Earlier yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to unconditionally extend New START, the last remaining restraint on U.S.-Russian nuclear arsenals. Earlier in August this year, US unilaterally withdrew from the 1987 INF Treaty that put development, test and deployment ban on intermediate range nuclear missiles, leaving the START/ New START the only treaty to save the two superpowers descend into a full fledge arms race.
This 2010 treaty caps deployed offensive strategic nuclear weapons to no more than 1,550 each, and Russia’s full compliance with the pact has been certified by U.S. intelligence agencies and the Department of State. New START will expire in February 2021 unless Washington and Moscow decide to extend it, which can be done by a simple executive agreement.
President Putin’s offer to immediately extend New START without preconditions is stunning and would be a huge win for the United States — and the world. Missing this chance to extend New START would be a huge mistake and severely damage America’s ability to monitor and contain Russia’s nuclear forces and the predictability both nations get from the agreement.
Extending New START is a security no-brainer. Since 2010, New START has limited Russian and American strategic arsenals and provided a critical window into both nations’ nuclear capabilities and intentions. Under the Treaty, American inspectors gain access to Russian nuclear facilities to help verify Russia is meeting its obligations. Russia gets to do the same. The information the United States gets from these inspections and data notifications is irreplaceable — which explains why the Treaty enjoys overwhelming political and military support, including from the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral (ret.) Michael Mullen, and former head of U.S. Strategic Command General (ret.) James Cartwright.
Right now New START is the only thing keeping U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals in check. Losing New START would set the United States and Russia on a path to nuclear anarchy: a state of affairs where legal constraints of nuclear arsenals has ended and norms of voluntary restraint are weak or nonexistent. We’d all be flying blind into a nuclear arms race.
At the stroke of a pen, Trump could extend New START, however, given his withdrawal from the INF treaty earlier this yet, he want to set the stage for a new grand bargain: a new agreement that draws in other nuclear-armed nations like China and cuts deeper into global stockpiles, including so-called ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons that so far have fallen outside of arms control efforts.
As SCF sees, China is not going to join the New START. Going about this in the reverse by putting New START on ice in hopes that the Chinese can be brought into disarmament negotiations makes no sense. The United States and Russia together hold more than 90% of the nuclear weapons on the planet. The U.S. nuclear arsenal alone is 13 times larger than China’s. The Chinese government has made it explicitly clear it’s not interested in talking until progress is made by the world’s biggest nuclear hoarders. Getting China’s nuclear forces under control is a worthy goal, and sustained efforts are required to do that — but if New START goes, the possibility of a bigger deal goes with it.
If the President Trump is serious about addressing the catastrophic threat of nuclear weapons, a golden opportunity has just been handed to him. The time to make the deal is now.