February 27, 2023
The Brussels Hub
MODERATOR: Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I would like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s virtual briefing. Today, we are very honored to be joined by Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security at the Department of State.
And finally, a reminder that today’s call is on the record. And with that, let’s get started. Under Secretary Jenkins, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.
AMBASSADOR JENKINS: Great. Thank you so much for this, and just want to say hello, everyone, and it’s good to be back in Europe again, and good to be here at the Brussels Media Hub once again.
I’m currently in Geneva leading the U.S. delegation to the Conference on Disarmament High-Level Segment, where we are focused on advancing President Biden’s vision to strengthen the disarmament and nonproliferation architecture that protects us all.
A year ago, I spoke before the Conference on Disarmament and asserted that it is long past the time that the CD live up to the purpose it was intended to serve as the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community.
We now face a dramatically unstable security environment that pulls us away from collective action here, if we let it. Countries are failing to live up to their obligations to reduce and manage the risks posed by weapons of mass destruction, increasing competition in new domains for dangerous and self-serving reasons. We must continue to develop norms, rules, and procedures and principles (inaudible) responsible behavior in space and elsewhere. That is – it is in our collective interest.
The United States will continue to pursue multilateral and bilateral steps to reduce strategic risks, including steps that would lay the groundwork for additional discussion of mutual restraint in capabilities and behavior that benefit all respective parties. And we must continue efforts to advance to multilateral disarmament measures. We can and we should start by immediately commencing negotiations on a nondiscriminatory, multilateral, and internationally and effective (inaudible) verifiable treaty, ending the production of raw material for use in nuclear weapons to other (inaudible) explosive devices.
This proposed treaty has acquired an even greater urgency as a potential tool in stabilizing today’s deteriorating global and regional security conditions, and in reducing nuclear risks. The issues we face regarding the future of disarmament, daunting though they may be, can and must be solved.
With that, before I get to your questions, I do want to highlight a point that I know is on many people’s minds. We are a full year into Russia’s continued illegal and full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the United States commitment to Ukraine is strong and unwavering. As this administration has clearly shown, we are standing and will continue to stand with Ukraine. Russia must end this war, and must cease its irresponsible nuclear rhetoric – wholly unacceptable.
As you know, Russia has announced its intention to suspend its participation in the New START Treaty. This is deeply unfortunate and regrettable, especially when Russia has a clear path back to compliance. And what we have made clear and said on many occasions is that we remain ready to work constructively with Russia to fully implement the New START Treaty. Continued mutual implementation of the treaty remains in the best interests of all parties, underscoring what an irresponsible step Russia’s nuclear rhetoric are and the risks they create.
Russia’s actions threaten not only the viability of New START, but also the future of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control. (Inaudible) now more than ever, that we continue to act responsibly in the area of strategic arms limitation, something the rest of the world expects us (inaudible).
With that, happy to turn it back over for your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. And we’ll now turn to the question-and-answer portion of today’s briefing. And with that, we’ll go to our first question, a pre-submitted question by Mike Eckel from RFE/RL. And he asks: “What does Russia’s suspension of its participation in New START mean in practical terms? Some experts have called it merely posturing or bluff. And has the U.S. seen any indications that nondeployed warheads are being moved out of storage?”
AMBASSADOR JENKINS: Thank you for that question. What the suspension means – and I should say that we are actually in a process now of trying to understand ourselves and get a better sense of where things are because it’s been an announcement that you know has been pretty recent.
As you probably know, and we were – we talked very often before the suspension, there were two things that Russia needed to do to be in compliance with the treaty and to be back into compliance with the treaty, because as all of you know, we’d already stated that they were in noncompliance. They were not in material breach of the treaty. What they needed to do to get back into compliance was, one, to agree to meet with the U.S. in the BCC, Bilateral Consultative Commission, which is the implementing committee or group or – of Russians and U.S. participants; meet regularly, as happens in many arms control treaties, to discuss the implementation of the treaty, to ask questions of each other, to find common ground on things that there might be disagreements regarding the treaty. This is something that Russia and the U.S. are obligated to do. Unfortunately, Russia needed to agree to a meeting with us, and they had not done that, and so that was the first problem.
The second problem is that, as you know, inspections are a fundamental part of the treaty. So we have not had inspections, first because of COVID, and we needed to get back to having inspections. And that was something else that was a problem because we had not been able to get the Russians to agree to inspections, or at least have in the BCC discussions about inspections, which, I should note, the BCC was an opportunity to discuss many issues, not just inspections, but all – like I said earlier, any issue that either side had about implementation.
Since those two things had not happened, we had determined that Russia was in noncompliance.
By suspending the treaty – and as I said, we are in the process now to get a sense of where we are with everything – by suspending the treaty, our understanding is that we will not be having those discussions, which is of – very concerning to us. We’re not seeing any indications of Russia being in noncompliance. They have said that they want to stay in compliance with the treaty, so we’re not seeing any indications at this point of them doing anything outside of the two things that I had mentioned that we needed them to do.
So that’s where we are right now. They have given us – they said that they want to suspend the treaty. We’re in a process now of getting a sense of where we are with everything. But Russia, outside those two things, are not doing things that we see at this point that would be (inaudible).
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Our next question will – is a pre-submitted question from Maarten Rabaey from De Morgen in Belgium. And Maarten asks, “According to the Federation of American Scientists, the Russian suspension of the New START Treaty and possible non-extension in 2026 could lead to Russia – and, in reaction, also the U.S. – nearly doubling their operational warheads, which might start a new nuclear arms race. Which steps will the U.S. administration take trying to prevent this? And also, are there signs that Russia is moving or preparing to move non-strategic nuclear weapons, tactical bombs into Belarus? And would this have an impact on the nuclear posture of NATO in Europe?”
AMBASSADOR JENKINS: Quite essentially for a lot of these – a lot of the questions on – a lot of the sub-questions on this recall into the – a lot of what I just said, which is we are in a process now of getting a sense of where we are with everything, in terms of New START, based on the announcement that Russia has made.
So our main focus, our main goal right now is the continued implementation of New START, is to try to get the treaty back on track. By doing that we can prevent some of the things that follow on with these questions, in terms of concerns about a future arms control race – I mean, excuse me, a future race on nuclear weapons, or anything related to that, any kind of movement – which we’re not seeing – any kind of movement of Russia doing anything.
So that’s why, right now, we need to focus on the treaty itself and getting it back on track, so that we can do what the treaty is meant to do, which is to increase transparency, keep a limit on numbers, make sure that we do not get into a situation where either side is developing any kind of weapons that will be problematic in the future. So that’s where we need to be, and that’s our number one goal right now.
I don’t have any updates in terms of moving things into Belarus. Obviously, that would be an issue of concern to us. But right now, as I said, our focus right now is on getting the New START back on track so that we can continue to implement – both countries implement the legal obligations that we have under that treaty.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Our next question comes from Dániel Szabó in – from Hungary, from Portfolio, and he asks, “Last Friday the United States imposed new sanctions on Russia over its aggression in Ukraine, including on Russian state-owned nuclear companies, including several subsidiaries of Rosatom. So the first question: What exactly is the expected impact of these measures? Are they more likely to harm Russia’s peaceful uses of nuclear energy, or to limit the Russian military’s nuclear strike capabilities?”
AMBASSADOR JENKINS: The sanctions that we are imposing – keep in mind that these sanctions are really to deal with the situation with Russia and Ukraine. But I think that we should see these sanctions in terms of – with that in mind, and as that as the backdrop, really.
So the sanctions that we imposed are really because of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. That is the mandate that we’re focusing on right now, and I think when you look at these sanctions, you should think of them in terms of that being the main goal of what we’re trying to (inaudible) look at, what we hope to (inaudible).
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. I – we now are going to take a live call from one of our journalists, Alex Raufoglu from Turan News Agency. Alex, your line is open. You can unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you, Andrea. Ambassador, thank you so much for your time this afternoon. I have three very quick questions, so please bear with me. You mentioned a couple of times that you’re focused on prospects to restore New START discussions. Does that include China moving forward?
And my second question, I was going through your speech last October in Tbilisi, where you emphasized that you must take – we all must take lessons what we have learned from the pandemic, and apply them to our future global health security, and pandemic preparedness, and response efforts. I’m just wondering, how do you square these circles after new report came out last week regarding COVID-19’s origin? As you know, according to Wall Street Journal, the Department of Energy now believes that it – COVID-19 most likely originated in a lab.
And my last question – last week the administration overhauled arms transfer policy requiring stricter human rights review. The region where I come from, South Caucasus, is known with human rights concerns. Azerbaijan is another story; Georgia also has its own problems with what they do with former president, and also recently they had new legislation restricting basically press freedom. I’m just wondering how much human rights concerns both factor into your cooperation with those countries, Azerbaijan and Georgia, given their backsliding of the human rights records. Thanks so much.
AMBASSADOR JENKINS: Okay, so I’ll take these one at a time. So on New START, keeping in mind of course the New START Treaty is between the U.S. and Russia, and therefore it includes legal obligations that we both are under to implement the treaty between the two countries. China, of course, is not a party to New START. So in respect of New START, it’s not – it doesn’t have any kind of obligation, legal or otherwise, to START.
China, as you probably know, is (inaudible) a country where we are trying to find ways to engage them on security issues, particularly trying to develop a dialogue of risk reduction, crisis management, and to develop some transparency with the country in light of their increased military buildup and concerns by not just the U.S., but many countries, and seeing what they’re doing on the nuclear (inaudible).
So that’s separate from New START. New START is, as I said, between the U.S. and Russia. We both have a legal obligation to implement that treaty; China is not part of that. However, we do – the U.S. does have an interest – and other countries have an interest, actually – for transparency in China in terms of what they’re doing with their military capabilities and buildup.
On COVID, I think I’ll just – the most important thing to say about that is it’s important that all countries in light of what we’ve all been through in the last three years of COVID, continue to focus on pandemic preparedness, continue to focus on capacity building, to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats, whether they’re natural, intentional, or accidental. That remains the major goal that we all should be focusing on, in terms of ensuring that we are able to address future challenges posed by infectious disease to any of us, because these diseases are global. They’re not domestic. They’re of global impact. And so we all must be diligent in terms of how we deal with those (inaudible). And on transfer policy, as you know or probably know, we just had a new CAT policy [The U.S. Conventional Arms Transfer Policy] that was just released last week. And we want to continue to strengthen the human rights aspect of our CAT policy. The policy that we have now is continuing to look at a number of issues. We take these issues on a case-by-case basis. We have a number of factors that we take into account when we are providing security assistance. One of those factors of course is human rights; we take a number of things into account as we are considering our provision of security assistance to countries. Keep in mind that even after we provide security assistance, we continue to work with countries to ensure that they have the (inaudible) situation where we are keeping track of what’s happening there and that we help provide through other means the – what they need to ensure that they have (inaudible) encourage activities that are not leading to corruption, or to instability, or to – that would lead to human rights, humanitarian rights violations.
So we look at each country individually. We provide security assistance based on a number of factors. We’ve increased our focus of course on human rights, and we continue to look at those countries even after providing (inaudible).
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. And unfortunately we only have time for one more question, and we have a submitted question in the chat from Luana Pavaluca from Romania from News.ro, who says, “What do you expect from the new foreign policy concept that Moscow is about to announce?”
AMBASSADOR JENKINS: I can’t say exactly – I’m not sure what I expect to see. I’m actually curious to see overall what comes out of Moscow. I think that many of us at this point are obviously disillusioned and disappointed in their recent activities with New START. Obviously, we see what they’re doing in Ukraine with the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. We’re seeing that there in many areas that – within the space that I work in, in arms control and nonproliferation, disarmament, see them taking many actions that are against actions that many countries believe should be taken in terms of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, (inaudible) biological weapons review conference. We see what’s happened with the recent report by the OPCW on Syrian – some serious use of chemical weapons in 2018, and Russian assistance on that. I mean, we’re seeing a lot of very negative things that are happening right now in so many spaces with Russia.
So what do I expect? I don’t know. I mean, we’ll see in general what’s coming out of – what’s coming out of Moscow overall right now (inaudible) positive. So we’ll see. We’ll see what they say in that document. We’ll see what they continue to say regarding New START (inaudible) their actions in Ukraine, and we’ll see their action in other multilateral spaces – not just the ones that fit within my portfolio at State Department on international security, but in so many other areas.
MODERATOR: And thank you very much. And unfortunately that’s all the time that we have for today. Before we close the call, I’d like to see if Under Secretary Jenkins has any final remarks for the group.
AMBASSADOR JENKINS: First of all, thank you for hosting me again at the Brussels Hub. Thank you, of course, always to everyone for calling in and listening and asking questions. I think that we are at a – everyone recognizes the difficult situation we are right now with New START. As I said, we are taking a pulse right now to see where we are right now on New START and hoping that Russia will in fact do the two things that can bring them back into compliance with the treaty, but we’ll have to see where we are in light of the statement that was made by them about this (inaudible).
And finally, just to go back to where I started, the important work that’s being done – that needs to be done here in (inaudible) but also on all issues of (inaudible) nonproliferation, disarmament, and the importance that we need to continue to provide and seek ways to provide some stability in the international – in a global international (inaudible) on these issues. And so these issues are very important, and we’ll continue to push forward for what can be done. So thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much and thank you to all of our journalists for joining us. Shortly, we’ll send the audio recording of the briefing to all participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it’s available. We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks again for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another press briefing soon. This ends today’s briefing.