“We made very clear, as we have from the moment we adopted a testing moratorium in 1992, that we maintain and will maintain the ability to conduct nuclear tests if we see any reason to do so, whatever that reason may be,” said Marshall Billingslea, the top US envoy for nuclear negotiations, as he spoke to reporters on Wednesday. “But that said, I am unaware of any particular reason to test at this stage.”
The top nuclear negotiator said the Russians had asked him about the possibility of a US nuclear test during their meetings, based on a media report about a test being discussed by US officials last month.
“I won’t shut the door on it, because why would we,” Billingslea said.
Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by Ambassador Marshall Billingslea Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control And Lieutenant General Thomas A. Bussiere Deputy Commander, United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM).
Ambassador Billingslea: Thanks and greatly appreciate our fourth estate, the journalistic community, being willing to join us here today on this most important topic, which is, of course, the matter of strategic nuclear arms control and its future in a highly uncertain and challenging time. It has been outstanding to be here at the NATO Headquarters. It’s been a while since I’ve been back to NATO, having served here many years ago as an assistant secretary general of the alliance.
And I must say we had really a wonderful and productive set of meetings across the alliance. That includes discussions with the secretary general, the deputy secretary general and assistant secretaries general, as well as a very long and detailed discussion with the North Atlantic Council, which, of course, is the ambassadors from across the alliance. And then I also had the opportunity to have a number of bilateral discussions with a large cross-section of the alliance.
It is, suffice to say, the case that we appreciate the strong support that we receive from our allies on this topic and on the approach that we are taking, which is to ensure that in the future strategic nuclear arms control addresses the pressing threats that now face us all. And in particular, I am talking about the advent of China, the rise of China and its destabilizing behavior, its pursuit of a significant crash nuclear program, which it is attempting to hide from the world through its secretive and nontransparent ways.
Likewise, we also discussed today the various programs that the Russian Federation is engaged in, including a number of buildup and very concerning activities that are occurring outside of – therefore unconstrained by – the existing New START treaty. And we also then reaffirmed together in the NAC the importance of verification but the fundamental principle that, in fact, we should insist and we must insist on compliance with agreements. If a country signs up to a deal, it is more than rational and logical that we will expect that that country will abide by its commitments.
That said, as I have now made clear publicly in a number of contexts, our discussions in Vienna, which were what we were, in fact, here to brief upon today with the Russians, were productive and I think have moved us forward in an understanding of the issues where we can work together and those issues that may still separate us.
I’ll be happy to talk further about all of this, but I will now turn to the general who is our – Gen. Bussiere is our Deputy Strategic Commander, the number two in our Strategic Forces, who joined me on this delegation to have these discussions both with Russia, but even more crucially, with our NATO allies.
Lt. Gen Bussiere: Thank you for the opportunity to give you some brief comments about my participation in the U.S. delegation’s talks in Vienna this week. Before I do that, I would like to also pass my thanks to the NATO alliance and give you my perspective that that alliance is extremely important as an alliance but really important as a nuclear alliance. And I want to thank everyone that hosted us today.
I want to briefly give you some insight into some very important discussions we had in Vienna that I think everyone will agree going forward is needed to continue. The first is on a greater, deeper understanding of the recently published [Fundamental] Principles of the Russian Federation State Policy on Nuclear Deterrence. We had an opportunity to briefly go through with the Russian General Staff our questions and concerns and clarifying aspects of that document that was published on the 2nd of June.
In conjunction with that was a need and a desire to go forward and also have a discussion not only on the greater meaning of that doctrine to alleviate any misunderstandings or misperceptions, but to have a greater understanding and discussion on what we are terming as nonstrategic nuclear weapons, also known as tactical nuclear weapons, which we are currently referring to as unconstrained weapons in that they are not constrained by the current New START Treaty architecture.
And so what we agreed is that going forward that would be a wonderful opportunity to get a greater, deeper understanding between the U.S. and the Russian Federation on what their doctrine means and how those nonstrategic, unconstrained nuclear weapons fit into that doctrine.
Additionally, it was a great discussion on how we look forward in incorporating China into the discussions of future arms control negotiations and taking to account from an international perspective all nuclear powers as we account for our mutual understandings.
Ambassador Billingslea: As you can tell, the decision by the United States to include U.S. Strategic Command in these discussions was a clear signal of the seriousness and the intent that we have to engage on this important topic. And I am greatly pleased that the Russian Federation saw that and indeed, on its own, brought their senior military leadership, which enabled this first round of discussions on the matter of both doctrine and on the matter of Russia’s unconstrained warhead stockpile buildup as well as some of their more questionable investment decisions in these various doomsday-type weapons that the world is now learning about.
So to end and to then open it up to questions, we leave Brussels today, NATO headquarters today, headed back to Washington knowing that the alliance, a nuclear alliance, is as strong as ever and that we enjoy complete unanimous NATO support for how we are approaching these talks and for how we are charting a course towards a more stable and secure future.
So, Justin, with that, I’ll turn it back to you. And we look forward to answering whatever questions the audience may have.
Question: Would the U.S. be willing to consider prolonging the treaty for a shorter period, and five years, and what would be a preferable period for prolongation for Washington?
And the second question is the Russians announced that they again proposed the idea of a moratorium for INF deployment in Europe. Under which circumstances would the U.S. be ready to consider this proposal? if Russia, like, moves the missile aggressions in 9M729 behind the Urals or other option?
Ambassador Billingslea: So I would say that on the matter of New START, we are leaving all options available. We are willing to contemplate an extension of that agreement but only under select circumstances. Like Russia, who on several occasions my counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov himself, said after they adopted the New START Treaty that the next agreement must be multilateral. And we agree completely with that.
Now, our definition of multilateral might be slightly different, but the principle remains the same, which is that in this changed security environment, recognizing that, in fact, it has been a decade since New START was negotiated and adopted, the world has changed a great deal. And we view – and I think the Russian Federation likely shares overlapping and similar opinions in some areas – that the next agreement has got to address a number of issues that were not foreseen at the time of New START’s negotiation.
So it is, to your question, on the table and available. And we are – we will contemplate that, but only if we make progress in the crucial areas of addressing the incredibly worrisome crash nuclear program of China, in addressing a number of greatly concerning Russian behaviors that have been engineered to occur outside of the New START treaty’s constraints, and above all or certainly consistent with all, that we have an effective verification regime that can restore some level of confidence that, in fact, there is compliance with the commitments undertaken by all three parties to a future agreement.
In terms of the matter of an INF moratorium, I do find it interesting and regrettable that the Russian Federation, for a decade or more, deliberately cheated on the INF Treaty, knowingly violating the INF Treaty by developing, in secret, the SSC-8 missile. You correctly used the Russian designator for that. I am using the NATO numbers. But that that treaty was under development, and now we know that, in fact, there were plans to likewise violate that treaty with the Kalibr sea-launched system which was being tested in a land‑based mode.
So it is, indeed, greatly disappointing that Russia destroyed the INF Treaty with its flagrant violations of it. We abided by the INF Treaty. For 33 years we abided by it. Russia did not. That treaty has been consigned to the dustbin of history by Russia, and it is regrettable. But it is at this stage now important for us to look forward, and we do so recognizing full well that the Chinese have not been constrained in any shape or fashion by limitations on intermediate-range systems, and they’ve built a number of them. So we now intend to do likewise. I really wouldn’t spend a lot of time thinking about or worrying about an INF moratorium because, simply put, that’s not going to happen.
Question: How does the U.S. plan to convince China to join arms control talks given the poor state of Sino-U.S. relations?
Ambassador Billingslea: First and foremost, it is incumbent upon the Chinese themselves to recognize that they have an obligation to negotiate with us and the Russians in good faith, and we intend to hold them to that obligation. In line with that, you will have noticed that in recent days, an increasingly large number of countries have called out the Chinese for their refusal to do exactly that, to negotiate with us in good faith.
And I expect that in the coming days, the clamor, the tidal wave of international pressure on China, will continue to grow, because it is, simply put, unacceptable that China engage in this secretive and destabilizing buildup. The community of nations understands now what China is doing. We have briefed extensively intelligence on the Chinese behaviors here this very day to the North Atlantic Council. We are going to continue to make clear that China cannot be allowed to completely derail and upend the strategic stability and security that was achieved over many, many decades of arms control negotiations and agreements.
But yet that is precisely what they are threatening to do with their buildup. And so I believe in due course that China will, in fact, see that it is in their best interest to come to the negotiation table. There will be real benefits to China if they do so sooner rather than later, not the least of which is China tells itself that it intends to achieve great power status. So what better way to achieve that than to be seen as negotiating side-by-side on a respected level with the United States and Russia in Vienna on the matter of nuclear arms control?
It is regrettable that China stood us up this past Monday. They didn’t just stand up the United States and Russia; they stood up the world when they refused to come to Vienna for these talks. And we expect and we hope that in the future they will, in fact, show up.
We made clear that we anticipated that China would attend. The agenda we gave to the Russians said as much. And we came prepared, ready to host the Chinese in those talks, and the same will be true when we get to round two of these discussions again and beyond.
Question: The U.S. delegation led by envoy Billingslea asked the Russian delegation if the U.S. can place Chinese flags by vacant seats that could have been filled by the Chinese delegation. The Russians said no, so the U.S. put the flags down and took pictures prior to the meeting. Are those reports accurate? And if they are, do you think that move and the ensuing coverage made the U.S. look good and competent?
Ambassador Billingslea: We made clear, as I just said, that from day one we expect a trilateral nuclear arms control agreement and we expect the Chinese to participate. And so we laid out the format in Vienna together with the Austrian government and with the Russians with that very expectation. As I said, the agenda that we circulated contemplated, in fact, three days of negotiations, the second day of which would have had bilateral U.S.-China and Russian-Chinese discussions, and then the third day would have, in fact, involved a three-way meeting of the nations.
It is normal that in these negotiations that you bring your national flags. We actually furnished the flags for all three nations, as we often do in these various formats. So the point was made that, unfortunately, China stood us all up, and that is regrettable. But if China would like to have these discussions in the future, we stand ready and we do expect that they in due course will see no other option but to show up.
Moderator: Russian news reports say that the Russians never agreed in Vienna to form a working group on nuclear warheads and doctrine. These reports say that Russia agreed to talk about doctrine only. U.S. news reports say it wants to talk about nuclear arsenals, which Washington interprets as including warheads, but the Russian side might not do so. The question is, did Russia explicitly agree to form a working group on warheads and doctrine, as U.S. officials said on Tuesday?
Ambassador Billingslea: I saw the – a similar kind of commentary. I’m going to need to circle back with Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov to really confirm with him because I want to make sure that our recollections of what was agreed are consistent.
Obviously, from our standpoint, we view that a technical working group, in fact, was agreed to cover the twin and be inextricably linked topics of unconstrained warhead arsenals and doctrines surrounding them. What’s the point of discussing doctrine regarding escalate-to-win strategies and first use of nuclear weapons to compel and to coerce a negotiated outcome if you’re not also talking about the buildup of the very inventory of weapons that – for which that doctrine contemplates use?
So we’ll get there. We’ll get an agreement on this. But I think the Russians well understand that any progress on this topic and on the overall matter of New START extension is very much conditioned upon progress regarding these unconstrained warhead stockpiles and Russia’s intention to build them up.
And don’t take my word for it. This is the view of the United States Senate. The U.S. Senate, when they ratified the New START Treaty, made crystal clear that the next arms control agreement negotiated would have to cover these very types of systems. So we’ll work together, but the sooner Russia does agree to talk about these things, the greater the prospects are that we can make a progress in the near term.
Question: Did the Chinese ever actually agree to come to the talks giving you a reasonable expectation that they would show up? I mean were there logistical discussions about them coming? And also, how did NATO allies react when you briefed them earlier today? They have many concerns, as you well know. How did they respond to what you accomplished in Vienna?
Ambassador Billingslea: Unfortunately – well, so for a period of time, China was silent, and then we began hearing communications through their various spokesmen making clear they had no intention to show up in Vienna. That’s regrettable. In fact, they used a very curious formula. They said, “As the world knows,” implying that somehow the world believes that China is somehow at the same level of nuclear capability as the British and the French, and that simply is not the case. The Russians have a wonderful saying, their version of the apples and oranges analogy, which is to say that drinking tea is not like chopping wood.
So to suggest that the United Kingdom and France, who are cordially drinking tea and simply maintaining their nuclear deterrence, while the Chinese are busy over here chopping wood very actively, we can’t agree to that characterization. The world doesn’t know that, China. We don’t believe you as you attempt to hide and bide. And we do expect you to show up and negotiate in good faith. Hope springs eternal. So we went to Vienna with the possibility that maybe just maybe someone from China would show up, even if it were only from their embassy.
Unfortunately, as I’ve said, they stood us all up. But we will have another round of discussions, and there will be another chance for – we’ll give China another chance to excel and to demonstrate that they are, in fact, prepared to take on that great power responsibility that they so want to make the world think they’re ready to assume.
I’m sorry. Teri, your second question had to do with NATO and how they reacted?
Question: How did NATO allies react when you briefed them?
Ambassador Billingslea: I think that NATO, like the rest of the world, is encouraged that both after President Putin and President Trump spoke very recently and agreed that we would undertake these discussions and that we would approach the discussions in a constructive way – and I must say, I must say the Russian Federation did exactly that. And I think you would agree, General, that they approached the discussions – we didn’t agree on many things, but they certainly approached in a – and I think I would say both countries approached these discussions in a respectful manner.
We had some very tough discussions, but they were fair discussions. The conversations were not hyperbolic. This was not a debating club where people were attempting to score points against one another, nor were we simply going through the motions and reading from prepared scripts and engaging in a dry kind of engagement. It was at times a bit heated, but it was very candid.
And like I said last night, sufficient progress was made that we could, in fact, launch these working groups and we could even envision perhaps at the end of July or maybe beginning of August a second round in Vienna, which I think is something that the world would welcome and, and at the risk of repeating myself, something where we do anticipate that China again will be called upon to attend.
Moderator: What were the Russian reactions on what you briefed them on the growing Chinese nuclear arsenal?
Ambassador Billingslea: I understand you’re based in Austria. Let me start by saying I had a chance to meet with the Austrian foreign minister to thank him for the outstanding support that the government of Austria has provided to enable these negotiations to be launched, these discussions to take place, even in the midst of this pandemic. So I think it’s a real tribute to the chancellor of Austria and his team how they’ve both handled the virus outbreak, but also their longstanding commitment to be a place where East meets West, and perhaps in the future a place where the Far East meets West.
I cannot get into the particulars of the discussion regarding the intelligence briefing that we furnished. I’ve been reluctant to identify the country that was the subject of that briefing, though it appears fairly obvious.
Suffice to say that I believe that the Russian Federation departed Vienna recognizing at least how deeply held United States concerns are regarding the program in which China is engaged and that, in fact, that we feel that quite a bit of what China is doing pretty much should be of great concern to the Russian Federation as well. This will – invariably, this will continue to be a matter of discussion between our two nations, and I look forward to a further exchange of views with the Russian government on this. And I know, General, if you have anything further to add on that, but I know we would welcome the Russian perspective on such things.
Question: In the course of the conversations, did you bring up with the Russians the possibility of un-signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which, of course, the U.S. has never ratified? Is there active discussion or in your view any need to actually conduct a physical test, and do you see any evidence that the Chinese and the Russians are preparing such tests?
Ambassador Billingslea: I didn’t go down the path of talking about un-signing the CTBT. I did make crystal clear that the United States Senate rejected the test ban treaty as a fatally flawed agreement and the United States is not party to that treaty. We did talk about the matter of nuclear testing, absolutely. You might imagine there was Russian interest in understanding whether press reports that they had seen were accurate regarding the United States.
And we made very clear, as we have from the moment we adopted a testing moratorium in 1992, that we maintain and will maintain the ability to conduct nuclear tests if we see any reason to do so, whatever that reason may be. But that said, I am unaware of any particular reason to test at this stage. I won’t shut the door on it because why would we.
That said, we made clear to the Russians that we were deeply concerned about what they’re doing at their test site, and that leaving aside the CTBT, we think it’s important that you not go out and tell the world that you are not engaged in nuclear testing with yield if, in fact, that’s what you’re doing. It’s not that we’re calling them out on a treaty compliance issue. We’re simply saying that you have to be truthful. We would say the same thing to the Chinese if they were in the room regarding what they’re doing at Lop Nur.
Question: Could you describe the exact contours of Chinese crash nuclear program? What exactly does this entail?
Ambassador Billingslea: You know, it entails a number of things. It entails a – it entails a really worrisome shift that China has undertaken in its thinking. And this shift is a shift away from a posture that I would suggest served China just fine for many, many decades, which was the posture of having minimal deterrent; that is to say, a sufficient number of nuclear weapons that the People’s Republic of China, the Communist Party in China, could be assured that they were not at any risk of being blackmailed. But apparently, that’s not enough.
Apparently, they intend to achieve some form of nuclear parity with both the United States and Russia. And whether that parity is qualitative at the outset or perhaps quantitative, this seems what they are determined, in fact, to do. And so there are many different aspects of what it takes to arrive at a parity situation. I’m going to ask the general in a minute to talk about some of the significant destabilizing implications of a launch-on-warning kind of situation, but I would suggest that you have to look at several things as observables of this crash program.
The first is you have to look at what they’re doing at Lop Nur, their test site, where they have moved in effect to year-round activity. You also need to look at the pace at which they are pushing out a wide range of different kinds of missile systems – short-range, medium-range, long-range ballistic missiles, ICBMs, road-mobile, rail-mobile. You name it, they’ve got a full panoply of missile systems that they’re pushing out the door.
You also have to look at their pursuit now of a nuclear triad as they are moving in the direction of having nuclear weapons that can be delivered not just by ground-based ICBMs and such but by sea launch, by submarines, and by bombers. So this is a radical shift. It is a rapid buildup, and something that, of course, is of great concern to the United States, to our allies in Europe, and to our Asian allies. We are all discussing this, and we intend actually to discuss it with the broader community, because what China is doing is not just a threat to the United States and our allies in the East and the West, but it is a threat to global peace and security. And the Chinese need to be called out on it.
General, I don’t know if you’d like to talk further about the implications of this triad launch-on-warning posture.
Lt Gen Bussiere: Mr. Ambassador. So countries aside, so whether you’re looking at Russia or China or any other country, you look at capability and intent. So as we view the capability and intent, we look at whether that’s postured for a minimum deterrent, as the ambassador just stated, or it’s building to something bigger than that; and then, of course, the intended doctrinal use of that force and whether or not the statement of “no first use” is a credible statement in light of what is being observed; and then how you’re going to approach that from a uniformed military perspective to give our best military advice to the senior civilian leadership and posturing the United States for defense.
Question: Do you acknowledge that the NATO secretary general, the foreign ministers of the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, and others have all said that New START – or have all said that the New START extension would be useful and conducive to more ambitious nuclear arms control pursuits. Unless you agree that New START should be extended without conditions, it seems that your approach and that of the NATO approach does not appear to be in sync ?”
Ambassador Billingslea: Daryl, our approach and NATO are completely in sync. Of course, NATO is comprised of many different nations. We welcome the fact that the secretary general, the deputy secretary general, the Dutch foreign minister, the Norwegian foreign minister, the foreign ministers of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic – I just can keep going on and on and on – have all now specifically called out China for their need to negotiate in good faith and are helping us make crystal clear that that is what the alliance expects.
We do well understand the view of a number of allies regarding the New START Treaty and how they feel that it plays within the international system, and we understand that. And the point that we’re making is that certainly extension of the New START Treaty for some period of time is a possibility, but it’s only a possibility if we acknowledge that the antiquated Cold War construct of a bilateral, two-country-only solution does not work in a world where a third party – in this case China – is rapidly building up. So we think and what we seek to do is avoid a three-way arms race, and we believe the very best way to do that is to arrive and achieve a three-way nuclear deal. And that is the overall context in which we are operating. It is absolutely with the strongest degree of unanimous alliance support that we’re going to pursue this endeavor.
Appreciate that very much, Justin, and thanks for everybody taking the time with us. And of course, this is an evolutionary process. I do hope after the experts – the expert and technical working groups meet in the coming days in Vienna that we will make sufficient progress that the deputy foreign minister and I – and should China name a counterpart, he or she as well – will get back together in Vienna to advance these conversations to the next stage.