Letter From the Editors

Trivia question: When was the last time a Russian president said a kind word to his American counterpart? Nope, it wasn’t 2016, when Vladimir Putin called Donald Trump a genius. (The word he used was yarky – which, although sometimes translated as “brilliant,” actually means “colorful” or even “garish.”) The pleasantry in question dates back to late 2010, when Putin’s predecessor/successor Dmitry Medvedev called Barack Obama a molodéts (a noun that doesn’t have a precise dictionary meaning, but the functional equivalent is “Attaboy!” or “Great job!”). The occasion was the US Senate’s ratification of the Treaty on the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START), which was heralded by both sides as a “reset” of relations between the two nuclear superpowers.

New START cleared its last official hurdle on Jan. 26, 2011, when the Russian Federation Council approved it. And this week, exactly 10 years later, both chambers of the Russian parliament gave a repeat performance, ratifying an extension to the treaty just before its expiration date. Although the legislators acted at lightning speed, their decision was preceded by months of diplomatic wrangling over conditions. For a while, the US side even insisted on making a trilateral treaty, with the inclusion of China. Even after that idea fell by the wayside, the nations’ diplomats seemed to be endlessly entangled in devilish details like how long the agreement should stay in effect if extended.

From the US side, it may look like this last remaining Russian-American arms control treaty was saved by incoming US President Joe Biden riding in on his white horse. However, Pavel Felgengauer argues that the two countries’ militaries really played the deciding role: “The General Staff [of the Russian Armed Forces] is interested in extending the New START treaty, because without it the Americans can promptly ‘upgrade’ existing delivery vehicles with additional warheads. Pentagon generals are also in favor of [extending] the New START treaty, mainly to preserve the verification regime. . . . Ultimately, the opinion of generals on both sides, which at the very last moment coincided with the interests of politicians, tipped the scales.”

So, does the renewed arms accord mark a new “reset” in Russian-US relations? Well, we do know that the phone conversation between Biden and Putin that preceded it was not quite as cordial as the Obama-Medvedev talks of 2010. An official statement from the Kremlin read: “Overall, the conversation between the Russian and US leaders was businesslike and frank.” Felgengauer decodes the implied meaning: “Translated from diplomatese, this means that the parties did not agree on anything, but may talk again.”

 Felgengauer reminds us that the original START treaty,

signed by George Bush, Sr. and Mikhail Gorbachev in July 1991, marked the end of the cold war. And yet the extension of New START has not dispelled mutual distrust and hostility. “Today, everything is back to square one. Military staffs view each other as ‘potential adversaries’ and plan various ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ confrontation scenarios.”

Fyodor Lukyanov does not see this friction as a continuation of the cold war, but as a response to a changed global reality: He believes the growing interdependency of all countries is making each nation more intent on protecting its own turf. By now, Lukyanov explains, it’s a given that nuclear war is a no-win scenario; therefore, “the nuclear issue will no longer serve as the foundation of diplomatic relations between Moscow and Washington.” At this point, the countries “lack a [common] threat that would compel them to treat each other as seriously as possible.” Wasn’t COVID‑19 a big enough common threat to compel the US and Russia to set aside their differences? Apparently not: When the Kremlin announced in November that it had the world’s first coronavirus vaccine, the White House (like the rest of the West) responded with distrust. Let’s hope it doesn’t take an even worse threat to ease tensions between Moscow and Washington.