Is Secretary Blinken’s Bumbling Diplomacy Keeping an American Under the Kremlin’s Lock and Key?

Top diplomat’s mixed messaging on nuclear arms treaty undercuts clout in other areas.

AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko, file
A Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich, stands in a glass cage in a courtroom at the Moscow City Court in Russia. AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko, file

America watched and cringed as President Biden took another unceremonious tumble last week, the ignominy of the president’s fall matched only by the reflexive apologia of more than a few of the nation’s leading scribes. But away from the headlines someone else has been stumbling with possibly more consequential impact — the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.

Secretary Blinken’s  mixed messaging on nuclear arms reduction risks erroneously signaling to the Kremlin at a pivotal moment that Washington is as unreliable a partner as Moscow. It is a top diplomat’s principle task to avert, not precipitate, such a potentially dangerous cascade of miscommunication. 

Russia was the first to play fast and loose with the agreement aimed at avoiding destruction of the planet in the event of a  nuclear war. The New START treaty is no relic, but that didn’t stop Vladimir Putin from suspending Russia’s participation in it last February. It was an ill-advised, calculated move, but one that  gave Secretary Blinken an opportunity to outfox the wily Russ. He passed on that.


Instead, the State Department on Thursday announced that it will be revoking the visas of Russian nuclear inspectors, denying applications for new monitors, and canceling standard clearances for Russian aircraft to enter American airspace. According to a public statement, “the United States has adopted lawful countermeasures in response to the Russian Federation’s ongoing violations of the New START treaty.”

No one would argue that the Kremlin, particularly under Mr. Putin’s steely stewardship, should be treated with kid gloves. But in Mr. Blinken’s penny-ante response to an original slight there is the shadow of antagonism for antagonism’s sake. New START is ultimately about reducing the number of nuclear warheads, whereas playing tit-for-tat in this thorny arena is simply reductive. 

Why does that matter? Ask Evan Gershkovich, the young American Wall Street Journal reporter currently languishing in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison. Actually, you cannot ask him much of anything, as due to his incarceration Mr. Gershkovich, only 32, has been largely incommunicado since his arrest in Russia on spurious charges in March. He is the first American correspondent since the Cold War to be wrongfully detained in Russia on spying charges.


Despite what one hopes are robust efforts to secure Mr. Gershkovich’s release, a Russian court recently extended his pre-trial detention to August 30. Against this reality, Mr. Blinken revokes the visas of Russian civilian nuclear inspectors. Is he daft or just a hypocrite? In a speech at Helsinki on Friday Mr. Blinken said, “We have no quarrel with the Russian people.” 

That assurance may not play well with the keeper of the Kremlin, who quite apart from his war in Ukraine responds to slights in his own nefarious fashion. One way is by targeting everyday Americans, and keeping ones like Mr. Gershkovich and Paul Whelan under lock and key for as long as he sees fit. For those men, unlike for some high-flying diplomatic types, this is not a game of chess.

Mr. Blinken, of course, is only to blame for his own lack of vision. It was on display at Helsinki in other ways, too. He blamed the crisis in the Donbas — the eastern region of Ukraine where conflict pre-dated the full-scale Russian invasion of the country last year — on Moscow’s failure to implement the Minsk agreements. The second of those agreements was signed in February 2015 and negotiated by the German foreign minister at the time, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, under the aegis of the so-called Normandy Format, led by Germany and France. 


Those negotiations aimed at a ceasefire and possible political solutions to the Donbas crisis — but were largely bypassed by Washington. Had President Obama spent less time in his second term on the golf course and more on dousing the sparks in Ukraine, it is possible that Mr. Putin’s war machine could have been stopped in its tracks. 

We all know what happened next. Now, Mr. Blinken’s chronic grandstanding erodes Washington’s power to square off with Russia on the diplomatic front — which is where things like wars and prisoner exchanges tend to begin and end. 

As if to underscore the calamity of Mr. Blinken’s diplomatic drift, the very day after his department broadcast its latest round of Russian wrist-slapping,  national security advisor Jake Sullivan said the Biden administration is ready for dialogue on a future nuclear arms control framework once the current treaty expires in 2026. 

Senior administration officials say that President Biden is open to unconditional talks on managing nuclear dangers, including replacing the treaty. To recap, signed in 2010, New START caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads America and Russia can deploy to 1,550.  It also limits the number of land and submarine-based missiles and bombers that can deliver those warheads to 700.

No doubt Beijing is eyeing the unraveling of New START on Mr. Blinken’s watch with relish. The Pentagon estimates that Beijing’s nuclear arsenal will likely  triple to 1,500 warheads by 2035. So it will be difficult if not impossible to imagine hammering out a new arms reduction pact without corralling Communist China, too — but Secretary Blinken is already paving that long road with uneven asphalt.

How also to explain the disconnect between the current countermeasures and Mr. Sullivan’s olive branch?

 Illustrative of the fumble, the State Department, when queried, declined to comment. But it does not take a Rhodes scholar to see how vilifying rank-and-file inspectors could engender even more Russian ill-will toward America than there already is. Caught in perilous limbo between Mr. Blinken’s bluster and  broader strategic goals on nuclear disarmament — which is in no way tantamount to facile compromise — are Americans like Evan Gershkovich.

It is nice of Mr. Blinken to let us know that he is engaged in the effort to release Mr. Gershkovich, who is nearing his 70th day behind bars in the Russian capital.  Among the secretary’s range of specialities, dispensing platitudes ranks high. What we need for the sake of a coherent message on arms reduction as well as for extricating Americans like Mr. Gershkovich from the Kremlin’s maw is a dash of audacity and some original thinking. But from this bumbling, distracted White House? Expect neither anytime soon.

The New York Sun

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