The last few weeks before the U.S. presidential election have seen a slew of unexpected statements on arms control. Yet despite this feverish activity, consultations on strategic stability between Moscow and Washington have once again reached a dead end.

There is no point in expecting arms control to dominate the agenda of the next U.S. presidential term. But the two candidates have very different approaches to the topic, which means that the fate of one of the main issues in U.S.-Russian relations will be determined by whoever wins this week’s election. 

The Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, worked on arms control for many years, and his passion for the issue is well known. He has already promised to unconditionally extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years: after all, he worked on the treaty’s ratification himself when serving as Barack Obama’s vice president. There’s no reason to doubt his promise, not least because if Biden wins, the new administration will have just two weeks from his inauguration before the treaty expires: barely enough time to simply sign a renewal agreement, never mind to start discussing additional conditions. 

Biden will also be keen to hold further talks with Russia on arms control. From his comments on the issue so far, it’s clear that he is against the development of new types of nuclear weapons, which casts doubt over the as yet unimplemented program planned under Trump to create submarine-launched cruise missiles equipped with nuclear warheads. It also means that the low-yield warheads that under Trump have been deployed on Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles could be axed.

If Biden wins, he will be president of a deeply polarized country. To ratify international treaties with Russia, two-thirds of votes in the Senate are required: something the Democrats won’t have in any scenario. So the focus would have to be on steps that don’t require ratification, such as the Russian proposal that both countries introduce a moratorium on deploying intermediate- and shorter-range missiles in certain parts of the world. The jumping-off point for negotiations could be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent proposal that the moratorium should include the 9M729: a missile that has caused many arguments between Moscow and Washington.

The proposal to freeze the entire nuclear arsenals of both countries, including Russian tactical nuclear weapons, will also fall into this category. Moscow made the offer in the last few weeks before the U.S. presidential election in an obvious appeal to Trump to extend the New START, so it might not automatically be extended to the Democrats if they win. But either way, it won’t be forgotten about in Washington.

For all Biden’s openness to negotiations on arms control, the U.S. development of high-precision conventional weapons (including hypersonic ones) and missile defense systems, as well as attempts to improve relations with NATO allies and to constrain Russia, will likely take Moscow and Washington back to the same standoff they were in during Obama’s second term. Only this time around, it will be coupled with the growing rivalry between the United States and China: a row in which Russia has already taken sides.

Moscow and Washington will still have opportunities to make specific, flexible agreements on individual measures, such as intermediate- and shorter-range missiles, and the development of the U.S. missile defense system (particularly its space-based elements). But the political price of major breakthroughs could be too great for the two sides. On the other hand, even simply halting the collapse of the arms control system would be an achievement, albeit a temporary calm before the storm: even if the New START is extended, it expires in 2026.

If Donald Trump gets reelected for a second term, from an organizational viewpoint, the United States will be ready to promptly start consultations with Russia, and even full-fledged negotiations on arms control, since by the end of his first term, Trump had finally managed to assemble a team of negotiators. The lead negotiator, Marshall Billingslea, has also succeeded in establishing a good relationship with the Department of Defense: this was clear from the senior level of the military representatives present at U.S.-Russian consultations in Vienna. Both countries announced that they were prepared to continue those consultations, even if the United States did not extend the New START.

But that is where the good news on arms control ends. Of course, it can’t be ruled out that Trump, like former president Ronald Reagan, might suddenly want to perform an about-turn on the harsh line of his first term, and start active talks on arms control in his second. But even if that happens, he would struggle to achieve that goal.

Nor are the U.S. demands that drove the current consultations into a dead end likely to disappear. Washington will demand the freezing of Russian arsenals, including non-strategic nuclear weapons, as well as intrusive verification procedures in the tradition of the INF Treaty and START I. Russia has made it clear that it will not agree to that. U.S. negotiators, for their part, have not been prepared to agree to any restrictions on missile defense systems, or to react to other Russian concerns.

The Trump administration has already responded to Russia’s new proposals for a moratorium on intermediate- and shorter-range missiles, the answer being that the proposal was “a nonstarter.” Furthermore, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced that Washington was itself committed to building intermediate-range missile capabilities in both Asia and Europe.

This is not to say that if Trump is reelected, dialogue between Russia and the United States on arms control will stop for the next four years. One area with potential for some success is the working group on space, where the two sides appear to be discussing real problems, and where the lack of media attention means they might actually reach some agreements.

In addition, if the New START expires in February 2021, Washington and Moscow will in any case have to find a new modus operandi. Perhaps they won’t be able to enshrine it via a bilateral agreement, but neither country has any interest in a full-scale arms race, so some kind of agreement or at least reciprocal understanding is entirely feasible.

Finally, it will be easier for a Republican administration to get any agreements with Russia through the Senate. If he is reelected, Trump will control the party’s votes, and any remotely substantive agreement on arms control will find some support among the Democrats. The experience of the last four years, however, has shown that reaching such an agreement is unlikely.

  • Andrey Baklitskiy