President Putin’s State of the Nation Speech Sows Seeds for Progress

It works! For so many years the calls for putting an end to arms control erosion and reviving a security dialogue with Moscow despite the existing divisions have been falling on deaf ears in Washington. The danger of unfettered arms race has become imminent. Other menaces emerge. In theory, they should top the Russia-West security agenda but they don’t. Now it looks like there is some light at the end of the tunnel. But why now? What is so special about March 2018?

Evidently, Vladimir Putin’s landmark address on March 1 did it. In words it was condemned and strongly criticized in the West but in practice sharing the information about the Russian super weapons spurred positive reaction. Those who never missed an opportunity to denigrate Russia and blame it for all the wrong things in the world are suddenly changing the tune. Looks like this time the Russian president nailed it.

Right after his speech, a group of senators called for reviving a strategic dialogue with Russia –something unthinkable just some time ago. US lawmakers never missed the opportunity to demonstrate their zeal to attack Moscow. Now they are emphasizing the urgency of jumpstarting the talks! The letter, addressed to State Secretary Rex Tillerson, was published on March 8.

The senators believe that the New START Treaty, the one decried by the administration, should be extended. It expires in 2021. The document contains a provision saying it can be extended for five years.

It’s not the New START only. The senators want to talk about Russia’s nuclear-powered cruise missile with unlimited range and nuclear underwater drone – the weapons not included in any agreement but mentioned in the address. They are actually calling for a much broader agenda.

Are there other signs of positive changes? Taking a close look at other related events, the answer is yes. The Russian embassy in Washington reported that Ambassador Anatoly Antonov and President pro tempore of the United States Senate Orrin Hatch had held a meeting to emphasize the need to normalize the bilateral relations.

NATO leadership chimed in. On March 7, Gen. Petr Pavel, chairman of the bloc’s Military Committee, said Russia and the North Atlantic Alliance can reinvigorate their relationship. The general believes the parties need an impulse to get the process off the ground. Reviving the Russia-US strategic dialogue could be just the thing.

Despite the deterioration of relations, some contacts have always been maintained. In late January, three chiefs of Russian leading intelligence agencies visited the US simultaneously. At least, one of them was under the sanctions but the meeting was important enough to make President Trump waiver the restrictive measures. The US president believes that “Putin is very important.”

He is important and ready to talk on security issues, especially arms control. The Russian president confirmed it once again in his eye-opening address. After all, Moscow has always supported the idea of extending the New START, keeping in force the INF Treaty, and maintaining the regime of nonproliferation. It believes that gradual progress in the field of arms control is achievable despite the existing mistrust and overall deterioration of relations. The extension of New START would keep in force the crucially important verification measures and revive the fading hopes for saving the arms control regime.

Both Russia and the US are pursuing overhauls of their strategic triads. None of their plans are inhibited by New START but it’s imperative to preserve the limitations and verification procedures in place to prevent the process from getting out of hand to provoke an unfettered arms race. The extension would promote a positive atmosphere to improve the overall relationship.

President Putin’s revelations could prompt the US to realize that there are other issues it has been imprudently refusing to address. Just a few days ago, Washington wrecked cybersecurity talks. There is an urgent need to address the problem of preventing the looming hypersonic arms race. The militarization of space is another issue of paramount importance to be tackled by the two powers. Progress is hardly achievable without restricting the US global ballistic missile defense. Nuclear nonproliferation is in trouble. It can’t be saved without Russia and the US working together.

In his comments on the senators’ letter, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow is ready to launch talks on strategic stability. The letter and Russia’s response are good things but there had been no progress seen until Vladimir Putin mentioned the new weapon systems, making his speech have such a sobering effect. This is the lesson to learn: you have to be really strong and have something up your sleeve when dealing with the US.