The last remaining nuclear weapons treaty between the U.S. and Russia expires in February 2021. What makes this treaty important, and how might the Biden Administration approach it?
After Joe Biden secured the state of Pennsylvania and became the president-elect, the nuclear non-proliferation community released a sigh of relief. Many hope that President Donald Trump’s threat of a new nuclear arms race, his unproductive Singapore Summit with North Korea’s Kim Jung-un in 2018, and his pulling out of the Iran Deal will give way to a more predictable and stable nuclear posture under President Biden.
But even with Biden at the helm on January 20, New START, America’s last remaining nuclear treaty with the Russian Federation, is set to expire February 5, 2021. That’s less than 16 days after Biden enters the White House.
There were many issues at the top of Americans' minds as they stood at the polls to cast their ballots. For Black Americans, Latinx people, and other people of color whose votes proved decisive in this year’s election, it was race, immigration, the economy, and other dinner table issues. And while many commentators did worry out loud about the fact that Trump had first strike authority, New START likely wasn’t at the top of most Americans’ list.
But it should be. Nuclear arms treaties are essential to a safer, more stable world.
Moscow and Washington are at a crossroads when it comes to non-proliferation and arms reduction that arguably is as critical as the late 1980s when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) in 1991. Many credit Gorbachev—who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his hand in escorting the USSR and U.S. out of the Cold War—and Reagan’s summits and negotiations over the years for staving off a third World War. While U.S.-Russia relations aren’t at Cold War levels, non-proliferation is at a very critical moment between the two nations that possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. As Biden prepares to occupy the White House, he will not have the amenable Gorbachev with whom to negotiate the next major reduction in deployed warheads and, hopefully, cuts in nuclear stockpiles. Vladimir Putin has been busy trying to reestablish Russia as a military power, and bolstering its nuclear arsenal is certainly central to that aim.
What is New START, and what purpose does it serve?
New START is an arms treaty that limits the number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,550, a decrease of two-thirds from the first treaty signed by George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in July of 1991. (Click here to learn what a warhead is) It doesn’t, however, limit the number of inactive, stockpiled warheads on either side.
Warheads are deployed on submarines carrying submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and heavy bombers. The basic idea is that, in the unfortunate event that either Moscow or Washington decides on a nuclear strike, both sides will know that no more than 1,550 warheads will be used against them. Not that it really takes that many to do the job, but you get the idea.
A key component of New START is the remote and satellite monitoring, as well as the required 18 site visits per year to verify the warhead limits.
Lynn Rusten, Vice President of the Global Nuclear Policy program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, worked on START I and said that the inspection process is very intrusive and that New START is even more strict than its first iteration. For example, she said that the original START I was an attribution system. So, for example, if there was a ballistic missile, it would be attributed with six warheads. All you were really verifying was the number of missiles, and then you'd mathematically calculate the number of warheads.
Under New START, it's actual warheads. If the Americans sent a team to a Russian ICBM base, they would get to know where all the missiles are and how many warheads are on each one. The American inspector can say, ‘I want (to see) missile silo number 10.’ The Russians would drive the team out to that missile, take off the nose cone, and the inspectors actually get to count the number of warheads. They're covered with a soft cover, so you don't see the warheads, but you see the bumps. They get to count how many warheads are literally on that missile.
It's an incredible amount of insight into Russia's nuclear systems and their operational practices, said Rusten. The same with the submarines. They pull the submarine into port, the inspectors randomly select which of the tubes they're going to pull a missile up from, and then they count the warheads on it.
“You can't see that from overhead satellites,” Rusten, who has been part of U.S. verification teams, said. “It's not replaceable if we don't have boots on the ground. That's what people lose sight of. It gives our military planners a lot of confidence about what Russia has and what we need to plan against. If we didn't have this information, over time, we would become less and less certain about what their nuclear forces look like, where they were, what they were doing."
How long does it take to negotiate a treaty?
It takes a long time, and negotiations are pretty complicated, according to Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, Director, International Organizations and Nonproliferation Program at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non‑Proliferation.
Usually, the United States and Russia meet in person. The delegations would comprise representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and the U.S. State Department and defense representatives from both sides. Very often, those negotiations would take place in Geneva and could last for months. Initially, they would have meetings to just get things started. But once the negotiation is really in progress, they could spend months meeting and drafting texts. There might be fairly large delegations and a lot of support from back home nailing down details.
All of this is done behind closed doors, with the public knowing little about the back-and-forth between negotiators.
What has been unusual about the approach of the outgoing Trump Administration is they announce ambitious goals and talk about the U.S. conditions and demands publicly (including on social media)—which traditionally never happens—and, then, there's no actual negotiation. With the current White House, Mukhatzhanova said, it's not clear how much work is actually being put into the technical preparations. When Russia called for a five-year extension—which they shortened to one year because of the stalled talks—the Americans appeared to drag their feet and seemed unwilling to commit to working out the differences in their respective approaches.
(Biden has said he would accept Russia’s extension conditions)
Part of what held up talks was the Trump administration’s curious demand that China be added to the treaty. Mukhatzhanova told me it doesn’t make sense, especially since Moscow and Washington are in the middle of negotiating conditions between themselves.
“Furthermore, China’s arsenal looks very different from the U.S. and Russian arsenals,” she said. “It's much smaller. In fact, they don't even have warheads deployed in the same sense as the U.S. and Russian warheads. They keep their warheads decoupled from missiles, which has implications for how you count and what is being limited. The only possible positive outcome of including China would be China having to declare its arsenal, declare the numbers of missiles it has which it has never done before. China was very clear they were not going to join the treaty (unless the U.S. reduces its arsenal to the size of China’s). If you want China joining arms control talks in general as a precondition for the extension of New START, that's very strange because New START is a bilateral treaty.”
(Click here to learn more about China’s nuclear arsenal)
Again, how long these treaties take to negotiate depends on who the world leaders are, what terms both sides want, and how reasonable they are at the negotiating table.
Why don’t Russia and the United States just get rid of all of their nukes?
That would be ideal, but there are too many interests involved—including Lockheed Martin’s, Northrop Grumman’s, and other war machine contractors' who make up the military-industrial complex—for that to happen easily.
Barack Obama entered office in 2009 with a mandate to abolish nuclear weapons. It was a noble goal, but one Republicans in Congress were completely against. There was no collective political will or ideological outlook that could envision a world without nuclear weapons. You also had a more expansionist Putin who was expanding the Kremlin’s regional influence by invading Ukraine in 2014 and supporting the Assad regime in Syria. Consequently, Obama’s administration saw fewer reductions of the stockpile than past administrations.
“It's going to take some very wise and thoughtful leadership at the highest levels,” Togzhan Kassenova, a nonresident fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment, said. “We had it in Obama, but we didn't have a proper counterpart on the Russian side for that. For example, like what the Soviet Union had with Mikhail Gorbachev. So, somebody like Gorbachev on the Russian side, and somebody like Obama on the U.S. side. But also the military-industrial complex would need to do some soul searching.”
Northrop Grumman is expected to make $85 billion developing the next generation of ICBMs, and other military contractors are profiting from producing weapons as Americans are waiting for Congress to provide relatively modest monthly stimulus checks during the pandemic. If profit is prioritized over peace and if leadership believes that maintaining the military-industrial complex is central to a safer world, then abolishing nukes will be incredibly difficult.
What will a new New START look like?
It’s not possible to know that at this point.
But many experts agree that president-elect Biden would bring back a more traditional, less erratic approach to negotiating such treaties. But the downside is that Biden will likely not have much time to negotiate a new treaty and may be able just to extend the current one.
Without New START, Gaukhar says there would be no rules by which either side has to abide. And that could very well trigger an arms race.
“We would have for the first time in decades a situation where there is no bilateral nuclear arms control between the U.S. and Russia,” she said. “There would be no treaty obliging either side to report on any part of their nuclear arsenal. There would be no verification, no inspections, no neutral reporting, and no legally binding limitations on the number of weapons on each side. We've seen qualitative improvements in the arsenals, especially the Russian arsenal in the past decade or so. And the United States has started its own modernization efforts. It's very expensive, but, so far, it's really been focused on qualitative. But if we allow the last treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons to expire, we could see a quantitative build-up and that's destabilizing and increases risks. That's something that American taxpayers should also consider. The expenditure on nuclear weapons is already humongous.
The modernization Gaukhar discusses was approved by Obama before he left office and is projected to cost well over $1 trillion over 30 years. When she says qualitative modernization, she means updating the current arsenal, not adding more weapons to it.
What is promising is that anything is possible. Relations between Moscow and Washington are tense but not at Cold War levels. There were upwards of 70,000 warheads in the world as recently as the late 1980s. There are around 13,500 at present. So there is much room to feel optimistic.
That said, no one knows what will happen with New START or how non-proliferation talks between Moscow and Washington will go. But a new White House with experience in these matters may bring forth a positive outcome that both America and the Russian Federation would welcome.