US and Russia hold fresh talks on arms control in Geneva

President Putin and President Biden shake hands outside the Villa La Grange in Geneva during their Summit in June. (AP Photo / Patrick Semansky)

The United States and Russia met in Geneva on Wednesday for their first round of strategic and arms control talks of the new Biden administration.

One month on from the historic Geneva Summit between President Biden and President Putin at Villa La Grange, representatives of the two countries were back in the city to commence discussions that were agreed to by the leaders during their meeting in June.

The US State Department described the talks on arms control and other “strategic stability” issues as “substantive and professional”, although they produced no breakthroughs. But the two sides agreed to meet again in September for another round of high-level discussions.

“We remain committed, even in times of tension, to ensuring predictability and reducing the risk of armed conflict and threat of nuclear war,” state department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement following the talks.

What were the talks about? The discussions were expected to mainly focus on strategic stability issues, with the two sides likely to explore how to move beyond the New START treaty for the reduction of strategic weapons which Biden and Putin agreed to extend earlier this year until 2026. New START had been due to expire in February, with the Trump administration having made no move to extend it.

“This meeting follows up on a commitment made between President Biden and Russian President Putin to have a deliberate and robust dialogue between our two nations that will seek to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures,” a representative of the US mission to Russia said ahead of the meeting.

The latest round of talks were intended to lay the groundwork for future arms control and ultimately reduce the risk of nuclear war between the world’s two largest nuclear powers, who between them hold over 90 per cent of the global nuclear arsenals.

No mutual inspection of Russian and US arsenals, which is mandated under New START, has taken place since February 2020, and critics have accused Russia of frequently violating its terms.

What’s been discussed so far. Biden’s administration has previously said it wants to build on New START and hold fresh arms negotiations which include Russia’s arsenal of non-strategic nuclear missiles, which are not covered by the treaty and are a particular bugaboo for its European allies. The Russian side has said that a new agreement must include negotiated limits on US missile defenses, which is viewed as a key long-term threat to its own arsenal.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman led the US delegation on Wednesday accompanied by top US arms control diplomat Bonnie Jenkins. The Russian side was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov.

Speaking ahead of the meeting, Ryabkov indicated that the talks were unlikely to yield a major breakthrough but will hopefully instead lead to additional talks. "This is the first orientation meeting, where we will have to understand the seriousness of our colleague's intention to establish a concentrated, energetic dialogue on strategic stability, as agreed by the presidents," he said.

Tensions remain. The two countries remain at loggerheads on a range of disputes ranging from Russia cyberattacks, allegations of Russian interference in US elections and human rights - all of which were discussed during Biden and Putin's meeting in Geneva in June.

However, although the two leaders did not see eye to eye on a myriad of issues and tensions between their countries remain, both sides agreed to further talks on arms control and “strategic stability” as matters of mutual interest.

“The United States and Russia have demonstrated that, even in periods of tension, they are able to make progress on our shared goals of ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war,” said the presidents in a joint statement following their meeting.

“The recent extension of the New START Treaty exemplifies our commitment to nuclear arms control. Today, we reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” they added.

Read a full analysis of the talks in Le Temps.