A Russian Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile launcher rolls in Moscow, Russia, on May 9, 2019.

A Russian Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile launcher rolls in Moscow, Russia, on May 9, 2019. AP / Alexander Zemlianichenko

Biden Should Extend New START — and By the Full Five Years

Some have suggested the new president withhold a full extension of the nuclear-arms treaty in search of leverage for a new one.

Just weeks remain until the last treaty limiting the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals is slated to expire on Feb. 5. Without the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, the two countries that own more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons would be without any observed constraints on the size of their arsenals for the first time in nearly 50 years.

President-elect Joe Biden has repeatedly expressed his intention to pursue an extension of the treaty, which can be extended for up to five years. Russia has communicated since the election that its offer, first made in December 2019, of a full five-year extension without any conditions is still on the table. Biden should take that deal.

Unfortunately, there has emerged uncertainty in recent weeks about how long of an extension Biden might support. Some of his advisors are reportedly suggesting that a shorter extension might provide Washington with leverage to exact concessions from Moscow during negotiations on a potential follow-on treaty.

New START, however, is too important to be gambled away on an extremely low probability bet that a shorter extension will make Moscow more pliable. 

First, the treaty imposes a crucial cap on the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals of 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers. It also contains a detailed verification regime greatly valued by the U.S. military for the insights it provides into the size and capabilities of Russian nuclear forces. 

“We want that information flowing,” Vice Adm. David Kriete, then deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said in July 2019. “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.”

Extending the treaty by five years would provide the most predictability from a U.S intelligence and military planning perspective.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that using an extension of New START to gain leverage over Russia will succeed. After all, the Trump administration tried to condition a short-term extension of the treaty on Moscow’s agreement to, at first, an unprecedented new trilateral arms control accord with Russia and China and then, when that predictably failed, an unprecedented politically binding agreement with Russia to freeze all U.S. and Russian warheads. Despite head-scratching claims from Trump administration officials that Moscow had agreed to such a freeze, Russia dismissed it as “unrealistic.”

The Trump administration’s view of leverage was founded on its belief that “the Russians are so desperate for extension.” But this has not borne out as true. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has repeatedly said that Moscow needs New START “no more than the Americans.”

After refusing for more than three years to negotiate with Russia on New START extension, the Trump administration made a shambolic, last-minute effort to negotiate a new agreement on the wildly erroneous premise that Russia would agree to extend New START at all costs. Either the administration was incredibly naïve, or it never intended to extend the treaty in the first place. 

Regardless of its motivation, the Trump administration’s actions have led to a situation in which the Biden administration will have just 16 days to extend New START and avoid possibly sparking a new arms race.

The best course is for the Biden team to agree to a full five-year extension of New START and simultaneously announce that it will seek to begin talks with Russia on follow-on nuclear arms control agreements aimed at enhancing strategic stability, further reducing the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, and tackling difficult issues such as nonstrategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons. 

These follow-on negotiations will be complex and time-consuming, and five years would ensure that Washington and Moscow have sufficient time to work through contentious issues and reach a potential agreement. If agreement is reached in less than five years, New START allows for the pact to be superseded by a new accord. There should be no concern about a five-year extension getting in the way of a new agreement.

Trump administration officials have tried to argue that the Trump administration “achieved” a historic agreement with Moscow and that any extension that does not include a freeze on all U.S. and Russian warheads “would demonstrate a profound lack of negotiating acumen.”

The daftness of claiming credit for reaching an agreement that you did not actually reach is hard to overstate. The incoming Biden administration has a clear path forward: extend New START for five years and then use that time to undertake arms control discussions with Russia on what might come next.