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Nuclear Arms Treaty An Early Task For Biden


When President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office next month, he will have to deal with some very urgent business with Russian President Vladimir Putin. As NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow, Biden will have just 16 days to save the last arms control treaty that limits U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Soon after Barack Obama took office in 2009, he made a bold declaration on a visit to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.


BARACK OBAMA: So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.


KIM: In Moscow, that statement was not met with enthusiasm since the Kremlin's nuclear arsenal is the one thing that puts Russia in the same league as the United States. But the Kremlin does not want to get into an arms race and agreed to start talks on a new treaty limiting the number of strategic nuclear arms, the powerful weapons designed to attack distant targets like cities.


KIM: A year later, Obama returned to Prague, this time with his Russian counterpart at the time, Dmitry Medvedev. The two presidents were all smiles as they signed the New START Treaty. Seven years later, when Donald Trump entered the White House, he was determined to undo the international agreements Obama had negotiated, like New START.

LYNN RUSTEN: He really surrounded himself with people who have an ideological antipathy toward diplomacy, toward negotiations on arms control.

KIM: That's Lynn Rusten, who worked on New START in the Obama administration.

RUSTEN: The good news is they didn't withdraw from the treaty, and I think the reason they didn't is because the national security interest in this treaty is so strong.

KIM: New START expires in February. Instead of negotiating a straight extension, the Trump administration came up with new conditions, including getting China to sign up to any deal. Andrey Baklitskiy, an arms control expert in Moscow, says the demands were unreasonable.

ANDREY BAKLITSKIY: The problem, of course, was that the United States was putting up conditions which were not acceptable to Russia. They wanted a lot of things, some of those things which, frankly, were beyond Russians' reach.

KIM: As the U.S. presidential election got closer, the negotiations stalled, and the clock finally ran out.

BAKLITSKIY: Probably, Russia was just hedging its bets a little bit because it didn't know who would win.

KIM: Although Putin has still not congratulated Joe Biden, the expectation in Moscow is that a President Biden will extend New START as he promised to during his campaign.

PAVEL PODVIG: The value of New START is largely that it keeps the lines of communication open and it is the place for dialogue and potentially something you could build on and expand to other areas.

KIM: That's Pavel Podvig with the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva. He warns, though, that Washington and Moscow will continue to clash over U.S. plans for a missile defense shield and a new generation of Russian nuclear weapons designed to evade it.

PODVIG: Unfortunately, this kind of an arms race will probably go on regardless of whether New START is extended or not.

KIM: Lynn Rusten says the use of a nuclear weapon is as hard to imagine today as a global pandemic was a year ago.

RUSTEN: There's still 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Most, but not all, are owned by the United States and Russia. Our relationships are deteriorating, and so there's a real risk that they could be used.

KIM: She says instead of waiting for disaster to strike, the incoming Biden administration needs to reduce nuclear risks, beginning with the New START Treaty.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF KODOMO'S "DECODER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.