The Geneva Summit: Biden and Putin Need to Pull Back From the Nuclear Brink

When Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden meet in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16, relations between their countries will be the most fraught since the Cold War ended 30 years ago.

Recent Russian provocations — the hacking of sensitive U.S. government and corporate computers, meddling in the last two U.S. presidential elections, annexation of Crimea, and military hostilities in Ukraine — likely will provide topics for frank discussion.

Nuclear weapons and “strategic stability” should top their agenda.

Russia is an adversary but nuclear weapons are our mutual enemy.

Biden’s return to the New START nuclear treaty with Russia after Trump’s abrogation demonstrates the value nuclear weapon negotiations and arsenal reductions can attain in improving relations between the two nuclear super-powers.

By salvaging the only remaining bi-lateral nuclear treaty with Russia, Biden has restored some modicum of trust to our diplomatic relations with the Kremlin, tattered by GRU intrigue and Trump’s mercurial presidency.

Linking nuclear weapons diplomacy to geo-political competition has neither fostered strategic stability nor deterred foreign aggression on either side.

The NewSTART treaty demonstrates the security advantages of “verifiable” agreements to reduce nuclear arsenals. Destroying thousands of nuclear capable missiles was momentous in arms control history. The verification process in NewSTART also resulted in 328 on site intrusive inspections and 21,400 notifications of missile activity. It is inconceivable that an American weapons inspector would be able to count how many MIRV’s (multiple independent re-entry vehicles) were loaded into a Russian ICBM without the verification protocols agreed in NewSTART.

Secretary of State George Shultz in the Reagan Administration understood that the catastrophic destructive power of nuclear weapons requires Russia and the U.S. to craft nuclear arms reduction agreements independent of regional conflicts.

Shultz, recently deceased, achieved a working relationship with his Soviet counterparts that led to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987. The INF eliminated 2,692 medium-range nuclear armed missiles from Europe and instituted a regime of on-site verification inspections that lasted for 10 years.

Notable is the fact that 70 U.S. Senators and then Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger opposed discussion of the INF with the Soviets. “Now is not the time for any arms control proposal,” scolded Weinberger. But Shultz realized that nuclear weapons pose an existential threat and should be eliminated. He viewed the incremental process of nuclear weapons negotiations as confidence building measures between adversaries.

Predictably, Trump—ever reckless– withdrew from the INF in 2019 and threatened to withdraw from New START. He mused about resuming nuclear weapons testing, halted since 1992. He began development of a new class of “low yield” tactical nuclear weapons that could be more “usable”.

Yes, indeed, now is the time for nuclear arms control proposals, and the Biden Putin Summit meeting should provide the perfect setting. It was in Geneva that Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to the INF and issued their famous joint communique: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.

Biden has repeatedly stated his resolve to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons. He made his position clear in his March 3 National Security Guidance document: “We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”

The 35-member Congressional Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group has named nuclear weapons “the gravest of threats” and called for verifiable reductions in the excessive strategic arsenals of both sides.”

An international consortium of more than 20 non- governmental groups has written an open letter to Biden and Putin recommending they “commit to regular bi-lateral strategic dialogue to achieve further verifiable reductions and elimination of nuclear weapons.”

What proposals could Biden share with Putin in Geneva on June 18, 2021?

>Make Mutually Assured Survival and not Mutually Assured Destruction our goal

>Reiterate the Reagan-Gorbachev anthem “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”

>Renounce Nuclear First Strike policies

>Reduce and phase out ICBM fleets, the most vulnerable and dangerous leg of the nuclear triad.

>Rescind “launch on warning” procedures.

>Curtail Strategic Anti- Ballistic Missile (ABM) programs.

>Agree on a moratorium on medium range missiles in Europe

>Reinforce Russian and U.S. support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to be reviewed in August 2021 in Vienna

>Reduce the number of strategic warheads in each arsenal to 1,000 as stipulated by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2013

As former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry has warned, “The greatest nuclear threat is not Russia, but blundering into a nuclear war.”

With antagonism between Russia and the U.S. the most acrimonious in thirty years, there is no time like the present for President Biden to bring to the Geneva Summit offers that would revitalize discussions about nuclear weapons reductions and instill some trust in our deteriorating relations.

The responsibility to end the threat of nuclear annihilation extends far beyond the borders of the U.S. and Russia that together control 90 percent of the nuclear weapons on Earth.

The world waits. The world worries. Who will bring the world back from the brink of nuclear holocaust? When if not now?