The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia postpones talks on New START pact, imperiling major nuclear accord

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova has linked the cancellation of a meeting on arms control to U.S. support for Ukraine. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
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RIGA, Latvia — Russia’s unilateral postponement — citing “political reasons” — of a technical meeting with U.S. officials about the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty has called into question the future of the sole remaining strategic nuclear arms control treaty between Washington and Moscow, as Russia lashes out amid setbacks in its war on Ukraine.

The New START accord, which built on Cold War deals to limit nuclear arms, is not due to expire until February 2026, but regular inspections mandated by the treaty have not been held for nearly three years, first because of the coronavirus pandemic, and then because of relations poisoned by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Tuesday explicitly linked the decision to postpone this week’s meeting to Washington’s weapons supplies to Ukraine, demanding that the United States “create conditions” for a meeting to go ahead next year.

She accused Washington of mounting a “hybrid war” against Russia and “helping the Kyiv regime to kill our military and civilians in the Russian regions, providing for this increasingly destructive means of armed struggle and sending American instructors, advisers and mercenaries to Ukraine.”

Earlier, the Foreign Ministry had indicated that talks of the New START Bilateral Consultative Commission, due in Cairo this week, were postponed, not canceled, and that new dates would be proposed soon.

But Zakharova said arms control talks could not be divorced from “geopolitical realities.” She blamed the United States for Russia’s decision not to attend the meeting, “taking into account the extremely negative situation in Russian American relations that was created by Washington and continues to deteriorate steadily.”

Moscow had initially offered no reason for the decision, announced Monday a day before the meeting was due to take place. The United States responded that it was ready to reschedule the meeting as soon as possible.

A State Department official said Russia was squarely to blame.

“The Russian side informed the United States that Russia has unilaterally postponed the meeting and stated that it would propose new dates,” the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic matters. “The United States is ready to reschedule at the earliest possible date as resuming inspections is a priority for sustaining the treaty as an instrument of stability.”

The demise of New START would mark the near-total collapse of the nuclear nonproliferation architecture that the United States and the Soviet Union built through the 1980s and ’90s.

The Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was abandoned in 2019 by the Donald Trump administration, which accused Russia of breaches.

The New START accord meetings are the single remaining bilateral channel for Washington and Moscow to negotiate delicate technical issues regarding arms control. The last meeting of the Bilateral Consultative Commission was held in October last year.

Signs of trouble emerged in August, when Russia prevented U.S. inspections of its nuclear arms facilities under the treaty, accusing Washington of attempting to carry out an inspection without prior notice amid “ongoing unresolved issues.”

“In all areas, we note the highest level of toxicity and hostility from Washington. As part of the all-out hybrid war unleashed against us, almost every step the United States takes with regard to Russia indicates a pathological desire to harm our country wherever possible,” Zakharova commented on Telegram.

Zakharova’s strident tone is a well-known trademark, but it raises questions on whether Russia plans to use future meetings as a bargaining chip in trying to get Washington to pressure Kyiv to accept Russia’s terms for peace. Those terms include surrendering territory illegally annexed by President Vladimir Putin.

Russian officials from Putin down have at times hinted that Moscow could use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, characterizing the war as an existential fight against NATO, and claiming that as a nuclear power, there is no way Russia can be defeated.

Laura Kennedy, a board member of the Arms Control Association, said in a statement that Russia’s decision to postpone the meeting is “irresponsible, especially at this time of heightened tensions when dialogue between the world’s two largest nuclear powers is paramount.”

Former U.S. presidential envoy on arms control Marshall S. Billingslea said that Russia’s decision is an “obvious and undeniable violation of the only arms control agreement that it hadn’t been violating,” in comments on Twitter Tuesday.

“Russia cannot be trusted to live up to any international agreement,” he added. Billingslea has long argued that Moscow habitually breaks treaties and sees arms control as a means to curb U.S. military power.

The New START accord, signed in 2010, limits each side to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 700 strategic delivery systems.

Rose Gottemoeller, former chief U.S. negotiator of the New START accord, argued recently that resuming nuclear weapons inspections is critical, in an article for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, adding that Russia’s war on Ukraine had complicated matters.

“The political environment between Washington and Moscow rapidly deteriorated, hitting rock bottom (for good reason) and hampering communication on all topics of mutual concern — including, importantly, the control of strategic nuclear weapons,” she wrote. “Russia’s war against Ukraine, punctuated by regular nuclear saber rattling, combined to raise concerns in Washington about whether Moscow would remain committed to bilateral nuclear arms control.”

But she said both sides had “been in quiet contact” for months, despite the problems, working on measures to allow the resumption of inspections.

In August, President Biden said he was ready to negotiate a new nuclear arms control framework with Russia to replace New START in 2026 when it expires, but added that this “requires a willing partner operating in good faith.” He said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had made this challenging.

At the same time, Putin issued a statement that a nuclear war “cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Until meetings and inspections under the New START accord resume, the hopes of negotiating a follow-on treaty appear dim.

A November editorial of the Arms Control Association warned that, with tensions between the United States and Russia worsening, “the risk of nuclear war is probably higher than at any point since 1962,” when Washington and Moscow stood on the brink of nuclear war, during the Cuban missile crisis.

John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.