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U.S. arms control talks with Russia a ‘challenge’ after Ukraine: diplomat

  • September 24, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 6:12 a.m.
  • English Press

By RYO NAKAMURA, Nikkei staff writer


NEW YORK — Resuming dialogue with Russia toward a new nuclear arms treaty would be a “challenge” amid Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, a senior U.S. State Department official says, while also noting little progress on proposed nuclear talks with China.


Bonnie Jenkins, appointed in July 2021 as undersecretary for arms control and international security, spoke with Nikkei on Thursday.


The Biden administration had opened a strategic stability dialogue with Moscow, looking toward a successor to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — or New START — now set to expire in 2026. These talks were halted in response to the invasion of Ukraine, and any resumption during the Russian invasion is “certainly a challenge,” Jenkins said.


President Joe Biden had said in August, ahead of an international conference to review the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), that “Russia should demonstrate that it is ready to resume work on nuclear arms control with the United States.”


“I would say that that has not been shown yet,” Jenkins told Nikkei. “So nothing has happened since then.”


A nuclear arms agreement requires rounds of dedicated negotiations, often lasting years. If New START lapses without another deal to take its place, the U.S. and Russia would have no nuclear disarmament framework for the first time since 1972.


Moscow’s statements threatening to use nuclear weapons raises “concerns,” says Bonnie Jenkins, U.S. undersecretary for arms control and international security. (Photo by Ryo Nakamura)

Russia last month blocked a proposed consensus document at the review conference for the broader NPT agreement, further sapping momentum for arms control.


Moscow has made allusions to the use of nuclear weapons still being on the table, which Jenkins said “concerns me,” adding that “we want to impress upon them the gravity of the situation, and not getting to that point.”


New START places limits on deployed nuclear warheads as well as on intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles and strategic bombers, all of which could be used to deliver nuclear payloads. The U.S. aims to broaden this scope under a post-2026 framework.


As for China, Jenkins acknowledged that little movement has occurred since Biden proposed high-level talks on nuclear and cyber issues at a virtual summit with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping last November. Biden told reporters at the time that he would “have more to report for you in the next two weeks.”


“We’re still impressing upon China our strong desire to have those kind of talks,” Jenkins said.


The U.S. Defense Department estimated last year that China would possess 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030, quintupling its total over a decade. But that still gives China a smaller arsenal than the U.S. or Russia, and Beijing has been consistently leery of arms control talks.


China reportedly has 1,250 ground-based intermediate-range missiles, aiming to keep American forces at a distance in the event of a conflict. The U.S. has none, barred from possessing such missiles until it withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty in 2019.


“We haven’t really had a lot of discussion about whether we would want to limit China’s” capabilities with intermediate-range weapons, Jenkins said. “I think most of the focus is really, ‘Let’s have a dialogue,’ to see exactly where we are on these issues.”


Washington, seeing substantive arms control discussions with Beijing as unlikely for now, is prioritizing developing its own missile arsenal.


Enforcement of the U.S.-Russia nonproliferation framework already in place also has hit a snag. Moscow told Washington in August that it was temporarily halting American inspections of its facilities related to nuclear capabilities under New START, claiming that sanctions were keeping Russian inspectors out of the U.S.


The longer the suspension, the harder it will be to get a handle on Russia’s activities, potentially deepening U.S. distrust of Moscow. Jenkins said Washington is talking with Moscow about a resumption.


“We know the value of doing that,” she said.


Biden’s interim National Security Strategic Guidance released in March 2021 called for “steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons” in Washington’s strategy, a reaffirmation that he sought to carry on former President Barack Obama’s ideal of a world without nuclear weapons.


But with the threat posed by Russia and China growing, U.S. allies have quietly expressed concern about this shift in emphasis. Washington’s nuclear posture review issued this past March made no mention of imposing stricter conditions on the use of nuclear weapons.


Japan and South Korea are protected by the so-called American nuclear umbrella: Washington has signaled that it would respond to a nuclear attack on these countries with its own nuclear weapons, in order to deter any such strike. Nuclear buildups by China and North Korea put the Biden administration under pressure to follow suit.

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