Collateral damage: Ukraine war derails diplomacy as Russia scraps nuke talks with U.S.

Collateral damage: Ukraine war derails diplomacy as Russia scraps nuke talks with U.S.

The Kremlin on Tuesday confirmed it has called off scheduled nuclear arms talks with the U.S. in what analysts call a dangerous, “irresponsible” move, one that marks the latest example of how the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine has spilled over into other arenas with potentially far-reaching repercussions for global security.

The long-awaited talks in Cairo, meant to pave the way for an extension of the vital New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, would have been the first such discussions between the former Cold War foes since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February. Moscow’s unexpected cancellation of the meeting came just hours before NATO foreign ministers doubled down on their commitment to eventually welcome Ukraine into the alliance, a pledge that the Kremlin claims helped spark its invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

The developments suggest that the war in Ukraine could derail, or at least delay, U.S. efforts to continue working with Russia on other crucial international matters such as climate change and nuclear arms reductions. While Kremlin leaders didn’t cite Washington’s backing of Ukraine as the sole reason they scrapped the talks, it seems clear that military support for Ukraine from the U.S. and NATO has made Russian diplomats less enthusiastic about cooperating with their Western counterparts. 

“We have encountered a situation where our American colleagues not only demonstrated a lack of desire to take note of our signals, acknowledge our priorities, but also acted in the opposite way,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told reporters Tuesday, according to Russia’s state-run Tass News Agency. “We haven’t fully agreed on the program of the bilateral consultative commission. That wasn’t a key component, perhaps, it’s some technicality, but it also represents a lot of political sense.”

Mr. Ryabkov added that the decision “was made on the political level,” suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin had the ultimate say on whether his diplomats would meet with U.S. officials as scheduled. He also conceded that U.S.-Russian diplomacy is not “immune” to other global events, including the war in Ukraine, seeming to acknowledge that the ongoing war is hindering cooperation between the two nations in other areas. 

Russian officials said they will propose new dates for the meeting, though it’s unclear how quickly that might happen. U.S. officials said they hope for the meeting to be rescheduled as soon as possible.

For the Biden administration, the postponement of talks comes at a crucial moment. Even as the U.S. and its NATO partners move forward with aggressive military backing of Ukraine and economic sanctions on Russia, the White House had hoped to use the Cairo meeting to move forward on a New START extension and prove the two countries can still work together when necessary.

The treaty, which puts limits on the number of nuclear weapons both the U.S. and Russia can have in their arsenals, was originally signed in 2011 and until 2026 by President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin shortly after Mr. Biden took office in 2021. But such complex nuclear negotiations often take years, meaning there is little time to waste for the two sides to begin hashing out an extension.

The State Department on Monday first revealed that Moscow had unilaterally postponed the Cairo talks, saying the delay was not coming from the U.S. side.

“The United States is ready to reschedule at the earliest possible date as resuming inspections is a priority for sustaining the treaty as an instrument of stability,” the department said in a statement.

Specialists said that postponing the talks sends an ominous signal about the future of New START cooperation, but also sends a much broader message about the inability of Washington and Moscow — the world’s top nuclear powers — to maintain a regular dialogue at a critical moment.

“Russia’s choice to postpone the [nuclear] meeting with the United States is irresponsible, especially at this time of heightened tensions when dialogue between the world’s two largest nuclear powers is paramount,” said Laura Kennedy, a board member of the Arms Control Association and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament.

“The Biden administration has taken the correct stance of communicating its willingness to reschedule the meeting at the earliest possible date, underscoring the U.S. commitment to effective arms control and maintaining strategic stability,” she said. “We hope and expect that Russia will reciprocate.”

Moving forward, there’s little indication that the U.S.-Russia relationship will thaw anytime soon. Instead, Russian relations with the West could plummet even further after NATO officials on Tuesday reaffirmed a plan to eventually welcome Ukraine into the fold.

Speaking at an alliance meeting in Romania, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that “NATO’s door is open,” citing the pending memberships of both Sweden and Finland. The two countries are on track to join the alliance, though continued disputes with NATO member Turkey are holding up the process.

“We stand by that, too, on membership for Ukraine,” Mr. Stoltenberg said, though he did not lay out any time frame for when Ukraine may join NATO.

It’s generally believed that the process will take years, perhaps decades. It’s also not clear how Ukraine could formally join NATO when engaged in a war with Russia, which has laid claim to chunks of Ukrainian territory in the eastern part of the country.