The US and Russia are expected to agree to resume a dialogue on nuclear arms and other strategic issues when their security officials meet in Geneva.
The meeting on Thursday between John Bolton, the US national security adviser, and his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, is a follow-up to the Helsinki summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in July.
Senior US officials know little about what the two leaders discussed in a one-to-one session that lasted two hours. But in the weeks following the summit, it became clear that both sides see value in the resumption of a strategic stability dialogue that stalled last year.
It is less clear whether such a dialogue can lead to agreement on the major substantive issues that divide the two countries, including arms control, Syria, Ukraine and sanctions.
A week after the Helsinki summit, Russian officials told a group of visiting US academics, analysts and arms control advocates that their priority was a resumption of high-level talks on strategic issues.
Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, who was part of the US group in Moscow, said: “The Russians basically said, in Helsinki through Putin, we want to resume the strategic stability talks.”
He said the list of talking points the Russians want discussed includes the possible extension of the 2010 new start treaty limiting deployed strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The treaty is due to expire in 2021 and if it is not extended or replaced, the US and Russian arsenals, accounting for more than 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, would be unchecked by any arms control agreements for the first time since 1972.
Russian officials have blamed the US for failing to specify a stance on renewing the treaty.
“Time is running out,” said the deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, in an interview this week.
“Why not taking advantage of this opportunity?” he said, noting that Trump and Putin had brought up the treaty in Helsinki, but the US side had failed to follow this up. “We cannot currently say conclusively and for certain why, but unfortunately there is no response.”
A Russian adviser to the government on foreign affairs told the Guardian that arms treaties would be Patrushev’s “number-one focus” and this was one of the few areas where the Kremlin hoped for progress in the current environment of sanctions and anger towards Russia in the US.
The Pentagon has signalled its support for a resumption of dialogue on nuclear arsenals.
Speaking at the Aspen security conference in July, the undersecretary of defence, John Rood, said: “We would also like to talk more about strategic stability, making sure there are clear understandings between the United States and Russia about these terribly lethal weapons that we both control, and talk about the future of nonproliferation.”
Steven Pifer, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the bureau of European and Eurasian affairs in the George W Bush administration, said the US military was in favour of extending the new start treaty in part because its verification clauses provided a lot of information about the Russian arsenal.
“There is a deal to be had which many people, including myself, think would be in the US national interest. The question is – is the president going to get there?” he asked.
Trump, Bolton and Tim Morrison, a senior arms control official on the national security council, have all been fervent critics of new start. The treaty was seen by Barack Obama as one of his most important foreign policy achievements.
Russian state media have highlighted the upcoming talks and the Kremlin released photographs of Putin prepping Patrushev during a security council meeting in Russia earlier this week. “We’re going to give a lot of suggestions, which I expect they’ll take under consideration,” the security official said on Wednesday.
Patrushev, who ran the FSB and has known Putin for decades, is a powerful member of the Russian establishment. Like Bolton, he is also known for hawkish, controversial statements.
Russia would also like to see greater collaboration over Syria. Trump’s desire to claim victory over Islamic State and withdraw the 2,000 US troops in the country potentially offers common ground with Moscow. But it clashes with another Trump priority – to counter Iranian influence in Syria.
Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence in the Obama administration, said: “Ever since my time at the Pentagon, the Russians have desperately wanted military-to-military talks on the situation in Syria and they have consistently misrepresented our very narrowly scoped deconfliction channel as being more than it is.
“They obviously want that greater set of talks about collaboration in Syria, which would [be] totally foolhardy for the US to enter into, because we would be basically partnering Russia’s partners in Syria, who are Iran and Hezbollah. And we don’t want anything to do with that and we should stay well clear of it.”
Bolton and Patrushev would also discuss Ukraine, state media said, although there is little sign of movement on this issue. Earlier this week, the Kremlin denied that Putin and Trump had discussed the possibility of sanctions relief in exchange for Russian concessions on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.
Courtesy: The Guardian