Is U.S.-Russia New START treaty back on the negotiating table?
NATO's Jens Stoltenberg says he supports a five year extension of the START treaty. | AP

After over three and a half years of Trump administration stalling and a week-long flurry of exchanges with the Russian government, the possibility emerged this week that last-minute talks may take place between the U.S. and the Russians on a one-year extension of the New START Treaty.

The measure was signed by the two countries in 2010 to limit each to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads on 700 deployed intercontinental delivery systems. Rigorous inspections are required for verification.

Set to expire on Feb. 5, 2021, New START is the only remaining nuclear weapons control pact between the U.S. and Russia following the Trump administration’s departure from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019. Between them, the U.S. and Russia account for 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.

New START contains a provision saying it can be extended for up to five years if the presidents of the two countries agree.

Trump has consistently rejected maintaining the treaty for another five years. The U.S. initially balked at discussing New START with Russia at all, unless China also joined the talks, which Beijing, with some 300 warheads, has declined to do. Meanwhile, the Russians have been offering an unconditional five-year extension.

The latest U.S.-Russian exchanges have resulted in apparent willingness to discuss a one-year extension including a U.S.-proposed freeze on each side’s total nuclear warhead arsenal.

The State Department said in a statement Oct. 21 that the U.S. “is prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement” and expects Russia “to empower its diplomats to do the same.”

In its statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry proposed extending the treaty “for one year,” and said it “stands ready, together with the U.S. to assume a political obligation on freezing a number of the nuclear warheads possessed by the parties for this period.” The Russians made clear they would not accept additional U.S. conditions regarding the freeze.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who as vice president was involved in negotiations for New START in 2010, has said that if elected, he will agree to an immediate five-year extension and then work to achieve a more far-reaching pact.

Interviewed by Politico Oct. 21, Trump administration National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien called the exchange “a very significant step forward” but said it could take “a week, a month” or even “a year” to finalize an extension.

As NATO defense ministers were holding a virtual meeting this week, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters the alliance supports the extension of New START by the U.S. and Russia and said he welcomes “progress on this issue in recent days because we should not find ourselves in a situation where we have no treaty governing the number of nuclear weapons.”

Some observers have drawn links between the Trump administration’s sudden willingness to engage over the treaty and possible concerns over election prospects.

In an opinion piece published by The Hill, Tara Sonenshine, former U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs under President Obama, emphasized that arms control “is always in the national interest,” and said it is “critical” for the U.S. and Russia, as the world’s most heavily nuclear-armed states, to “make progress on reigning in the numbers of weapons that can be monitored and verified.”

But, she added, “It is fair to be skeptical about whether or not this is really an arms control announcement or just a diversion from COVID-19 and other global unpleasantness.”

Another Obama-era official, Alexandra Bell, former advisor to the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, told the PBS News Hour on Oct. 21 that she found it ironic for the Trump administration to say they had all the time in the world to deal with New START and then sprint to the deadline as if they were trying to use the possible collapse of the treaty “as some sort of way to get a better deal? That may be a good move in real estate,” she said, “but it’s just reckless” when dealing with the last barrier to a potential U.S.-Russian arms race.

Arms control and disarmament advocates have long pressed for extension of New START without conditions, ideally for five years but for at least a year, to set the stage for negotiations on a more far-reaching agreement.

Last week, as the flurry of U.S.-Russian exchanges was proceeding, Arms Control Association leaders emphasized the urgency of extending New START.

ACA Board Chair Thomas Countryman, who served as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation under President Obama, called extending the pact “vitally important for U.S., Russian and international security … We strongly urge President Trump to take ‘yes’ for an answer to Russia’s proposal to extend New START without conditions, ideally for five years.”

ACA Executive Director Daryl Kimball said that unless the president “changes course” or Biden is elected president and acts quickly on his pledge to extend New START, the treaty “very likely will disappear.”

Kimball warned earlier in the month that “no one wins an arms race. Each side already deploys far more weapons than it needs to deter nuclear attack.” Along with the enormous dangers of a nuclear arms race would come enormous expenditures, with the Congressional Budget Office estimating it could cost “several hundred billion dollars” to increase the U.S. arsenal above New START levels, in addition to the $1.5 trillion needed just to maintain the arsenal at New START levels over the next several decades.

Many advocates are also looking forward to the next steps on the road to nuclear disarmament.

In a statement Oct. 21, Laura Grego, senior scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program, noted that New START keeps the number of deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons and long-range delivery vehicles to levels below previous arms control pacts. Keeping it is better than letting it expire, she said, but it is a short-term fix.

Grego called on the next U.S. president to “work to dramatically reduce the nuclear threat by pursuing a new round of nuclear arms reductions … The United States should undertake a fundamental reassessment of how nuclear weapons, strategic missile defense, and the inevitable interaction between them contribute to – or undermine – our national security. That is the only path to achieving the next generation of arms control agreements.”


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.