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New START: Arms Control or Arms Racing?

October 2, 2020
Marshall Billingslea and Sergei Ryabkov. Fotos: US Dept of Treasury / public domain and Tasnim News Agency / Creative Commons 4.0

Largely held under the radar, the talks between the USA and Russia have been spectacularly unsuccessful so far. If they do not succeed, then the last bilateral arms control treaty New START will expire in February, going the same way as the INF Treaty before it and taking the last vestiges of our security with it.

It is no easy task to follow the US-Russian talks as so little has been reported on them. However, several articles emerged recently that show nerves are wearing thin and the USA is presently resorting to using threats to try and force Russia’s hand before the US presidential election.

The first article was in Russia Today on September 20 that reported Marshall Billingslea, President Trump’s arms control envoy, had told Kommersant that if Russia didn’t accept their latest offer before the US Presidential election, and if Donald Trump were to win that election, then the “price” of further negotiation on New START would “go up”. He then threatened that if there were no agreement on New START by February, then the USA would abandon the treaty and push ahead with modernising its nuclear arsenal, saying (according to RT): “Russia has largely completed its modernization of its nuclear arsenal. We are just starting ours. And we will be extremely happy to continue it without the START restrictions”.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told RIA Novosti: “Either they can stop making their ulimatums and we can start to negotiate something, or there will be no agreement”. Reuters reported that Russia would not accept the US conditions for extending New START.

The USA is in the middle of a complete overhaul of its whole nuclear arsenal and complex. The US Nuclear Posture Review indicated that the massive modernisation programmes planned and begun already under the Obama Administration were to be expanded into the development of new nuclear weapons. Trump has been at pains to make it known that a “super-duper” weapon is in the making, then claiming to be secretly developing something even bigger, leading to an abundance of speculation on which nuclear weapon he was referring to. But apart from this evident increase in the quality of the US nuclear arsenal, the numbers appeared to remain stable. However, according to this second article, this is now debatable.

The US magazine Politico reported on September 28 that they had information from three unnamed sources that Trump had requested the military “to assess how quickly it could pull nuclear weapons out of storage and load them onto bombers and submarines” if New START was to expire in February. It was claimed that this could be “part of a strategy to pressure Moscow into renegotiating New START before the presidential election”.

Rose Gottemoeller, who negotiated New START in 2010, calls the US threats “megphone diplomacy” and commented: ““Do we want to end up in a less stable place? Because we would be nuclear arms racing.”

What would that mean exactly?

In response to the article in Politico, Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists tweeted a diagram of the numbers that are involved. He predicted in December 2019 in an article with Matt Korda in Forbes that the US could increase its deployed strategic warheads from 1,550 to more than 3,500 warheads. Particularly significant would be the increase of warheads on Trident submarines. Russia, in comparison, could upload nearly a thousand warheads less, giving the US an edge but also giving the Kremlin a good reason to ramp up production of warheads and to join in a new arms race.

© Kristensen/Korda, FAS 2019

For many years now, SIPRI has been reporting that while the numbers of nuclear weapons are going down in the world, the modernisation programmes are making nuclear weapons more “usable”. Now it looks like that is no longer the only problem. With an increase in the numbers, the arms race will take on a new quality and completely destabilise the security architecture that was built up during and after the Cold War.

So how likely is this to happen?

To understand the status of the arms control talks and how likely they are to succeed, it is important to look at what is on the negotiating table. After a very shaky start, with the US insisting that China should also take part in the talks although they are not a signatory to New START, and China downright refusing to participate in any talks until the US and Russian numbers of nuclear weapons are reduced to a comparable number to their own, talks began in Vienna in June between just the two former superpowers and without China. Just prior to the talks Billingslea tweeted a picture of the negotiating table with strategically placed Chinese flags and empty seats, commenting that “China is a no-show”, although it was long clear that they would not attend. The Chinese were not amused and their Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian commented that the placement of flags and empty seats was “unserious, unprofessional, and unappealing for the U.S. to try getting people’s eyes in this way”.

There was apparently sufficient progress at the bilateral talks to be able to conduct a second round of talks in August. Again, the US called on China to attend, but they didn’t.

The second round of talks ended without any decisive progress with the two sides remaining, according to Billingslea, “far apart on a number of key issues”. It emerged that the major sticking point was that the USA is tying the extension of New START to an agreement on a new follow-on treaty. According to Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative in Vienna, “The U.S. insists on the need for a trilateral agreement with the participation of China. Russia in its turn believe(s) that UK and France should also be engaged.”

A Washington Post article of September 23 claims that a proposal was made in early September to the Russians, offering to extend New START for a limited period of time (less than the five year maximum) as long as Russia signs on to a political declaration agreeing to negotiating a follow-on treaty. This agreement would outline the framework for the treaty and what it would cover. It would first become a binding treaty once China agrees to sign up.

Steven Pifer of Stanford University lays out the conditions for extension in an article in Defense One. One of these conditions is that the scope of the new treaty should also cover tactical or non-strategic nuclear weapons as well as strategic. In other words, all nuclear weapons in both arsenals. This was already attempted by Obama in 2013, but the Russians have their own conditions, neither of which are new: 1.) that missile defence should also be discussed, and 2.) that the US nuclear bombs should be removed from Europe. Neither of these are acceptable to the US. Billingslea replied this time round by saying to Kommersant: “We will not remove nuclear weapons from any of the storage sites” in Europe.

Pifer says that the Trump Administration wants to improve verification and that Billingslea claims that the treaty’s monitoring measures “have significant shortcomings”. He points out that the State Department was indeed able to certify earlier this year that Russia was in compliance with New START, indicating that the measures were sufficient to do so.

The sudden public outburst by Billingslea in the Russia media, threatening to raise the “price” of negotiation and the apparent strategy of the Trump administration to apply pressure by openly asking the military about its nuclear upload capacity, is an indication of Trump’s desperate need for a foreign policy success. Making a deal with the Russians would be such a success. But the Russians are not playing ball and dragging their feet. There could be two reasons for this: 1.) they know that Joe Biden is willing to extend New START under more favourable terms or 2.) they want New START to lapse so that Russia can build more nuclear weapons.

New START dead in the water?

However, the insistence that China must join a future treaty before it can become binding means that it both New START extension and a follow-on treaty are probably already dead in the water. Russia knows this and can hardly be expected to deliver on this condition, whatever they agree to sign themselves. But why would Russia sign a political non-binding arms control declaration that might only become legally binding when a third party agrees to it?

The USA and Russia possess more than 90% of nuclear weapons. It is understandable that the other nuclear weapon states first want to see a significant reduction in these numbers before reducing their own.

This also means that if New START cannot be extended, then the blame game begins, similar to the INF Treaty. Only this time China will be the one in the firing line.

However, seen from the perspective of nuclear weapon free states, none of the best-case possibilities are conducive to actually advancing nuclear disarmament and the goal of a nuclear weapon-free world. The fact that New START left both states with a very large upload capacity shows that it was not a disarmament treaty, in contrast to START I which actually regulated the destruction of a very large number of nuclear weapons, making New START reversible. So even with the added security of a five-year extension of New START – which would of course be desirable – we would not be any further down the road towards nuclear disarmament.

Similarly, the smaller nuclear weapons states, in not agreeing to be a part of arms control discussions are in contravention of their obligation to disarm under Article VI of the NPT. One way they might feasibly contribute to nuclear disarmament would be by joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and submitting time-bound plans for eliminating their nuclear arsenals. Instead, they choose to hide behind the skirts of the two major nuclear players who are battling out the nuclear future.

What will it be: arms control or arms racing? The former is still a long way from nuclear disarmament but would, of course, be preferable.

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