After the fallout of nearly every major nuclear agreement, New START is the last accord keeping the world from slipping back into a Cold War.
Following a presidential term that saw the United States announce withdrawals from the Paris climate accord, the World Health Organisation, and the Iran JCPOA nuclear deal, US President Donald Trump’s administration is set to finalise a deal with Russia on an Obama-era nuclear weapons treaty in the hope of a major foreign policy victory ahead of November’s presidential elections.
The breakthrough in negotiations comes after the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) Agreement in February 2020, a critical complement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that has been negotiated since the early 1980s. The latest version ‘New START’ came into force in 2011, and is set to expire in February 2021.
Both treaties complement one another. The INF Cold War-era treaty dates back to 1988, a turning point in the arms race between the United States and Russia when both sides agreed to stop producing missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres.
While the INF treaty only addresses land-based missiles, and puts limits on short to intermediate range ballistic missiles, New START covers air, sea and land-based missiles, with limits on intercontinental missiles instead.
The INF agreement came about when the Cold War powers agreed that mid-range nuclear weapons made it easier to accidentally trigger nuclear conflict. It was nearly impossible to tell the difference between normal or nuclear warhead-equipped missiles, with the possibility of triggering a nuclear race, or war, with every deployment, launch or test.
But this time, the stakes aren’t about missile range. It’s about reducing or at least freezing the modernisation of old nuclear warheads.
After a summer of halting talks to extend ‘New START’, which was drawing close to its expiry date, the US State department signalled that a resolution was in the works.
“The United States is prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement. We expect Russia to empower its diplomats to do the same,” State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, said.
But what’s actually on the table? The proposed deal includes a one-year extension to the nuclear treaty and a freeze on the number of nuclear warheads, which may give the parties more time to reach a long-term agreement, and possibly engage China in joining the treaty as well.
China has consistently expressed no interest in joining the INF or START treaty which would limit its strategic edge.
With growing turbulence in the South China sea, the US is hard pressed to contain China as it catches up on the technological advantage that the United States once exclusively enjoyed.
The military balance is shifting, and not in the United State’s favour.
China recently deployed a ‘Carrier Killer’ intermediate nuclear-capable missile, the Dong Feng-26, which translates to ‘East Wind’. Difficult to shoot down, the ballistic missile is able to adjust position mid-flight, and has the potential to cripple or destroy an aircraft carrier from up to 4,500 km away.
Last year’s US withdrawal from the INF treaty was largely motivated by a policy of Chinese containment, and concern over the unrestricted advantages they enjoyed which only furthered their growing strategic edge.
Admiral Harry Harris, former commander of Pacific Command, stated, “We have no ground-based [missile] capability that can threaten China because of, among other things, our rigid adherence to the [INF] treaty.”
In his testimony to Congress, Harris cited Chinese cutting-edge developments on weapons systems that “far outrange US systems”.
“They have done this at a fraction of the cost of some of our more expensive systems. Constrained in part by our adherence to the INF treaty, the US has fallen behind in our ability to match the long-range fires capabilities of the new era,” he added.
Top-level White House officials have not shied away from revealing the true drive behind the treaty withdrawal.
Former US National Security Advisor John Bolton commented on the restrictions of the INF treaty being in the interest of China, “If I were Chinese, I would say the same thing. Why not have the Americans bound, and the Chinese not bound?”
While in office, Bolton tried to convince Moscow that Chinese missiles are a threat to “the heart of Russia”.
“We see China, Iran, North Korea all developing capabilities which would violate the treaty if they were parties to it. So the possibility that could have existed 15 years ago to enlarge the treaty and make it universal today just simply was not practical,” he added.
In spite of the positive rapprochement underway, there’s still a few sticking points that need to be resolved.
While the change in the US and Russia’s stance is a breakthrough, the issue of verification is still a major unresolved obstacle. The US wants to implement tougher measures to be certain that Russia is in compliance with the treaty after its implementation. Russia on the other hand wants verification measures to remain the same.
“Russia wants an unverified warhead freeze. It would be very difficult to monitor through intelligence collection,” tweeted James Acton, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Both Russia and the United States would presumably … continue to produce new warheads, while dismantling old ones,” he writes.
More critically, in spite of the thaw in negotiations, Russia is still forging ahead with its own nuclear program. Recent reports indicate that it was testing a nuclear-powered nuclear-armed cruise missile, a latest generation ballistic weapon with an alleged infinite range claiming that it can reach anywhere in the world, no matter the distance.
Meanwhile, the US Department of Defense announced that the cost to replace its ageing Minuteman land-based nuclear missiles, was nearly approaching $100 billion. It remains to be seen whether modernising its nuclear arsenal is a key priority for the Trump administration. Biden has previously said he would walk back US nuclear ambitions if elected president.
The breakthrough in negotiations came after Russian negotiators publicly announced support for a freeze on new nuclear warheads, after initially dismissing the US State Department announcement that talks were in the works.
In spite of the hiccups, tentative negotiations seem likely to end in a closed deal, unencumbered by the conditions previously set by the Trump administration. One of the major reasons behind the fallout in negotiations was the President’s initial insistence the nuclear treaty should include China.
Beijing refused to consider this entirely, leading to a minor diplomatic spat over social media reflecting the broad gap in perspectives between the US and China.
If both parties fail to create a new accord and the treaty expires, there will be no restrictions on the number of strategic bombers, missiles and deployed warheads either side can own, with no means of verification.
With the breakdown of previous agreements including George W Bush’s Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and more recently the INF accords, the US and Russian militaries would have turned back the clock to unrestrained military power for the first time since the 1960s.