The United States and Russia held talks in Vienna Monday on their last major nuclear weapons agreement with little prospect of an imminent agreement as tensions and differences mount over whether they see any value in arms control at all.
US President Donald Trump insists that China should be involved in the talks on New START, the treaty that caps US and Russian nuclear warheads, because he says Beijing has had a free pass to develop weapon systems.
The current treaty limits each side to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads.
China has shown no sign of being interested, giving Washington fresh cause for complaint, although critics say the US finds that a useful stick with which to beat its growing rival.
After a full day of talks at the Niederoesterreich Palace in the Austrian capital, Russia’s UN envoy in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov said just before 7 pm local time (1700 GMT) that the meeting had ended. “Official comments will follow,” Ulyanov tweeted.
Russia-US consultations in Vienna on strategic stability are over. Official comments will follow. pic.twitter.com/GvnJW6X5tC
— Mikhail Ulyanov (@Amb_Ulyanov) June 22, 2020
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said the insistence on including China showed the Trump administration was not serious about an accord.
“The only conclusion I can come to is that… the Trump administration (does) not intend to extend New START and is seeking to display China’s disinterest in trilateral arms control talks as a cynical excuse to allow New START to expire,” Kimball said.
Trump has already scrapped several treaties with Russia — on overflights and on intermediate-range nuclear forces.
US ambassador Marshall Billingslea and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov headed the delegations discussing the future of the New START treaty, which was agreed in 2010 and expires in February 2021.
That leaves very little time to renew a complex deal, let alone negotiate a new treaty involving China, especially with a November presidential election looming.
End of Agreements?
While there were no public statements from the delegations on Monday, Billinsglea once again raised the issue of what he called China’s “no-show” by tweeting a picture of an empty negotiating table decked with Chinese flags.
“Beijing still hiding behind #GreatWallofSecrecy on its crash nuclear build-up, and so many other things,” Billingslea said in his tweet.
Vienna talks about to start. China is a no-show. Beijing still hiding behind #GreatWallofSecrecy on its crash nuclear build-up, and so many other things. We will proceed with #Russia, notwithstanding. pic.twitter.com/EjDxXNmblv
— Ambassador Marshall S. Billingslea (@USArmsControl) June 22, 2020
China’s mission in Vienna responded by ridiculing the tweet as “performance art.” China’s nuclear arsenal is rapidly expanding but is still far smaller than those of the US and Russia.
The deadlock over New START and the demise of other nuclear arms control treaties “suggest that the era of bilateral nuclear arms control agreements between Russia and the USA might be coming to an end,” said Shannon Kile of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
According to the institute’s latest research, Russia has 6,375 nuclear warheads, including those that are not deployed, and the United States has 5,800. China comes a distant third with 320 warheads.
Song Zhongping, a defense analyst in Beijing, said 2,000 warheads would be an ideal arsenal for China, whose main concern is to counter the United States. “China will never participate in nuclear disarmament negotiations between the US and Russia,” he said. “The nuclear disarmament talks proposed by the US are only a trap.”
Russian political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov said there was no reason to expect any progress in Vienna. “The Trump administration has rejected nearly all the restraints linked to the treaties agreed in the past,” Lukyanov said. “There is nothing to suggest that this treaty will be the exception.”
An extension of New Start would be “really welcome,” Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said on Monday.
However, Fihn cautioned that “we need to be sure that they don’t lower our expectations so much that simply not unraveling a treaty is considered amazing progress.”