Off to a Bad START: Putin Schools Biden with One Phone Call

According to Russian news service Ria Novosti, on Tuesday, the presidents of the Russian Federation and the United States, Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden, held a telephone conversation.  During the conversation, Biden and Putin agreed to a five-year extension of START-3, until 2026, “100% on Russian terms, without additions, in the form in which it was originally signed.”  As a result of the call, the authorized Duma committees were ordered to urgently take the necessary steps to extend START-3.  On that same day, Putin submitted to the State Duma a bill on the ratification of START-3 through 2026; it immediately passed.  Putin’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov enthused that “START-3 is being extended on Russian terms, for 5 years, without any conditions or additional requirements, without attempts to change the START verification regime, without those, in our view, absurd and unacceptable aspirations of the previous administration to make sure to draw the PRC [China] into this process without fail."

Biden ran on a platform that was endorsed by the entire American security and foreign policy establishment. The platform stand was to rebuild international multilateralism, taking no actions without coordination with our allies. Trump was routinely condemned by the establishment for insisting on the “America First” approach in foreign policy. Biden’s promise of multilateral cooperation with allies didn’t last a week. Indeed, he showed even more disregard for America’s NATO allies than Trump ever did. Biden’s phone call to Russian President Putin was his first serious test of foreign and security policy; he flunked. In the course of that one phone call, he casually agreed to a five-year extension of the New START Treaty, a treaty that originally took months to negotiate.

On Tuesday afternoon January 26, C-SPAN broadcast Biden’s press briefing on Racial Equity, held in the White House State Dining Room.  Following his remarks, he ceremoniously signed four related executive orders.  After signing the fourth, Biden stood up abruptly and made to leave the room.  On his way out, a young reporter could be heard calling out, “Mr. President, what did you talk to Mr. Putin about?”  Over his shoulder Biden tossed back the quip, “You! He sends his best.” -- and hightailed it out of the room before he could be pinned down with having to explain what he and Putin said during the call.

His hapless Press Secretary Jen Psaki was more forthcoming during a press briefing on January 26 regarding the phone call.  But Psaki misrepresented what actually was said regarding START, claiming only that Biden phoned President Putin “with the intention of discussing our willingness to extend New START for five years.”  She added, “His intention was also to make clear that the United States will act firmly in defense of our national interests in response to malign actions by Russia.”

Would that it were so!  In a statement of congratulations after Biden’s inauguration, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg affirmed that “as a strong supporter of NATO,” Biden would finally provide the “collective strength” needed to “deal with …a more assertive Russia.” When Obama became president, NATO insisted that he at least inform and coordinate his foreign policy and security efforts with NATO -- especially with regard to all NATO/Russia issues. Obama proceeded to negotiate a new START Treaty with Dmitry Medvedev, then President of the Russian Federation, in a process lasting four months in 2010, including ten rounds of talks by full-time negotiators in Geneva, interspersed with fourteen intense one-on-one negotiations between Presidents Obama and Medvedev by telephone. Yet in a single phone conversation with Putin on January 26, Biden gave in totally, tossing out any progress made by the Trump administration.  Biden immediately agreed to a simple five-year extension of New START, with no new conditions, no additions, and no verification regime whatsoever.  The abrupt agreement to continue New START was treated by the mainstream media as of little consequence. The media has preferred to focus instead on Biden’s complaints to Putin concerning Ukraine sovereignty, the poisoning of Alexey Navalny, the SolarWinds hack, allegations of Russian bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and Russian interference in the 2020 United States election.

Biden’s actions regarding START can only be explained as a desire to, yet again, toss aside a decision of the previous administration simply because it was made by his nemesis: Donald Trump.  Trump had quite rightly declared New START to be “deeply flawed” because it totally lacks limits on tactical nuclear weapons, something that Putin opposes since Russia’s tactical arsenal is much greater than ours, and his current military doctrine emphasizes “nuclear de-escalation,” the launching of a tactical nuclear missile early in a major conflict.  Trump also was pressing for China to join New START.

Sergei Ryabkov is thrilled about this move, which he says will “ensure the reliable security of our state for a long period to come.”  According to Ryabkov, START-3 “does not limit our right to independently determine the composition and structure of our strategic and offensive weapons, modernize them, or create new types of weapons.”  Having sampled Biden’s willingness to agree unconditionally to Russian terms, Ryabkov is now determined to launch new, intensive negotiations with Biden to develop a new security equation.  Speaking before the Russian State Duma, Ryabkov said the day after the Biden-Putin phone call, “We propose to expand the strategic agenda and include all offensive and defensive weapons, both nuclear and non-nuclear, capable of solving strategic tasks."

Whatever Biden actually said during that phone call, it has inspired Putin to embark on a whole new weapons program. Hail to our Commander-in-Chief!

Lynn Corum is a translator of Russian who studies developments in the Russian press that affect America’s national interests. She has been researching and writing on Putin’s stated plans since 2009, and is a world expert on Project Russia, the Kremlin’s published state ideology.