Russian nuclear missile rolls along Red Square during the military parade marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi defeat, on June 24, 2020, in Moscow, Russia.

Russian nuclear missile rolls along Red Square during the military parade marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi defeat, on June 24, 2020, in Moscow, Russia. Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images

Biden’s 6-Month Clock On Russia-U.S. Nuke Talks Starts Now

Officials met for the first time in Geneva on Wednesday. They’re set to come together again in September.

In June, President Joe Biden said it would take at least six months to see whether his summit with Vladimir Putin was a success. Experts said the clock really started Wednesday, when Biden administration negotiators met with Russian counterparts to discuss nuclear arms.

“I think it is the start of the clock,” said Lynn Rusten, a vice president at the Nuclear Threat Initiative and a former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation on the Obama administration’s National Security Council. “A first test will be setting up a more regular process for engagement as well as these separate substantive working groups….[but] at some point, you have to move from just talking and sharing different perspectives on what we’re concerned beginning to look for those areas of common overlap where you can spin off some agreement.”

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman led the talks on the U.S. side, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov was the point person for Moscow. The American delegation included representatives from the National Security Council, Department of Energy and Department of Defense, according to a statement from State Department spokesman Ned Price.

“The U.S. delegation discussed U.S. policy priorities and the current security environment, national perceptions of threats to strategic stability, prospects for new nuclear arms control, and the format for future Strategic Stability Dialogue sessions,” Price said.

The next formal meeting with Russia is set for the end of September, when officials hope to decide on topic areas to be explored in working groups, Price said, though officials will hold “informal consultations” between now and then. 

Some likely topics for the working groups include missile defense, new technologies such as hypersonic glide vehicles, and how to shape an agreement to replace New START, which expires in 2026, according to Rose Gottemoeller, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution who served as the chief U.S. negotiator for the New START treaty in 2009 and 2010.

In strategic stability talks during the Trump administration, the United States and Russia formed three working groups on nuclear warheads and doctrine, verification, and space.  

Price also said State and Defense officials will brief NATO allies on Thursday about the talks, which he called “professional and substantive.”

Gottemoeller said characterizing the conversation that way is a good sign. 

“That’s diplomatic code word for they really did get down to business,” she said. “I think that is a positive sign that they’re following the instructions of Biden and Putin.” 

The leaders agreed last month to begin talks about reducing the two nations’ nuclear stockpiles to reduce “the prospects of accidental war,” the American president told the press after a three-hour meeting with the Russian leader. 

“This is about practical, straightforward, no-nonsense decisions that we have to make or not make,” Biden said in Geneva. “We’ll find out within the next six months to a year whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue that matters.”

One of the most important aspects of these talks is that they occur regularly, including routine communication in between lower-level officials in between the more formal plenary sessions, experts said. 

“These are the foundational blocks towards securing a new arms control agreement or arrangement in the coming years,” said Shannon Bugos, a research associate at the Arms Control Association. “The dialogue is separate from formal negotiations, but it’s setting the foundation to get to those talks in the future.”

Past administrations have failed to follow through on prioritizing routine communications. During the end of the Obama administration and the Trump administration, officials held meetings that were “very sporadic” and had a high rate of turnover among those running the meetings on the American side, Rusten said. 

But officials are optimistic this time will be different, in part because of Biden’s decades of experience in international relations. 

“There’s a common interest, a recognition that we’re served by mutual restraint….We don’t want to get to the end of the first Biden term and realize we’re faced with New START expiring and nothing in its place,” Rusten said. “We have a president who really understands these issues and recognizes the importance of trying to cooperate with Russia, even though we have so many differences, because we can’t afford a nuclear incident.”