Funny how time slips away. Seven years have passed before one could wink an eye. On Feb. 5, 2011 the landmark New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty entered into force. Russia and the US have complied with its terms. From now on, the strategic nuclear arsenals do not exceed the limits of 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads and 700 delivery vehicles operationally deployed. The treaty’s provisions include an effective verification regime with on-site inspections conducted to promote trust.
This is a great achievement. After all, arms reduction agreements have always been a tough sell. No doubt, February 5 is a special day in history. It makes one wonder what is in store for arms control.
While the treaty was being negotiated, one could see many people working with candor, dedication and mutual respect. Diplomats, military, politicians, pundits and interpreters spared no effort. They all realized how important their work was. The spirit was really high. Everyone involved in the process cherished the hope that it was the start of a broader process to make the world better. Those days are gone and the spirit is no longer here. But all is not doom and gloom as long as the parties meet their obligations.
The New START expires in 2021 if not extended till 2026. Not much time is left but the US has indicated no interest in prolonging the treaty’s duration. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review does not say anything about the extension and there are no talks on further reductions amid numerous problems to complicate the bilateral relationship.
America is to launch a $1 trillion, 30-year modernization program to have a new ICBM, a new bomber, a new submarine, and a new cruise missile. If ship-based intermediate range weapons are deployed near Russia’s shores, Moscow will have to take the threat into account, viewing them as an addition to the strategic potential.
The US wants to re-equip some of the strategic bombers and submarines to carry conventional weapons. Nothing is decided, but it can be surmised that some Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers could be refitted the same way it was done in the 1990s when Rockwell B-1 Lancers were converted into conventional weapons carriers. It was done with Russia’s consent. More Ohio-class strategic submarines could be modified to carry cruise missiles and other conventional weapons. It can be done only if Russia says yes. According to the New START, Russia has a right to monitor the process and make sure the modifications cannot be rolled back. Will the US comply? It does not say it will.
There is a very important aspect to take into account at this point. Both countries greatly benefit as they exchange precious information about the strategic nuclear forces. If not for the information exchange envisaged by the treaty, the parties would be left with no insight into what the other side is doing. It will be a large order to monitor each other's nuclear arsenals.
Some Republicans want to link the extension of the New START with the resolution of dispute over the INF Treaty. Why should one of the two remaining major arms control treaties be sacrificed if the other one hits a hurdle is not clear but that’s what Republican Senators Tom Cotton, Ron Johnson and Marco Rubio believe is right. This approach is offered in a bill to put into question the future of arms control.
The entire system of arms control could soon unravel. It has never been that bad ever since the Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963. Today disarmament appears to be no longer an integral part of the US-Russia relationship.
So, what do we have? There is no ground to believe the New START, the agreement that has served the purpose so well, will be extended. It’s hope against hope. President Trump has criticized his predecessors for their arms control policies. It can be said with a high degree of certainty that the US will not come up with any new initiatives of its own. True, with no new agreements discussed, it would be prudent to extend the New START till 2026. Such a decision seems to be no-brainer but… prudence does not appear to be in high esteem anymore.
US allies in Europe want the treaty to stay in force. But no, America indicates no intent to behave like a responsible actor. With no curbs on nuclear activities in place, an unfettered arms race is inevitable. It’s a pity, because arms control is the area where Russia and America could work together, putting aside tensions that negatively affect the ties.