat who heads the Russia and strategic stability program at the United States Institute of Peace.
“What you’re likely to see is an agreement to discuss strategic stability in a changing international environment, and Issue No. 1 in that changing environment is the growth of China as a new great power with more than 300 nuclear warheads,” Mr. Jensen said in an interview.
He said China’s rise is not the only issue at play.
“No. 2 is the fact that the Russians, and perhaps the U.S. eventually, are debating whether to modernize their own strategic nuclear forces,” Mr. Jensen said. “And No. 3 is the development of new weapons systems that are not covered by existing treaties, meaning space- and cyber-related developments, as well as other stuff such as hypervelocity weapons.”
The Arms Control Association circulated an analysis Monday that underscored how the decades-old U.S.-Russian strategic relationship in recent years has been “complicated by the development and fielding by each side of emerging technologies.”
“Russia has wantonly violated several arms control and nonproliferation agreements, is developing new nuclear weapons delivery systems that echo some of the worst excesses of the Cold War, and may be increasing its total warhead stockpile for the first time in decades,” the analysis said. “Amid rising tensions and growing nuclear competition between the world’s two largest nuclear-weapon states, nuclear risk reduction and disarmament discussions have been pushed to the back burner.”
That reality was on display in February when Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin extended the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) by five years rather than renegotiate it to address the evolving landscape of weapons and threats. Critics said the extension ignores China’s emergence as a major nuclear power and likely cedes leverage to Moscow over future negotiations.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin also are likely to air a range of non-nuclear problems, not least of which is the rising tide of ransomware and other cyberattacks against U.S. companies and government agencies. U.S. intelligence sources say the Kremlin is tacitly supporting the attacks.
The Biden administration has said it wants a more predictable relationship with the Kremlin. It seeks to stem Moscow’s pressure campaign in Ukraine, the Kremlin’s attacks on Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his followers, and the Russian president’s backing of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
“What [Mr. Biden] is going to make clear to President Putin is that we seek a more stable, predictable relationship with Russia, and if so, there are areas where our interests overlap, and we may be able to find ways to work together,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during an appearance Sunday on CNN. “But if Russia chooses to continue reckless and aggressive actions, we will respond forcefully, as the president has already demonstrated that he would when it comes to election interference or the SolarWinds cyberattack or the attempt to murder Mr. Navalny with a chemical weapon.”
On arms control, the administration has concerns about the extent to which the two sides can agree on how to structure discussions on New START or other “strategic stability” matters, even by putting aside the China questions.
The Trump administration pressed for significant revisions to the strategic arms agreement to cover newer Russian weapons and unsuccessfully insisted that China be included because of its fast-growing arsenal, but the fate of the agreement was still hanging when President Trump left office.
His administration did cite similar concerns over Russian violations of — and China’s absence from — the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin deemed obsolete and let lapse in 2019.
The INF Treaty, which President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev negotiated in 1987, prohibited the U.S. and the USSR from building or deploying missiles and launch systems ranging from 300 to 3,400 miles. As the agreement was crumbling, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Robert P. Ashley Jr. told an audience at the Hudson Institute that China and Russia saw themselves in a new nuclear and missile competition with the United States and with each other.
Moscow, in particular, has been abandoning decades of nuclear reduction efforts in favor of a fresh stockpile that is “likely to grow significantly,” Mr. Ashley said at the time.
Analysts in India, which views China as a nuclear-armed rival, have focused more intensely on Beijing’s advancing capabilities with conventional nuclear weapons and possibly with new submarine-launched ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads.
An April study circulated by the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation noted that China operates four Jin-class ballistic missile nuclear submarines capable of carrying up to 12 JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile that can “clock up to [4,500 miles], which enables China to target India, Russia, Guam, Hawaii and Alaska, but not the continental U.S. if it uses the South China Sea as a naval bastion.”
Intelligence sources have told The Times about a debate in the U.S. national security community over whether Washington should try to drive a wedge between Russia and China to draw the Kremlin into the campaign to rope China into future arms control deals.
Mr. Jensen said he sees such talk as a “dead end” because too many geopolitical variables are at play with regard to Russian strategic interests in the context of China’s rise.
Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior Washington Institute fellow focused on Russia, cast doubt on the notion that Moscow could be drawn into U.S. efforts to counter Beijing. “I just don’t think Russia is going to help us confront China,” she said in an interview ahead of the Putin-Biden summit.
“I realize that that’s kind of a popular notion from a Western analytical perspective, because if you look at it objectively, it is true that the real concern for Russia should be China,” she said. “But I think it’s fruitless to try to hope that Russia, if given a good deal or proper deal, will help confront China.”
Ms. Borshchevskaya also expressed concern about the Biden administration’s claim to seek a “predictable relationship” with Mr. Putin “so that they can put Russia on the back burner of American foreign policy and prioritize China.”
“I don’t think it works like that because Russia doesn’t want a predictable relationship,” she said.
China’s Global Times newspaper, which has close links to the ruling Communist Party, recently carried an eye-opening interview with Andrey Denisov, the Russian ambassador to Beijing, about the U.S.-Russia-China strategic dance.
Asked whether a U.S. push to ease tensions with Russia and concentrate on China could work, Mr. Denisov responded bluntly that “this view is too short-sighted.”
“It can’t happen,” he said. “I think we’re smarter than what the Americans think.”
Mr. Denisov appeared to leave open the prospect of a U.S.-Russian agreement on great power nuclear issues, even as he spoke about growing Russian-Chinese alignment.
When asked what position Russia would take in the event of an armed conflict between China and the U.S., the ambassador responded, “There will be no answer to this question because I am convinced that there will be no armed conflict between China and the U.S., just as there will be no armed conflict between Russia and the U.S., because such a conflict would exterminate all mankind, and then there would be no point in taking sides.
“However,” Mr. Denisov said, “if you are asking about the judgment of the international situation and major issues, then Russia‘s position is clearly much closer to China’s.”