Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the International Volunteer Forum at the Olympic Park in Sochi, Russia, Dec. 5, 2019.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the International Volunteer Forum at the Olympic Park in Sochi, Russia, Dec. 5, 2019. Shamil Zhumatov/Pool / via AP

A New Nuclear Deal? Start with New START

Russia is ready to extend this critical treaty, but Trump isn’t taking “yes” for an answer.

Thirty years after the end of the first Cold War, U.S.-Russian relations are strained and could worsen if the only remaining treaty that verifiably caps the two nations’ strategic arsenals—the 2010 New Strategic Arms Control Treaty, or New START—is allowed to expire 14 months from today.

Russian officials have repeatedly made it clear that they are prepared to extend New START by up to five years, which can be done by mutual agreement between both presidents and without further approval by the U.S. Senate or the Russian Duma. Earlier today, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated the message during a meeting with his military leaders, saying, “Russia is ready to extend the New START treaty immediately, before the year’s end and without any preconditions.”

On Tuesday, at the NATO summit in London, President Donald Trump acknowledged Moscow’s stance. “Russia wants to make a deal very much on arms control and nuclear. And that’s smart. And so do we. We think it would be a good thing,” Trump said. 

Yet Trump’s team has so far failed to respond to Russian entreaties to begin talks on New START extension. On Dec. 3, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford told a Senate committee that “Russia does still remain in compliance with its New START obligations,” but he said that the administration’s decision about the future of the treaty remains under consideration.

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So, instead of taking “yes” for an answer on New START, Trump appears to be holding out hope for the negotiation of a separate and even more ambitious nuclear arms control deal—one that covers tactical (not just strategic) nuclear arms and includes nuclear-armed China. Beijing, he claims, is “extremely excited about getting involved” and would “certainly” be brought into such a deal. 

Talks with other nuclear-armed states aimed at reducing and eventually eliminating all types of nuclear weapons are necessary and overdue. But there is no realistic possibility of concluding a new trilateral deal with Russia and China before New START expires in 2021. One big reason: Beijing has repeatedly said it is not currently interested in an arms control deal based on numerical limits.

If negotiations on a new agreement are to become a real possibility, either “the U.S. agrees to reduce its arsenal to China’s level or agrees for China to raise its arsenal to the U.S. level,” said Fu Cong, director of the arms control department at China’s Foreign Ministry, said Nov. 8. Currently, the United States and Russia each have more than 6,000 nuclear warheads, while China has about 300.

A more realistic approach on China would be for the United States and Russia agree to extend New START, then begin talks on a follow-on treaty that sets limits well below those of New START if China agrees not to increase the size of its stockpile and adopts some transparency measures. However, such arrangement would be difficult to pull off and would likely take years to achieve. 

Trump officials also say they are worried that several new Russian nuclear weapon delivery systems may not captured by New START. Russia, however, announced last month that New START would in fact cover two of those new Russian systems: Sarmat, a new intercontinental ballistic missile, and Avangard, a hypersonic glide vehicle. The other new Russian strategic systems—a nuclear-armed long-range torpedo and a nuclear-powered cruise missile—would not likely be deployed before 2026, after a possible five-year extension of New START.

If the president truly seeks to avoid an arms race, maintain a cap on the Russian nuclear arsenal, and begin the work to bring China into the nuclear disarmament enterprise, the first and best step is to promptly agree with Russia to extend New START by five years.

Everyone—from Democrats to Republicans to the Russians—agree that New START is working. The treaty verifiably limits the number of Russian and U.S. deployed strategic warheads for each side to 1,550 and caps the number of deployed strategic bombers and missiles at 700—which is far more than is necessary to deter a nuclear attack and, if used, more than enough to produce global devastation. 

Military and intelligence officials also greatly value New START inspections and its prohibition on interference with national technical means of verification, which provide predictability and transparency and promote a stable nuclear deterrence posture vis-à-vis Russia.

In July, Vice Adm. David Kriete, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said that this verification regime provides “great insight” into Russia’s arsenal. “If we were to lose that for any reason in the future, we would have to go look for other ways to fill in the gaps for the things we get from those verifications,” he warned.

All major U.S. allies enthusiastically support a New START extension, there is bipartisan support in Congress for the treaty’s extension, and the American public supports extension of the treaty by wide margins. 

Ultimately, a decision to extend New START would represent a significant foreign policy win for Trump and the United States. It would provide a foundation for a more ambitious follow-on agreement with Russia limiting other types of nuclear weapons, including short- and intermediate-range nuclear weapons systems, as well as for talks with China to curb future nuclear and missile competition. 

But without New START’s caps on strategic deployed nuclear weapons and intrusive verification provisions, there will be no verifiable limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972. The result would be the unconstrained nuclear competition that the president says he wants to avoid.