There have been ups and downs in the relationship between Russia (the Soviet Union) and the US, but both nations have become accustomed to the fact that their arsenals of offensive nuclear weapons are under the control of an agreement to prevent an arms race in this area. Some type of treaty has been in place since the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was concluded in 1963. Since 1972, when the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) agreement was signed, there have always been negotiated constraints on nuclear arsenals. But today, there are ominous signs that the system that has worked so well to push the superpowers back from the brink of the nuclear abyss is being unraveled.
Andrea Thompson, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, speaking before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Sept. 18, claimed that Russia's new strategic weapons that were announced by President Vladimir Putin last March were an obstacle to Washington’s agreement to extend the New START treaty. She also asserted that the issue has not been discussed through the formal New START process. She did not explain why not. The official said the final decision had not been made as yet and, "All options are on the table." The same applies to the other remaining treaties that Washington is accusing Moscow of violating.
The options under consideration are: withdrawing from the New START; renegotiating the provisions related to the verification process; or signing another treaty instead, such as the 2002 Moscow Treaty or the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). The undersecretary said that the US administration wanted Russia's recently unveiled strategic nuclear weapons to be included in the count.
Negotiations are possible over the issue of the new weapons that are being tested or are already part of Russia’s arsenal. Moscow has been calling for a strategic dialog for quite some time, and Russia is not to blame because Washington is reluctant to start the process, whatever its motivation. A duplication of the 2002 treaty is unacceptable. It has already been finalized. No such radical reduction is possible without other nuclear states joining in, and they are not doing so. It’s really hard to understand why the undersecretary would bring this up, knowing perfectly well the proposal would have no chance.
David Trachtenberg, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, also insists that the extension of New START was uncertain, despite the fact that on-site inspections and monitoring were useful.
The Senate hearings showed that the lawmakers are divided on the future of arms control and are prone to putting the blame on Russia for violating each and every agreement in existence without taking a proper look at what the US is doing. There is slim chance of an extension of the New START and hardly any prospects for a new deal.
The New START will expire in 2021 unless extended by agreement of the US and Russian presidents or replaced by a follow-on treaty. The US and Russian presidents discussed the New START during a phone conversation in January and at the Helsinki summit in July, where the Russian leader suggested that the parties thoroughly review all the components of the arms-control regime, including New START and the INF treaty, the 2011 Vienna Document on confidence-building measures in Europe, and the Open Skies Treaty. After meeting Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s Security Council, US National Security Adviser John Bolton said the extension of the New START was far from a slam-dunk decision. Meanwhile, the United States is moving ahead and designing a new ground-based missile that is in open violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty.
The long-range Kalibr sea-based cruise missile that was added to the arsenal of the Russian armed forces in late 2017 would violate the presidential nuclear initiatives (PNIs) of 1991 if it were equipped with a nuclear payload. Technically, it is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead but it does not. Russia’s non-strategic arsenal is large and sophisticated enough as it is — there is no need to violate its obligations under the PNIs. The US has a great numerical advantage in sea-based long-range missiles, and there is no verification mechanism in place to ascertain whether or not they are equipped with nuclear warheads.
The US has always been reluctant to discuss ways to enhance the PNIs by adding verification measures. The long-range cruise-missile capability demonstrated by Russia’s Navy during the Syrian conflict came as a surprise, but this does not mean it is a violation. Things change and it’s only natural to adapt to a new reality. It’s widely believed that the best way to tackle the problems related to national security is through talks, but the US administration and many people in Congress see it differently.
There is something important to remember — the US sea-based nuclear-tipped TLAM/N missiles are still part of the US arsenal, and there is no way to make sure they are not clandestinely installed on nuclear attack submarines. This issue could be discussed separately from the strategic nuclear agenda. The problem cannot be neglected. No one is standing in the way of launching a dialog. President Bush and President Gorbachev managed it. In theory, President Trump and President Putin could do the same thing, but the American leader should be prepared to be attacked for dealing with Russia. Those in America who stand in the way of an arms-control dialog between the two leading nuclear powers are actually undermining the country’s security, but they will do it anyway in order to pursue their own political ends, because they are filled with hatred against both the US president and Russia.
The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review states that the United States will pursue a nuclear-armed, submarine-launched cruise missile in order to “provide a needed nonstrategic regional presence, an assured response capability.” How does this jibe with the fact that the PNI is still in effect? It looks like the initiatives’ future is as uncertain as the fate of other treaties.
Of course Russian strategists have never forgotten that the US still has 50 empty silos ready to hold ICBMs, with several hundred additional warheads that are also in storage and could potentially be loaded.
There are only three years left until the New START expires. The experience of history demonstrates that that is hardly enough time to prepare a new treaty that actually has no chance of being ratified by the Senate in an era when the overall bilateral relationship is at its lowest ebb. The US still has no clear idea of what its future nuclear triad will be like. Discussions are underway. All we know is that it is investing more than $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize its aging nuclear forces, which will include new ground-based missiles, new missile submarines, and a new bomber.
No major arms-control treaty will be concluded until the administration and Congress know exactly what components will be included in the arsenal and what programs are to be implemented to achieve the established goals —once all the assessments and estimations are complete and the guideline documents in place. Thus, an automatic five-year extension is the only hope for the New START’s survival. That could be accomplished through a simple executive agreement. Without a New START in effect, other agreements, such as the INF Treaty and the PNIs, have no chance. The very real prospect of an end to arms control and the non-proliferation regime is looming. That’s something leading experts in Russia were warning about as far back as 2015. Very serious discussions must be launched right now in order to prevent such a scenario. It’s a scary prospect!
The good news is that the patient can still be saved. There is still a little time left, although not much. There are no options but for Russia and the US to put their differences aside, forget about Ukraine, Syria, trade wars, and other issues that divide the two nations and concentrate on ways to save arms control or whatever is left of it. With their relationship at its lowest point since the end of the Cold War, it is even more vital to keep the nuclear risks in check and prevent a new nuclear arms race. Russia (Soviet) and US officials have always emphasized that any plan that keeps nuclear weapons under control and subject to proper verification procedures is a better option than an unfettered arms race. The US administration and its lawmakers seem to disagree.