February 15 2023

It is a defining feature of the permanent embassy that – in contrast to the special mission – it has general responsibilities, and these might cover almost any subject. Although I’m guessing, a recent and extremely important case in point appears to be the role of the Russian Embassy in Washington and the US embassy in Moscow in keeping the New START Treaty on life support.

This agreement, which is now the only bilateral arms control treaty shared by the United States and the Russian Federation and places limits on their inter-continental ballistic missiles, came into force in 2011, and in 2021 – thanks to the timely ejection of Donald Trump from the White House – was renewed for a further five years. Among the numerous procedures provided for its verification are 18 on-site inspections per year by American and Russian inspection teams and establishment of a bilateral consultative commission (BCC) required to meet at least twice a year unless otherwise agreed. (The last is a good example of the now common ‘review meetings’ that I discuss in Chapter 6, Following Up, in my Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 6th edn 2022.) Unfortunately, both of these devices have fallen victim to the Ukraine War: in August 2022 Russia announced that it was suspending visits by American inspectors, and in November cancelled a meeting of the BCC in Cairo (interesting venue), which, moreover, had not met since October 2021.

Nevertheless, both sides claim to remain attached to the New START Treaty and it seems that the other verification procedures (chiefly data exchanges) are being honoured. The two powers also remain in diplomatic relations, albeit via embassies much reduced in size. And it is these missions that might well be stepping into the breach in the absence of the BCC, because they have done so before. The evidence might be slender but it is compelling. Thus in the recent, very full report on the treaty by the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, it is noted that there were no BCC meetings at all in 2020 because of the Covid pandemic but that ‘BCC matters’ continued to be discussed in ‘diplomatic channels,’ which is another term for resident missions. The same language is used later in the report, where it is implied that such channels routinely supplemented meetings of the bilateral consultative commission. What is not clear is which embassy was used and, if both were employed, whether there was an agreed division of labour or not.

In any event, both current heads of mission are well qualified to lead in discussion of New START Treaty matters. Anatoly Antonov, who has been Russian Ambassador in Washington since September 2017 and is a fluent English-speaker, was formerly Deputy Minister of Defence and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. According to a well-sourced Wikipedia article, having been the author of a doctoral dissertation on ‘Controlling nuclear weapons as a factor in ensuring national and international security’, while at the foreign ministry Antonov specialized in the control of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. For her part, Lynne Tracy, who arrived in Moscow as the new US Ambassador in late January 2023, is no clueless political appointee. She is a career Foreign Service Officer and Russia specialist, among other posts having served as deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Moscow itself from 2014 until 2017.  She is obviously regarded in Moscow as someone with whom they can do business because her appointment was approved by the Kremlin in September, well before she faced the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on 30 November and her bipartisan confirmation (by 93 votes to 2) on 21 December. In her Senate hearing she had implied that the reduction of nuclear risks, not least via arms control, would – after US nationals wrongly detained in Russia – be the second of the priorities for her mission. She also had a meeting with Antonov at his residence in Washington on 24 January before leaving for Russia, and –according to a public statement by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on 6 February – discussed matters around the New START Treaty with him. Queried about this at a press briefing on 10 February, Ambassador Bonnie Denise Jenkins, US Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, denied any knowledge of this discussion while conceding that it might have happened, thereby, of course, confirming its occurrence.

Post script, 22 February 2023: Putin’s announcement yesterday that he was ‘suspending’ Russia’s participation in the New START Treaty – not withdrawing from it – has not dramatically altered the context in which the embassies must work. See also this Reuter’s report.