STARTing Over, or the End of the Line for Nuclear Arms Control?

The United States and Russia kick a nuclear can down the road.

Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Jan. 29.
Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Jan. 29. John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Right from the start, let’s acknowledge reality: Cutting a deal, any deal, with Vladimir Putin’s Russia right now would require some moral calisthenics. Putin’s goons are busy beating pro-democracy protesters; he’s locked up the country’s most prominent dissident, Alexei Navalny, having failed in an attempt to poison him; and his military intelligence agency has just perpetrated one of the most extensive cybersecurity breaches in U.S. government history.

Yet when it comes to nuclear arms control, using morals to avoid dialogue is pretty self-defeating. Whatever malign intent lurks in the Kremlin, it lacks entirely the pretentions to global leadership or revolution of its Soviet predecessor. It acts without shame, without the trappings of ideology, and, as recent cyberattacks indicate, still presents a thorny problem for the United States. So the last thing the world needs is a new nuclear arms race between powers that seem predestined to regard the other as “the enemy.”

The news that, on Friday, Putin signed a five-year extension of the expiring New START arms control treaty should be viewed positively, whatever other behaviors it comes amid.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, barely 10 days old, had signaled early on that it wanted to extend the treaty so as to avoid seeing the last active agreement of the post-Cold War era expire on Feb. 5, an event that would have unleashed both sides to throw into reverse the progress in denuclearization since the late 1980s: a slash in both country’s deployed nuclear warheads from over 40,000 (Russia) and 24,000 (United States) to 1,550 each today under the terms of New START. That’s still enough to destroy the world, of course, but it’s a lot more manageable.

The idea of salvaging New START brought predictable howls from the hawkish right, whose agenda has been to allow the treaty’s limitations expire.

And now, with Russia having re-signed New START, the current figures will persist. It might seem like Washington would be rejoicing, but even the idea of salvaging New START brought predictable howls from the hawkish right, whose agenda has been to allow the treaty’s limitations expire and plow billions of dollars into a vast expansion and modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. John Bolton, the hawkish former national security advisor to ex-President Donald Trump, for example, calls the extension of New START and other arms deals with Russia “a fool’s paradise.”

New START’s critics do have a point. The 2010 treaty has acknowledged flaws—it does not cover small “tactical nukes,” and it does not include China’s arsenal. It was also negotiated before Moscow unveiled a new generation of hypersonic missile and glide bomb technologies, the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile and the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle that many fear will defeat any defensive system arrayed against them. Finally, critics argue that New START’s verification mechanisms have been hampered by the demise in 2019 from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Ronald Reagan-era treaty that collapsed when both sides accused the other of violations. The INF Treaty, best known for forcing the withdrawal from Europe of the Soviet SS-20 and U.S. Pershing II nuclear missiles in the late 1980s, had prevented both sides from flooding the world with midrange nuclear missiles.

In on-again, off-again talks during the Trump years, Russia indicated a willingness to accept revisions to the treaty rather than see it lapse, including through offering to include its new weapons in a renegotiated nuclear deal. Moscow even suggested that it would invite Beijing’s participation. (The Chinese declined.) But the Trump administration never seriously engaged in talks on these revisions, focusing on a shorter renewal of New START of two years (to no avail) and spending years trying to convince China to subject its arsenal to New START’s limits (no deal). Ultimately, as 2020 turned to 2021, Trump’s team presented the new administration with one month to either let the treaty lapse or renew it. By the time Biden was sworn in, any leverage the Trump team thought it had over Russia had been frittered away, and Russia could simply refuse anything less than a five-year renewal. “Art of the Deal” indeed!

But perhaps that was what Trump wanted all along. Throughout his presidency, Trump and senior national security aides regularly acknowledged their willingness to see the treaty expire so that the United States could pursue its own 21st-century expansion of nuclear capabilities. Indeed, even as the Trump administration wrote new Russian hypersonic missiles off as a gambit aimed at forcing the United States to the negotiating table and dismissed them as too expensive for Russia to deploy in large numbers, in 2019 and 2020, it budgeted almost $2.9 billion for domestic versions annually. This spending is likely to be cut back significantly by the new administration amid continuing debate over whether Russia’s supposed new weapons are more hype than reality. A new assessment from two noted nuclear weapons scientists has raised doubt on some of the claims Russia has made regarding its new weapons, an indication of the internal debate going on within the Pentagon on hypersonic technologies.

Skepticism reigns on China, too, as many arms control experts doubt China will take advantage of New START’s limits to catch up with the U.S. and Russian arsenals. China’s arsenal has remained small—essentially, a deterrent force of about 300 warheads of various types—for two decades despite the country’s clear ability to ramp up production. Allowing New START to expire, with the inevitable buildups that would ensue both in Russia and the United States, would be certain to force China to match its rivals.

By deciding to renew the treaty, Biden and his new Secretary of State Antony Blinken have rejected this possibility. Senior administration officials say they hope to use the five-year extension to address the treaty’s shortcomings and to coax Russia into avoiding an arms race it can’t possibly afford to win by rejoining the INF Treaty. Separate talks with China, possibly including other acknowledged nuclear powers such as France, the United Kingdom, India, and Pakistan, have also been pushed as a way to expand the treaty, though most analysts see such plans as being on par with Security Council reform: i.e., a non-New STARTer.

The new administration, in effect, is acknowledging its own reality: You go to peace with the treaties you’ve got. And for the next five years, at least, that treaty is New START.

Michael Moran is an author on political risk and macroeconomic trends.

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