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Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there has been an atmosphere of pessimism surrounding arms control between the United States and Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of the suspension of Russia’s participation in the New START treaty further increased tensions. It allowed arms control pessimists to dominate the narrative and effectively propagate their rhetoric.
The invasion and suspension together put the arms control framework on the back burner, triggering a situation for arms control proponents that had not been seen since the Cuban missile crisis. However, all is not lost. The present circumstances provide a perfect time for US-Russia arms control rapprochement because in every crisis, there is opportunity.

The historical record provides support for this argument. It was a surprise that the US and the Soviet Union were able to quickly negotiate and ratify an arms control treaty – the Partial Test Ban Treaty – within a year of the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis. This serves as a reminder that the prospect of arms control holds promise, making this an opportune moment for the US and Russia to pursue fresh arms control agreements.

The present dynamics have some resemblance to the pre-detente era, when cooperation on arms control was almost negligible. However, as those volatile circumstances brought the leaders of two superpowers to the negotiating table, the tensions originating from the war in Ukraine can also compel Putin and US President Joe Biden to resume arms control talks and avoid potentially catastrophic outcomes.

This proposal was the first of its kind after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It was a shift from the previous US strategy of demanding Moscow comply with the New START treaty. Russia welcomed this gesture, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov calling Sullivan’s offer “important and positive” and hoping “it would be supported with steps that will be made de facto through diplomatic channels”.
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As part of its annual assessment report to Congress, the US State Department reiterated in June that the treaty remains instrumental in bolstering US national security. It made this argument to Congress despite Russia suspending some treaty protocols, particularly the one regarding on-site inspections of facilities holding nuclear weapons. This suggests the US is still interested in bilateral engagement on arms control.
The question now is how to turn the current state of affairs into one that brings about arms control rapprochement. This is the right moment given some recent developments during the conflict, with Ukraine’s counteroffensive looking increasingly unlikely to make further progress into Russia’s defences.
This could help ease anxiety among Kremlin decision-makers and encourage them to resume talks. The emergence of a stalemate in Ukraine could also reduce the prevalence of nuclear sabre-rattling from Russia, helping provide a more conducive environment for arms control talks.
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If both parties want to accomplish this, they will have to follow a three-point agenda. First, they must find a way to decouple the issues around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from the resumption of arms control talks. They should not allow the conflict to hold dialogue hostage but instead set aside their differences, taking into account each other’s involvement in the conflict.

This would not be a “new normal”. Negotiations between the two countries persisted while the Soviets were supporting the Viet Cong against the US in Vietnam, and while the US was backing mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War. It worked then and it can work now as well.
Second, Russia and the US should each pull back from their decisions or plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus and the United Kingdom respectively. The US has already expressed concern over Russia placing its nuclear weapons in Belarus, and similarly Russia has said it would regard the US placing nuclear weapons in Britain as an escalation. Each side deciding to take a step back here would be a watershed moment but also a realistic one given that both sides have successfully implemented such an agreement in the past.
Finally, the Biden administration should recall its support for the International Criminal Court arrest warrant issued against Putin. It would be a difficult decision, but the leaders of the US and Russia must meet one on one to achieve the desired results, something that is impossible while the arrest warrant remains active. This is a step that must be taken given the importance of having top leadership meet face to face in previous negotiations.

Given that the US has offered to resume negotiations without preconditions, Russia’s interest in conditional acceptance is a step in the right direction. It reinforces the belief that hope still exists even in the darkest moments. War and the pursuit of arms races offer no viable solutions, only widespread devastation and suffering. Sanity should prevail in Washington and Moscow, and they should take these small but meaningful gestures to their logical end.

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