ANALYSIS - Extension Of New START Shows Russia, US Can Cooperate When Needed Despite Disagreements

MOSCOW (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 27th January, 2021) The five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between Russia and the United States is a sign of readiness to cooperate for common good when needed, yet not enough to foreshadow a full normalization of relations amid persisting disagreements on other issues, experts told Sputnik.

New START has been in force since 2011 and was due to expire on February 5. It is the only remaining legally binding agreement on nuclear arms control between the two countries that own the world's two largest nuclear stockpiles. Its premises are that each side ultimately reduce their nuclear arsenal to total 700 missiles, 1,550 warheads and 800 launchers.

Earlier on Wednesday, Moscow and Washington capped months of negotiations by announcing an agreement to extend the arms control treaty for another five years. This came on the back of a phone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden on Tuesday.

CALL SYMBOLYZING MUTUAL INTEREST

The fact that Biden spoke with Putin so early into his presidency "points to the importance that [he] places on the relationship," Paul Poast, an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Chicago, told Sputnik.

"But Biden has labeled Russia the US Primary threat and so long as the conflict in Ukraine continues (same for Russian involvement in Syria), it will be difficult for the US and Russia to have a full normalization of relations," Poast added.

The extension happened because both sides had interest in it, Michael C. Desch, a professor of international relations at the University of Notre Dame and Director of the Notre Dame International Security Center, told Sputnik.

"Russia is an important country and the Biden Administration has some things such as New START that it wants to work with Russia," the expert said.

Yet, Desch, too, doubts that the extension agreement will be the start of a full normalization of relations. Amid many outstanding issues of disagreement, he rather expects the relationship to have both a cooperative side, such as on issues related to arms control, and a conflictual side, such as the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

MANY ITEMS OF DISAGREEMENT REMAIN

"From press accounts, it seems that there was both agreement and differences, but on the whole I am more hopeful about this kind of discussion because it shows the possibility of negotiations even in the face of conflicts that one would expect between major powers like the United States and Russia," M. V. Ramana, the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the school of Public Policy and Global Affairs and the director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, told Sputnik.

Ramana described the Putin-Biden call and prompt agreement as a "welcome change from the Trump administration," which the expert said was "very erratic in its positions."

"The fact that they quickly reached agreement on the steps necessary for the extension of New START and discussed other treaties, including the Open Skies Treaty, are good signs for progress in arms control," the expert said.

At the same time, Ramana emphasized that New START has a ticking deadline to it which the other agreements, such as Open Skies, do not have and for that reason will likely not garner the same priority attention.

"Normalization is highly unlikely, although cooperation in selected areas is possible. A confrontational US policy will continue under the Biden administration, as indicated by Biden's hawkish foreign policy appointees and the central role that Russia will continue to play in US domestic politics," Alan W. Cafruny, Henry Bristol Professor of International Affairs with the faculty of Government at the Hamilton College, told Sputnik.

"[Arms control] is an area of potentially significant US-Russian cooperation. The Biden administration does not want a new arms race given its already massive budget deficit, grave economic problems, and struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic," Cafruny said.

The expert opined that the call and the promptness with which the agreement was reached were due to Biden personally favoring the arms control treaty, which was due to expire in a week. Otherwise, Cafruny pointed out, Biden called the leaders of all "leading NATO powers" before calling Putin, and Trump called the Russian president on day four of his presidency.

"The success of the relationship [between Putin and Biden] will depend on the self-interests of the countries they represent," Thomas Whalen, an Associate Professor at Social Science Department in the Boston University, told Sputnik.

The two leaders can build the cooperation on such international platforms as the Open Skies Treaty, for example, by promoting a new alternative agreement, according to the expert. The 1992 treaty allows signatories to exchange unarmed military surveillance flights on short notice for the sake of trust building. The United States withdrew from it in November, and Russia launched the withdrawal procedure earlier in January.

"The Ukraine is a lot trickier and it remains unlikely a settlement could be reached in the near future unless Putin agrees to withdraw Russian forces from the Crimea. But keeping the Iranian nuclear program under tight wraps would seem an area of common interest for both powers," Whalen said.