The freshly minted US President Joe Biden intends to ask Russia for a five-year extension to the crucial START II missile treaty, one of the pillars of the Cold War international security infrastructure that is due to expire in February.
The clock is ticking, as the treaty is due to expire on February 5, but the new US administration is hoping for a fast deal, as renegotiating a new one would give the Kremlin leverage at a time when Biden is also expected to impose harsh new sanctions.
The chances of new sanctions have increased in the last week after anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny returned to Russia after five months of recuperation in Germany and was promptly arrested.
Officials in the Biden camp told Bloomberg that the new president was ruling out a "reset" in bilateral relations with Moscow. Biden was vice-president in the Obama administration when the last reset was tried; that quickly collapsed and relations soured considerably after Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014, sparking the current round of escalating sanctions.
"As we work with Russia, so too will we work to hold Russia accountable for their reckless and aggressive actions that we've seen in recent months and years," said a senior US official, as cited by Bloomberg, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Neither side wants to see a new arms race. The Kremlin complained that it had approached the Trump administration on numerous occasions asking for talks on START II to begin, but didn't get a reply from the US State Department.
Biden, who officially took office this week, has rolled up his sleeves and has had to deal with his first big foreign policy issue while his personal effects are still lying unpacked in cardboard boxes in the White House.
President Donald Trump tried to conclude a shorter extension with Moscow in the final months of his presidency, but he failed to reach an agreement after his nuclear envoy spent months trying to persuade China to join the accord before dropping that demand.
Letting the treaty expire would allow Moscow and Washington to deploy an unlimited number of nuclear-armed submarines, bombers and missiles around the world without restriction.
"New START is manifestly in the national security interest of the United States and makes even more sense when the relationship with Russia is adversarial," the senior US official said.
Biden is ordering the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to provide him with a full intelligence assessment of Russia's alleged interference in the 2020 election, use of chemical weapons against opposition leader Alexei Navalny and bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan, as part of the preparation for the negotiations.
As bne IntelliNews reported, there was minimal interference in the 2020 election and the “bounty for US soldiers” scandal has already been debunked by senior US military officials, but it remains a meme with the media.
Biden is also asking Haines for an assessment of the massive cyberattack on federal agencies and departments related to the SolarWinds software breach, which many analysts and government officials have blamed on Russia.
Biden's nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told lawmakers on January 19 that sanctions passed by Congress to target Moscow will be "extremely helpful in being able to impose . . . costs and consequences" on Russia.
The new START restricts the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 and deployed strategic delivery systems to 700, provides the United States "tremendous access to data and inspections" and is "certainly in the national interest to extend."
Victoria Nuland, a long-time Russia hawk whom Biden will nominate to be the No. 3 official at the State Department, wrote in Foreign Affairs over the summer that the United States should only seek a one- or two-year renewal in the hopes of retaining leverage over the Kremlin.
"Washington should not grant Moscow what it wants most: a free rollover of New START without any negotiations to address Russia's recent investments in short- and medium-range nuclear weapons systems and new conventional weapons," she wrote.