Aug 20, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World.

  • Tonight's edition takes you from Vienna to the Sahel and over to Bermuda (1,545 words, 6 minutes).
  • Thanks for joining me. Sign up here if you're a new arrival.
1 big thing: Nuclear diplomacy with Russia

Billingslea arrives for the talks in Vienna. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images

Negotiations resumed in Vienna this week on a top Trump priority and potential election year twist: a U.S.-Russia nuclear agreement.

Why it matters: In the next several months, President Trump and Vladimir Putin could either sign a framework for the future of arms control or put the last major treaty constraining the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals on course for expiration in February.

  • Trump has had a striking number of calls with Putin recently, and speaks often of wanting to avoid an "arms race."

What they’re saying: The man tasked with delivering a deal, U.S. arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea, spoke with Axios shortly after returning from Vienna.

  • Billingslea presented Russia with America's conditions for a deal, based on a “clear mandate” from Trump.
  • Now, Billingslea says, “the ball is in Russia’s court.”

The big picture: The Russians want to extend 2011's New START. The Trump administration is "ambivalent" about the treaty's looming expiration, Billingslea says, but will agree to an extension if Russia signs onto its ambitious framework for a future nuclear treaty.

  • That treaty must enable more stringent inspections and, unlike past treaties, cover all nuclear weapons, including Russia’s new shorter-range systems.
  • Crucially, in Billingslea’s view, it must constrain China, which is currently building up its far smaller arsenal.
  • “The New START treaty is the last nuclear arms accord that can be conducted with the Cold War, bipolar mindset,” Billingslea says. “That approach is no longer applicable in a world where the Chinese Communist Party is arms racing.”

Driving the news: The Trump administration has abandoned its demand that China be involved in any nuclear talks. It's now aiming to reach a political accord with Russia, and then pressure China to join talks and eventually a treaty.

  • “There has been a shift,” Billingslea acknowledges.
  • It's been driven in part by Trump’s conversations with Putin, and perhaps by his desire for a nuclear summit before November — something national security adviser Robert O’Brien recently confirmed was a possibility.

Where things stand: Any deal appears a long way off. While Billingslea says the only question is "political will in Moscow," his Russian counterpart says the sides' priorities "differ significantly.”

  • For one thing, Russia wants France and the U.K. involved in future multilateral talks, not just China.
  • Billingslea confirms that Russia raised “a range of issues with U.S. capabilities” in Vienna, but says Moscow's non-nuclear concerns — missile defense, NATO activities — aren't on the table for this particular deal.

What to watch: The Russians will likely come back with counterproposals, says Rose Gottemoeller, who served as the lead U.S. negotiator on New START.

  • There can be complications on the U.S. side as well. Gottemoeller notes that the Air Force and Navy both expressed concerns about the sorts of inspections Billingslea seems to be proposing during the New START process.
  • And while Billingslea says he'll only bring a good agreement back to Trump, it's clear the president wants a deal. “At some point, Trump might just say, 'get it done, you don’t have any more time,’” Gottemoeller says.

Worth noting: Joe Biden has said he'd extend New START if elected. Billingslea says that's no surprise, and he denies that it weakens his negotiating position.

  • Any future administration will have to face the same reality, he says. “China is surging … and a bilateral nuclear arms accord does nothing to tackle that problem.”
2. "Snapback" move sets stage for diplomatic showdown

Pompeo today at the UN Security Council. Photo: Mike Segar/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. has officially demanded that sanctions on Iran lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal be brought back into force, setting the stage for a major diplomatic showdown at the UN Security Council.

Why it matters: The U.S. withdrew from the Iran deal in 2018, but it's now invoking the deal's terms in an attempt to restore sanctions on Iran — and possibly to destroy the deal before a potential Biden administration could salvage it.

Driving the news: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo officially lodged the "snapback" request today at the UN.

  • The move comes days after the U.S. was voted down at the council as it attempted to extend an international arms embargo on Iran.
  • France, Germany and the U.K. swiftly issued a statement opposing the U.S. move and questioning its legitimacy. They also restated their commitment to preserving the deal.
  • Pompeo claimed the Europeans “sided with the ayatollahs even though they told the U.S. privately they want to see the arms embargo extended."

Between the lines: The deal says any of the signatories — the U.S., Russia, China, France, Germany and the U.K. — can demand sanctions be reimposed automatically if they believe Iran has committed substantial violations. No country can veto such a move.

  • Russia and China contend that the U.S. gave up its right to reimpose the sanctions when it withdrew from the deal. That view is shared by others on the council, and even by John Bolton, the hawkish former national security adviser.
  • The U.S., on the other hand, claims it has the right to initiate the snapback mechanism because it is a party to the Security Council resolution that endorsed the nuclear deal and included the snapback mechanism.
3. Russia: Putin critic Navalny fighting for his life

Photo: Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, is in an intensive care unit after drinking what an aide believes was poisoned tea before boarding a flight from Siberia to Moscow.

The big picture: Navalny is not only a Kremlin critic, he made his reputation by documenting corruption in Putin’s inner circle. Facts are sparse at present, but his case evokes the grim history of poisonings by Russia’s security services.

How it happened: An aide traveling with Navalny says he ordered tea at the airport and fell ill shortly after boarding his flight.

  • Anguished groans can be heard coming from the restroom in footage taken by a fellow passenger. The plane made an emergency landing and Navalny was taken to the hospital.
  • Police were photographed outside of Navalny's room, which his wife was initially not allowed to enter.

Where things stand: The aide said this afternoon that Navalny was in a coma.

Go deeper: Read The Guardian's coverage.

4. Africa: Mutiny in Mali

Members of the military are cheered as they parade through Bamako following the mutiny. Photo: AFP via Getty

Mali’s ousted president and the soldiers who arrested him have both made televised addresses in the wake of Tuesday’s coup, with the former offering his resignation and the latter promising new elections.

Why it matters: The uprising from within the military follows months of protests in a country facing intertwined political and security crises. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta is out, but it's unclear what comes next.

  • The group of military mutineers arrested a number of top officials, took control of government buildings and sealed off Mali's borders.
  • They say they're merely exercising the will of the people to remove Keïta, whose government was seen as corrupt and ineffective, and they'll hand over to civilian leaders after an election.

What to watch: Mali's neighbors fear that extremist groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS will seize on the uncertainty and instability.

  • The mutiny was condemned by the African Union, the ECOWAS bloc of regional countries, the U.S. and France, which has 5,000 troops in the region.
  • "It's incumbent on the region and its partners to stabilize the political situation as soon as possible because if this continues to spin out, it will create more opportunities for deterioration in the rest of the country," said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Where things stand: Activity is slowly returning in Bamako, per the BBC, after shops and offices closed amid the uncertainty of the coup.

  • The identities and intentions of the coup plotters remain murky.

Worth noting: This was the first coup of 2020. They used to be far more common.

5. China's high-stakes vaccine moment

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The global race for a COVID-19 vaccine is a high-stakes test of China's scientific prowess, Axios' Alison Snyder reports.

Why it matters: China has invested heavily in R&D over the past two decades, aiming to become a scientific powerhouse on the global stage — especially in biotechnologies.

  • Now, "they want to demonstrate that China is not an emerging power, but a power comparable to the U.S.," says virologist Richard Kuhn of Purdue University.

What's happening: Of the 202 COVID-19 vaccines in development around the world, 20 involve teams in China, per the Milken Institute.

  • The Chinese teams are taking several approaches — from traditional ones that use inactivated forms of the virus to spur immunity to more experimental DNA and RNA vaccine platforms.
  • Three — from Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech — are in phase III human trials.
  • China has controlled the country's outbreak to the point that it has had to look abroad — to Brazil, Indonesia and the UAE, for example — to test the vaccines on a larger scale.
  • It is also, controversially, testing vaccines on members of the military and construction workers traveling overseas.

What to watch: "If China is one of the first to develop a safe and effective vaccine, they would be in an extraordinary diplomatic and scientific moment in how they chose to share it," says Ryan Ritterson of Gryphon Scientific.

Go deeper

6. A nice place to spend a pandemic

A view of Coral Beach, Bermuda. Photo: Slim Aarons/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Bermuda is ramping up a scheme to attract foreign workers on year-long residencies, the island's prime minister tells Axios' Rebecca Falconer.

Where things stand: The island of 62,000 has conducted more than 34,000 tests, with 166 testing positive in total and 10 active cases at present.

  • Tourists must undergo tests before boarding planes; there are testing facilities at airports, drive-thrus, pop-up centers and "roaming" testers visiting places like barbers, beauticians and grocery stores.
  • 183 people have applied for the year-long residency so far, and the prime minister hopes more will come to the island and boost its economy. Go deeper.

My thought bubble: If you're not going to make it to Bermuda but would like a taste of island life (and have dark rum on hand), may I recommend mixing up a Dark & Stormy.

7. Stories we're watching

Catching a show in Cornwall, U.K. Photo: Hugh R Hastings/Getty Images

  1. Scoop: Israel raises concerns about Saudi nuclear facility
  2. UAE pushes for F-35
  3. No recognition of Israel without Palestinian state: Saudi minister
  4. U.S. suspends extradition treaty with Hong Kong
  5. How Biden could thwart Trump's Arctic push
  6. War against the dollar
  7. U.S. university insured against drop in Chinese students


“If law enforcement agencies are not looking into intentional poisoning, why are there so many cops in the hospital?”
— Navalny's spokesperson
Dave Lawler