On February 5th 2021, the last of the nuclear arms control treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation will expire, possibly plunging an already uncertain and dangerous world into another arms race.
The Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, also known as the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), entered into force on February 5, 2011. Signed in Prague on April 8th, 2010, the New START replaced the 1991 START I treaty, which expired in December 2009, and superseded the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which terminated when New START entered into force.
Under this Treaty, the United States and Russia must meet the Treaty’s central limits on strategic arms by February 5, 2018 – 7 years from the date the Treaty entered into force. Each nation has the flexibility to determine for itself the structure of its strategic forces within the aggregate limits.
700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments;
1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments (each such heavy bomber is counted as one warhead toward this limit);
800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.
Figure 1: Nuclear Stockpiles as of December 2020
Source: U.S. Department of State
In 2018, when the New START limits went into effect, it capped the accountable deployed strategic nuclear warheads and bombs at 1,550, down approximately 30 percent from the 2,200 limit set by SORT and down 74 percent from the START I accountable limit of 6,000 in 1994.
Unlike the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which according to the United States crumbled in 2018 due to Russia’s noncompliance, New START has been a strong example of bilateral cooperation, compliance, and verification.
One underpinning of strategic deterrence and trust is transparency. The United States and Russia have embraced this throughout the New START period by adhering to the treaty verification procedures, highlighted by rigorous and cooperative inspections.
On-site inspections are central to New START verification. Inspections - “spot checks” of nuclear forces – are used to confirm the data declared through the exchanges and notifications previously described. The short notice and uncertainty associated with these checks increase the chances of detecting inappropriate activity, thus discouraging non-compliance.
Inspections also facilitate conversations between U.S. and Russian military officers and allow direct observations of active nuclear bases. The regular discussions between U.S. and Russian diplomats and military officials on strategic nuclear weapons are only possible because of the information obtained through the Treaty.
It is unimaginable for the same, relatively open conversation conducted during New START diplomatic meetings to occur when the only available information is collected through national intelligence means.
New START was designed to maintain the central strategic balance between the United States and Russia, limiting the nuclear weapons readily able to strike one national territory from the other. These are the weapons which would be used against priority targets – nuclear weapons, population centres, and political leadership – and would be indicative of a global nuclear conflict between the two countries. It is no surprise that the strategic arms control process has been focused on these types of weapons for decades.
Expiration of the treaty, however, will likely lead to more military planning based on worst-case scenarios, uncertainties, blind-spots and reduced resources for other priorities.
In June 2020, Russia agreed to hold talks with the US to negotiate the conditions to extend the Treaty. The deputy foreign minister of Russia, Sergei Ryabkov, and US envoy, Marshall Billingslea, met in Vienna to discuss the treaty’s future. However, the negotiations did not fructify into any sort of agreement or a roadmap for upcoming negotiations.
Therefore, the Treaty, as it stands today is set to expire in February 2021.
President Vladimir Putin in October 2020 had proposed a one-year extension, without conditions, of the last major nuclear arms reduction accord between Russia and the U.S. But Robert O’Brien, U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, quickly rejected the proposal, calling it insufficient.
After Joe Biden assumes the office of the President in January 2021, he should certainly accept Putin’s proposal for a year’s extension, if it is still available, and then comprehensive bilateral negotiations should begin promptly regarding the future of US-Russia nuclear and missile arms control that must address all factors affecting strategic stability of both countries.
An extension would show the world that Washington and Moscow are committed to a verifiable, effective arms control agreement for the benefit of global stability. And it would allow the United States to continue meaningful leadership roles in other areas of nuclear weapons policy, including with India, China, Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea.
However, this treaty, New START, was negotiated last decade, and the world now functions on a different paradigm.
Since the signing of this treaty, Russia has invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimean Peninsula – resulting in international sanctions from the European Union and the United States. It supported dictator Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War; used its mercenaries – the Wagner Group – to support autocrats and dictators; poisoned former spies and political opposition leaders; interfered in foreign elections (Brexit Vote 2016, US Presidential Elections 2017); and launched massive cyberattacks against countries like the United States. It has also developed a modern arsenal such as the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) – designed to evade U.S. missile defences. And, after the recent constitutional amendments, Russia has effectively become a dictatorship under President Vladimir Putin.
The United States on its part has experienced increasing inequality, discontent and polarization amongst its population. Being touted as the “leader of the free world” and the architect of the liberal international order, during President Donald Trump’s presidency, it has receded from almost every international institution and alliance it had built post World War II. NATO, a pillar in the US foreign diplomacy was belittled and disregarded; traditional allies like France and Germany were placed under a tariff regime; the US also withdrew from UNESCO and WHO. And, one of the biggest dents in the United States’ international reputation occurred when it unilaterally withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal, dismissing its allies.
All these events highlight the fact that, in the geopolitical arena, the world is increasingly becoming a more dangerous and uncertain place. Traditional alliances are being questioned while the enemies escalate their capabilities. In such a world, if there are no agreements that control nuclear weapons the probability of fatality increases.
So, even if the Treaty is extended for a year under the Biden-Harris administration, the US-Russia relationship remains precarious and, therefore, the future of nuclear arms control remains uncertain.
Rishabh Ahuja is an undergraduate student of Cluster Innovation Centre, University of Delhi. He is interested in International Relations, Public Policy and Philosophy. E-mail ID: Ris.email@example.com
New START Treaty, U.S. Department of State https://www.state.gov/new-start/
The Importance of the New START Treaty, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, December 4, 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/12/04/importance-of-new-start-treaty-pub-80834
New START: The Future of U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Control, Council on Foreign Relations, January 28, 2020, https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/new-start-future-us-russia-nuclear-arms-control
United States, Russia and the future of New START, Observer Research Foundation, June 26, 2020, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/united-states-russia-future-new-start-68689/
Putin wants New START Treaty extended, The Hindu, October 16, 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/putin-wants-new-start-treaty-extended/article32876071.ece