When President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin met face to face last year, they proudly touted how, “even in periods of tension,” Washington and Moscow could cooperate on nuclear issues.
A year and a war later, even such existential-level cooperation appears shaky.
Most urgently, ongoing fighting around a Ukrainian nuclear power plant captured by Russian forces has injected fresh uncertainty into a U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship that was already reeling from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent U.S. and European sanctions on Moscow.
But the invasion and its fallout have affected an array of other nuclear-related issues, from the Iran nuclear talks to recent international discussions about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a bedrock pact.
Russia and the U.S. also have been tangling over inspections of each side’s nuclear weapons facilities allowed by the New START treaty. There are fears that New START, the last arms control treaty between the two countries, will not get renewed or replaced if tensions between the nuclear powers worsen.
Russia and the United States have the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world. Even during the Cold War, Washington and Moscow were able to cooperate on ways to avoid an atomic disaster. Still, the sensitivity of anything nuclear-related means both countries must reassure the world that they can cooperate now, former officials and analysts say.
“The United States and Russia, despite their differences, have a special responsibility to avoid nuclear catastrophe,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “I really do think both sides have an interest in continuing arms control treaties. It’s not just PR. The question is can they get over all these other problems and obstacles that Russia’s war has certainly created.”
The most immediate concern is the situation at a nuclear power plant in the southern Ukraine area of Zaporizhzhia.