Glimmers of hope from the Biden-Putin Summit and more

We are modestly optimistic about Biden-Putin Summit

Following closely on the heels of the G7 and NATO Summits, American President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Geneva on Wednesday, 16 June 2021 for several hours of talks.

While the leaders each held separate press conferences following the talks, they issued a US–Russia Presidential Joint Statement on Strategic Stability which, inter alia, included this important pledge, hearkening back to the historic 1986 Reagan–Gorbachev Summit in Reykjavik.

Today, we reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Giving full effect to this principle — through a formal pledge to never use nuclear weapons first under any circumstances — was one of the key points advanced in an international Open Letter, signed ultimately by over 1200 political, military and religious leaders as well as legislators, academics, scientists and civil society representatives, including RI President Peggy Mason, referenced in last week’s blog.

That formal step remains to be taken.

The Joint Statement articulated the shared goals of:

  • Ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere
  • Reducing the risk of armed conflicts and
  • Reducing the threat of nuclear war.

Consistent with these goals, the United States and Russia pledged to:

embark together on an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in the near future that will be deliberate and robust.

Through this Dialogue, we seek to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.

The Summit outcome was immediately pilloried as either a colossal under-achievement or an exercise in Russian appeasement, with the Republican Party weighing in loudest on the anti-arms control rhetoric.

Given the rock-bottom state of US–Russia relations in the lead up to the Summit, and the tendency of the American media — aided and abetted by the massive vested interests of hundreds of think tanks and defence industry lobbyists — to “criminalize diplomacy”, we at the Rideau Institute view the Summit outcome with cautious optimism, ably summed up by Canadian professor and longstanding Canadian Pugwash Group member Serguei Plekhanov as follows:

Geneva is a very important and positive event, as it marks a long-overdue shift in US-Russian relations toward a more stable, more predictable and less confrontational, while still competitive, mode.

The creation of working groups on strategic stability and cybersecurity is a sign that arms control is back on the agenda, likely to lead to new agreements.

The working group on cybersecurity cannot come a moment too soon. Past blogs have highlighted the urgent need for responsible norms of state of behaviour in this area.

Post-Summit media coverage has focused almost exclusively on cyber incursions of alleged Russian origin, but it is surely worth recalling, as Katrina vanden Heuvel and Joe Cirincione do in a recent Quincy Institute webinar, that the first state-sponsored attack on critical infrastructure was the use of the Stuxnet worm (developed jointly by the USA and Israel) to substantially damage the Iranian nuclear programme.

In the view of Rideau Institute:

The virtual impossibility of containing malware to its intended target, after it has been launched, is amply demonstrated by the Stuxnet saga and underscores the vital importance of rules of the road for all states.

The bilateral US–Russia working group is an important step in the right direction.

SIPRI warns of reversal in nuclear weapons decline

Lending even more urgency to the US–Russia strategic stability dialogue is a new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a world-renowned organization which assesses the current state of armaments, disarmament and international security.

In a press release about the report, SIPRI notes:

A key finding is that despite an overall decrease in the number of nuclear warheads in 2020, more have been deployed with operational forces.

The nine nuclear-armed states — the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) — together possessed an estimated 13,080 nuclear weapons at the start of 2021.

SIPRI notes that:

This marked a decrease from the 13,400 that SIPRI estimated these states possessed at the beginning of 2020….

But they go on to emphasize:

Despite this overall decrease, the estimated number of nuclear weapons currently deployed with operational forces increased to 3825, from 3720 last year.

Around 2000 of these — nearly all of which belonged to Russia or the USA — were kept in a state of high operational alert.

And the picture is also not bright when the actions of the other nuclear armed states are considered with SIPRI reporting that:

All the other seven nuclear-armed states are also either developing or deploying new weapon systems or have announced their intention to do so.

For a summary of the key findings see: Global nuclear arsenals grow as states continue to modernize – New SIPRI Yearbook out now (, 14 June 2021).

For a look at a more ambitious arms control agenda, consistent with the growing threat, see: The Future of U.S.-Russian Arms Control: Principles of Engagement and New Approaches (, 2021).

Canada and the Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament

The launch of strategic stability and nuclear risk reduction talks between the USA and Russia is certainly a step in the right direction. But if the upcoming Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference is to have any hope of a successful outcome, more tangible arms control steps from the nuclear weapons states will be needed.

In this regard, past blogs have positively referenced an ongoing effort led by the Swedish Foreign Minister, entitled the Stockholm initiative for Nuclear Disarmament. We have also consistently lamented the lacklustre support that Canada has heretofore given to the process, including the failure of our foreign minister to attend the meetings, even in virtual format.

Nonetheless Canada is now a co-sponsor, along with other Stockholm Initiative participants, of a very constructive working paper for the NPT Review Conference, tabled in May 2021 by Sweden, entitled A Nuclear Risk Reduction Package.

In addition, according to an interview given by Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde to the US Arms Control Association in May of this year, Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau has apparently joined in a letter to US Secretary of State Blinken from his Swedish and German counterparts, on behalf of the Stockholm Initiative, asking the US to:

seriously consider the 22 stepping stone proposals to advance nuclear disarmament.

These proposals are aimed at providing an ambitious and realistic set of measures that we hope that all NPT states-parties, not least the nuclear-weapon states with their special responsibility, will study with an open mind and act on.

NATO Communiqué continues TPNW Attack

Against this more positive news on Canada’s role in promoting concrete steps towards actual progress on nuclear disarmament comes yet another NATO Communiqué trashing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The relevant part of the Communiqué (the rest of which is discussed later in the blog) states:

We reiterate our opposition to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) which is inconsistent with the Alliance’s nuclear deterrence policy, is at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture, risks undermining the NPT, and does not take into account the current security environment.

RI President Peggy Mason comments:

As a former head of Canada’s delegation to the fourth NPT Review conference, I can state categorically that the TPNW is not “at odds” or contradictory to the “existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture”. Nor does it in any way “risk undermining” the NPT, despite legal contortions to justify this interpretation.

Quite the contrary, it is entirely complementary to it and seeks in particular to advance the NPT Article VI obligation on all NPT states parties, nuclear and non-nuclear alike, to engage in “good faith negotiations” for nuclear disarmament.

Whither Canada?

While we applaud the modest steps taken by Canada in the context of the Swedish-led Stockholm Initiative, we condemn our government’s continued failure to disassociate itself from inaccurate and counterproductive NATO attacks on the TPNW.

Progress on Ukraine should be an urgent priority

Those who hoped the Biden–Putin Summit would also set in motion processes to address other key issues over which their two countries are bitterly divided were disappointed. Of particular concern is the situation in Ukraine.

Quincy Institute expert Anatol Lieven, writes:

The unresolved conflict between Russia and Ukraine in the Donbas region represents by far the greatest danger of a new war in Europe – and by far the greatest risk of a new crisis in relations between the United States and Russia.

Lack of attention to Ukraine at the Summit was a missed opportunity according to Lieven. He argues in a new report that a negotiated solution is well within reach if countries with influence on Ukraine (especially the USA but also Canada) make concerted efforts to help remove roadblocks to, and create incentives for, the full implementation of the Minsk II agreement.

Lieven, in an analysis akin to that of Canadian expert Andrew Rasiulis, concludes:

The dictates of reality, the wishes of the people of the region, and modern international precedent all point in the same direction: a settlement derived from the principles set out in 2015 by the “Minsk II” group, comprised of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine, and endorsed by the United States and the United Nations Security Council.

Whither Canada?

Lieven criticises the USA for its lopsided approach, focusing on military assistance and ignoring the peace process. The same goes for Canada.

We call on Canada to articulate its full support for the Minsk II peace process and to commit to developing positive incentives to assist Ukraine in meeting its obligations therein.

For an excellent webinar discussion on Anatol Lieven’s proposals, click on the arrow below.

NATO Summit adds China to alliance threat list

Earlier in this blog we deplored the section of the NATO Communiqué that vilified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Alas, that is not the only part of the document that deserves opprobrium.

In a guest essay in the New York Times, entitled Sorry, Liberals. But You Really Shouldn’t Love NATO, historian Stephen Wertheim apty sums up the problem:

Absent the Soviet threat, as Secretary General Stoltenberg admitted, the alliance has had to go “out of area or out of business.”

Out of area initially meant the Middle East with the disastrous 2011 NATO foray into Libya and NATO’s “biggest military operation ever” in Afghanistan.

Now China has joined Russia as an alleged explicit danger to NATO, with no less than 10 Communiqué references, beginning with paragraph 3, which states in part:

China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.  We will engage China with a view to defending the security interests of the Alliance.

Paragraph 55 begins:

China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security.  We are concerned by those coercive policies which stand in contrast to the fundamental values enshrined in the Washington Treaty.

While there is a nod to “constructive dialogue” with China in paragraph 56, overall this explicit identification of China as a threat to NATO Alliance security is astonishing, especially given the fact that the first ever mention of China in a NATO Communiqué was in 2019, when it was stated in paragraph 6:

We recognise that China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.

Andrew Rettman, writing for EU Observer on 15 June, notes that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, in his post-summit press conference made the point that:

China is not an adversary.

Identifying China as a “systemic” security challenge to be “defended against” but not an adversary reflects in part the very different approach to China of alliance members like France and Germany to that of the United States. French President Macron, for example, told the press after the Summit:

It’s very important that we don’t … bias our relationship with China…

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also cautioned against “overestimating the importance” of the Chinese threat.

Yet despite these very different views on how to approach China, all the Alliance members have signed on to a document that does precisely that — overestimates the importance to NATO of the actual security challenges that China poses and risks biasing the relationship of alliance members with China.

As such, they are acquiescing to a misguided American China policy instead of pushing back against it.

For further analysis of the danger of a US foreign policy based on “the clash between democracy and autocracy” see: Biden’s foreign policy needs a course correction (Charles A. Kupchan,, 19 May 2021).

Whither Canada?

There is no explicit reference to China in the press release issued by the Prime Minister’s office following the NATO Summit. The PM did not hold a media availability.

However, in the Press Conference following the G7 Summit, held just before the NATO Summit, Prime Minister Trudeau also sought to reflect a nuanced approach to China.

Astonishingly this was described in a June 17 article by CBC journalist Evan Dyer, as striking a “jarring off-note” from the rest of the G7.  That article would have benefited from a more nuanced view of the merits of US-led efforts to “isolate” China.

Update on Israel–Palestine: the “human shields” allegation

In an exceedingly clear and systematic way, Professor Stephen Zunes tackles the oft-repeated Israeli excuse that their massive destruction of civilian infrastructure, from the latest and earlier bombing campaigns in Gaza, is due to the intentional use by Hamas of Palestinian civilians as “human shields”.

Stephen Zunes writes:

there is absolutely no evidence that any of the more than 3,000 Palestinian civilians killed in Israeli military operations against Gaza since 2008 were a result of Hamas using human shields.

In any event, as Zunes notes:

Protocol I of the Fourth Geneva Convention makes clear that even if one side is shielding itself behind civilians, such a violation “shall not release the Parties to the conflict from their legal obligations with respect to the civilian population and civilians.”

The article expands beyond the specific issue of US absolution of Israel for war crimes to a similar trend regarding the US itself and, in particular, its massive bombing campaigns of the ISIL-held cities of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq which resulted in thousands of civilian deaths.

In the professor’s view:

This is part of an ever-expanding set of rules of engagement by U.S. forces that, since the launching of the “war on terror” twenty years ago, effectively dodge the limits on a government’s ability to attack civilian targets enshrined in the Geneva Convention.

For the full article see: Have ‘Human Shields’ Accusations Become an Excuse for War Crimes?” (, 17 June 2021).

Don’t miss upcoming virtual roundtable on Canadian Disarmament Diplomacy

Hosted by the Canadian International Council (CIC) National Capital Branch, it will take place on June 29 @ 12:00 – 1 pm:

Three former Canadian diplomats, Peggy Mason, Jill Sinclair, and Paul Meyer, will bring their extensive experience in the arms control and disarmament field to this discussion that will address the key challenges and opportunities facing the Canadian government today and in the future.

This event will be moderated by world-renowned Canadian journalist Michael Petrou, professor in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa and Editor-in-Chief for Open Canada. Elizabeth Kingston, President of the CIC National Capital Branch, will deliver the opening and closing remarks.

TO REGISTER FOR THIS WEBINAR:  click the link below:

Photo credit: Wikimedia (NATO Summit 2021)

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