After INF, the Future of New-START Hangs in Balance
Dr Kapil Patil, Associate Fellow, VIF

After the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty early this year, the uncertainty surrounding the extension of New-START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) is growing with each passing day. President Trump and his hawkish national security advisor John Bolton have so far shown no sign of renewing the accord, which is set to expire in 2021. Signed in 2011 between the United States and the Russian Federation, the New-START limits the deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 and deployed strategic missiles and bombers to 700.1 Outlining the Trump Administration’s position on the New-START treaty, the U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson noted that “A decision has not been made at this time”, and that “the administration is still considering its options”.

Reacting sharply to State Department’s continuing vacillation over the extension of New-START, Russian President Putin on the side lines of Saint Petersburg Economic Forum on June 6th cautioned that Russia is prepared to drop the agreement if the U.S. lacks interest in renewing it.2 He further noted that “there won’t be any instruments limiting an arms race, for example, deploying space-based weapons…[t]his means that nuclear weapons will be hanging over every one of us all the time.”3

President Putin’s remarks have come in the light of Mr. Bolton’s stinging criticism of New-START which only limits the deployed strategic nuclear weapons of U.S. and Russia while keeping the Russian stockpile of sub-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons out of its purview. Additionally, the Trump administration has accused Russia of modernising its nuclear forces in violation of the ‘zero-yield’ obligations under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).4 For over a year now, the Trump administration has been conducting the review of the New-START, and is yet to decide whether to extend or abjure the accord.5 If Trump administration’s approach towards the INF treaty is any indication, the extension of New-START faces grave uncertainty which is driven by a number of techno-strategic factors.

Drivers of Uncertainty

First, one of the key drivers of uncertainty surrounding New-START pertains to ongoing geo-strategic competition between the great powers. The Trump administration’s “America First” approach has implied that the current U.S. nuclear policies are driven by the quest to achieving strategic superiority instead of being governed by the imperatives of strategic stability. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) has spelled out the competitive dynamic between the great powers and called for the U.S. to hedge against future uncertainties by maintaining wide-ranging strategic capabilities. 6 The NPR has not only increased the salience of nuclear weapons in the U.S. strategic calculus but also unambiguously signalled Washington’s intention to secure military superiority over the adversaries.

Second, the military technological innovation, a defining feature of the emerging nuclear order, is causing much uncertainty vis-a-vis the traditional arms control treaties. The existing arms control measures do not account for the changing technological milieu in which nuclear systems are being improved continuously. Both the world powers are making concerted efforts to qualitatively improve their nuclear arsenals to achieve better accuracy and are building low-yield options weapons. The technological advances in missile defence, cyber and space-based capabilities, and an array of new and emerging conventional systems are fuelling the current geo-strategic competition

Third, the agreements like New-START, while limiting the deployment of a number of warheads, do not place any restrictions for quantitatively improving the nuclear arsenals. The 2018 NPR candidly acknowledges that both the U.S. and Russia are qualitatively improving their offensive and defensive weapon systems. Additionally, the NPR calls for the U.S. to pursue new capabilities such as “hypersonic, cyber and space-based weapon systems”, etc. Although such systems are still under development and might not breach the existing arms control agreements, they are widely regarded as de-stabilizing and undermining the relevance of arms control treaties such as INF and New-START.

Fourth, amidst the intensifying technological race, the great power consensus on the need for arms control is breaking down increasingly. The lack of acceptance for arms control poses a serious challenge for managing the strategic competition as new arms race is underway for a range of new weapon systems identified in the NPR. The growing concerns over the U.S BMD and conventional force modernisation is driving both China and Russia to modernise their militaries and broad-base their strategic choices. Consequently, Washington’s proposals to expand the scope of arms control talks have met with little success as China has steadfastly refused to join any arms control talks while Russia is reluctant to renegotiate the existing treaties including the New-START. In the current scenario, there is little on the horizon to indicate that arms control can once again be the element of managing great power competition.7

New-START and Emerging Nuclear (Dis) Order

Amidst technological and geo-strategic drivers of uncertainty, the future of New-START, thus hangs between the possible lease of life through extension and an imminent lapse in 2021. If President Trump chooses to buck his own trend and agrees to extend the accord, there are a number of factors that might shape his choice to do so. The Trump administration is reportedly conducting an inter-agency review to assess the potential costs and benefits of extending the New-START. Although the officials have refused to publicly comment on the process, it is widely acknowledged that the extension of New-START would allow the U.S to keep receiving information about Russia’s strategic arsenal and ensuring transparency through treaty’s verification measures.

Being the last remaining arms control agreement between the two erstwhile Cold War rivals, the New-START serves as the much needed avenue for talking and negotiating strategic stability. It would also help to retain the painstakingly negotiated verification protocols which served to build the mutual trust and bilateral understanding. Throughout the Cold War, the arms control agreements provided important avenues for initiating the talks on strategic stability and to launch new arms control measures. Lastly, the extension of New-START can boost the bilateral ties and would present an important measure of stability to their troubled relations. For many such reasons, the least that the two leaders can do is to extend the accord and observe the current limits placed on their strategic arsenals.

It however appears unlikely that President Trump views the extension of New-START as important for his political fortunes in any way. Having abrogated several important agreements like the Paris climate accord, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the INF treaty, the New-START can easily be the next in line for Trump. Also, if President Putin’s remarks are any indication; the extension scenario at this moment clearly appears bleak given the Trump administration’s hostility to initiate talks with Russia. In the worst case scenario, therefore, the lapse of New-START is likely to usher in the phase of new global instability in which the risk of miscalculation is likely to run very high. Without any instruments of stabilising the arms race, this phase would likely to prove far more unstable than the Cold War.

Endnotes:
  1. For more see, New START Treaty, URL: https://www.state.gov/new-start/.
  2. Vladimir Putin threatens to drop New START nuclear treaty, Deutsche Welle, June 06, 2019, URL: https://www.dw.com/en/vladimir-putin-threatens-to-drop-new-start-nuclear-treaty/a-49084297.
  3. Ibid, Also see, “Putin says he told Trump that Russia prepared to extend START treaty: Fox News”, The Reuters, July 17, 2018, URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-summit-start/putin-says-he-told-trump-that-russia-prepared-to-extend-start-treaty-fox-news-idUSKBN1K62UU.
  4. Top U.S. military intelligence official says Russia ‘probably’ not adhering to nuclear test ban, Washington Post, URL: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/top-us-military-intelligence-official-says-russiaprobably-not-adhering-to-nuclear-test-ban/2019/05/29/815a1a36-8234-11e9-9a67-a687ca99fb3d_story.html?utm_term=.df4322c79d59.
  5. “Menendez Slams Trump Admin Official for Dodging Questions on Russia’s Nuclear Capabilities to Target U.S”, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, May 15, 2019, URL: https://www.foreign.senate.gov/press/ranking/release/menendez-slams-trump-admin-official-for-dodging-questions-on-russias-nuclear-capabilities-to-target-us.
  6. Office of the Secretary of Defence, Nuclear Posture Review, Department of Defence, February 2018, URL: https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF.
  7. China says it won't take part in trilateral nuclear arms talks, Reuters, May 06, 2019, URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-putin-china/china-says-it-wont-take-part-in-trilateral-nuclear-arms-talks-idUSKCN1SC0MJ

Image Source: https://fas.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/newstart.jpg

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