The clock is ticking as the Trump administration weighs the fate of the last major nuclear arms treaty with Russia, as fears of a world without accountability between the world’s two largest nuclear powers deepen.
Last week marked exactly one year until the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expires. New START, as the deal is known, limits the number of deployable American and Russian nuclear weapons at 1,550. The accord also reduced by half the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers each side may have and set up a new inspection and verification regime to prevent cheating.
The White House has hesitated to extend New START and has been conducting a review amid concerns about Russian violations — denied by Moscow — and the challenge posed by China’s small but growing nuclear arsenal.
The administration also is feeling pressure from Russia hawks who say a simple extension of the Obama deal next year is unacceptable. Sens. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, and John Cornyn, Texas Republican, joined Rep. Liz Cheney, Wyoming Republican, on legislation in March 2019 designed to block any funding for a New START extension unless China is brought into the talks and the full range of Russia’s nuclear threat is addressed.
“America deserves better than a mere New START extension,” Ms. Cheney said at the time the bill was introduced. “Any meaningful arms control treaty must reflect reality as it is rather than the hopes and dreams of negotiators.”
The treaty can be extended another five years by mutual agreement. Analysts say it would be difficult to negotiate a trilateral deal with China within a year before the treaty expires.
Despite contentious relations in the past, former diplomatic leaders of the U.S. and Russia penned an op-ed together that strongly urges the U.S. to continue the nuclear treaty.
“Right now, the most important thing to do is extend New START,” Madeleine K. Albright, secretary of state under President Clinton, and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in a New York Times opinion piece published Monday. They highlighted an opportunity to “head off even more instability.”
“While 12 months may seem like a lot of time … the clock is ticking fast,” they wrote. “The United States and Russia can avoid a senseless and dangerous return to nuclear brinksmanship if they act soon. There is no reason to wait.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has opened the door to extending New START immediately and said late last year that he would agree to an extension of the existing treaty “without any preconditions.”
He said Moscow has made an offer to Washington to extend the agreement on several occasions. “Our proposals have been on the table, but we have got no response from our partners,” he said.
Arms deal skeptics
Top Trump administration officials, most notably former National Security Adviser John R. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have expressed skepticism about the value of past nuclear arms deals. The administration last year withdrew from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty banning an entire class of shorter-range “tactical” nuclear weapons. They said Russia had undermined the deal by cheating.
“We can no longer be restricted by the treaty while Russia shamelessly violates it,” Mr. Pompeo said a year ago when the INF decision was announced.
Critics say the administration has “manufactured reasons” not to extend the New START and have doubts about President Trump’s contention late last year that China is “extremely excited about getting involved” in an expanded accord.
Pranay Vaddi, a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in an interview that “part of this is really political. … This is an agreement that the Obama administration concluded. And it’s hard to imagine a way to get this president to want to keep around this agreement as a result.”
The key holdups, Mr. Vaddi said, are China’s absence from the treaty and Russia’s ongoing efforts to build up its nuclear and non-nuclear arsenals.
Critics of an extension have warned about Russia’s repeated violations of nuclear arms agreements and say a significant revamp of the New START would require a politically problematic ratification battle in the Senate.
However, Mr. Vaddi said Russia has a “good compliance record” with the agreement and Moscow “thinks this treaty is in their interest because when a treaty is not in their interest, they are happy to cheat.”
Ms. Albright and Mr. Ivanov called the decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty “unfortunate” and urged Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin to “seize this opportunity” to extend New START for five years.
“Extending New START would send a signal to the rest of the world as other countries consider their responsibilities to help halt the spread of nuclear weapons,” they said.
Russia’s military is developing several strategic weapons that, while not directly violating New START, appear to circumvent the aims of the treaty. They include new long-range missiles, hypersonic missiles that travel at ultra-high speeds, a nuclear-powered cruise missile and an underwater drone armed with a megaton-class warhead.
The China challenge
Like Russia, China is aggressively building up its nuclear forces with long-range multiple-warhead missiles, missile submarines and strategic bombers.
The Trump administration has repeatedly expressed a desire to strike a deal with China, but analysts warn that Beijing has no interest in joining any nuclear agreement.
China has refused appeals to engage in arms talks over concerns about required disclosures of its nuclear weapons. Chinese officials have said that would undermine their deterrent value. Beijing also says its nuclear force is far smaller than those of Russia and the U.S. and should not be part of their bilateral discussions.
“The U.S. has been trying to drag China in when it comes to this issue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in November. “We wonder whether the U.S. wants to have China’s nuclear arsenal increased to its level or reduce its own nuclear arms to China’s level.”
Mr. Vaddi said that it’s possible for the U.S. and Russia to establish a trilateral dialogue with China to prevent interference in early warning systems and to maintain transparency, but “I don’t think the U.S. is going to come up with a framework to bring China into some formal arms control process that China would find acceptable anyway, because they just have very different kinds of militaries and very different nuclear forces.”
Despite China’s opposition to joining the treaty, Mr. Trump said he had spoken with Mr. Putin about an agreement that “will probably then include China at some point.”
Leading congressional Democrats, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel of New York, have stepped up calls to strike a new deal, highlighting the benefits of data exchanges and on-site inspections of nuclear facilities that are authorized under the treaty.
“It is time for President Trump to listen to reason, expertise, and our allies who recognize the treaty as an indispensable pillar of security,” the members wrote.