Useful Guarantees: Why Russia and the United States Should Extend the New Start

Evgeny Buzhinsky, Lieutenant-General (Retired),

Chairman of the Executive Board of the PIR Center,

Valdai Discussion Club expert, participant in the club’s conference

Middle East in a Time of Change: Towards New Stability Architecture

The New START expires in February 2021. An extension is possible, but it all depends on the political will of the Americans

Little time remains to make a decision on the New START. The bilateral treaty between Russia and the United States, fundamental to nuclear safety, contains an automatic extension provision: six months before the expiration date, the parties must notify each other of their willingness or unwillingness to extend the treaty. President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stated that Russia wants to extend it. The United States seems to favor an extension, as well, but only because the White House is under immense pressure domestically. Democratic Party leaders vigorously oppose withdrawal from the treaty. The military and intelligence communities are also against withdrawal because they have grown so accustomed to monitoring Russia’s strategic forces (through inspections and information exchange) that it would be very difficult for them to lose that access.

I do not believe that President Donald Trump read this treaty and decided it was no good. I believe that someone convinced him of it. Opponents such as former National Security Advisor to the President John Bolton are averse to the New START because it is the first treaty on equal footing between the two countries. Previous treaties on strategic offensive arms leaned in favor of the United States because they contained special limitations on heavy ground-based missiles, which are the foundation of Russia’s nuclear triad, specifically heavy multiple-reentry vehicles. The US nuclear triad, on the other hand, is based on submarines with ballistic missiles.

Bolton may be gone, but there are still many people in the administration who share his views that the US does not need arms control because it is so strong that no one can compete with it. But an asymmetrical response is possible. It would be ridiculous to compete to increase the numbers of warheads as we did in the 1960’s or 1970’s. A new arms race will be qualitative instead of quantitative. New types of strategic weapons will be developed. Russia has already provided an example of this: in 2018, Putin announced three new systems: Avangard, Poseidon, and Kinzhal. These new systems – including hypersonic weapons, of course – took the United States by surprise.

Control without Obligations

There are those who believe that, even in the absence of a treaty, mutual control can be ensured through the exchange of information and inspections. But this immediately gives rise to a number of legal and political issues. To begin with, Russia would have to amend its laws, which is theoretically possible but highly unlikely. The same goes for inspections. When I was involved with this issue, our US counterparts proposed that “inspections” be replaced with “visits” if the treaty were to lapse. I replied that visits would be possible, but only if the American citizens “visiting” our facilities agreed to waive their diplomatic immunity. That was unthinkable: US government officials will never visit a foreign state – especially Russia – without protection from the local jurisdiction.

Therefore, in the absence of a treaty, both sides will be deprived of information about the true situation. The New START currently enforces a natural limit of 1,550 warheads. US submarines can technically carry up to twelve warheads on each Trident missile, but they are currently subject to a limitation of only six. If the treaty lapses, they can easily upload them to double their potential. Russia can do the same thing, but its uploading capability is lower.

Some experts believe that satellites and other intelligence tools will provide governments with all the information they need. That is not true: satellites do not always see everything, and it is impossible to open the cover of a Trident from outer space and see how many warheads are installed. That’s a job for an inspection team.

New Situation

The extension of the treaty depends on the political will of the United States. Our counterparts are already imposing conditions, primarily about China’s accession to the treaty. This is problematic, however, and the Chinese aren’t even interested because they would need to fully reveal what they have before getting into the negotiation process. Beijing does not want to do this, because all of China’s warheads are underground. The Chinese have a magic number – 300 warheads – that they have been publishing in all the official lists for the past 20 years. I seriously doubt that it reflects reality. In fact, I think that they have much more, somewhere around 1,000 warheads, but they have no interest in disclosing this information. It would also be difficult to force China to join the treaty because Russia is its strategic partner, not its opponent. Furthermore, according to Beijing, the possibility of an exchange of strategic attacks with the United States is low. The Chinese are more concerned about India, and it would be unwise for them to join any restrictive treaties that didn’t include that nation. However, India will never join a treaty that does not include Pakistan. And how do you bring in Pakistan without Israel? So, we’re talking about a multilateral treaty, with the United Kingdom and France as participants. But this is unlikely due to the difference in potentials. Any arms control treaty is a treaty between approximately equal parties. In a treaty between a party known to be weak and a party known to be strong, either the stronger party will have to sink to the lower level or the weaker party will have to build up its own potential.

The United States has said that any new treaty will have to include the new types of weapons that Russia has developed. But the treaty has to be equal in this respect, as well. Avangard is simple enough: it is a hypersonic reentry vehicle mounted on Voevoda- or Sarmat-type intercontinental ballistic missiles, meaning that it is classified as a warhead. The Poseidon submarine unmanned vehicle equipped with nuclear weapons, however, has not yet been put into service. If this happens, then Russia will have the system and the United States will not. And the Americans have no reason to develop anything like it, since they have no one to defeat except their own allies. Russia’s ocean boundaries are either the Arctic Ocean or the Pacific coast. But unlike the United States, it has no large coastal industrial cities or military facilities. Therefore, Moscow cannot give up its Poseidons in exchange for a “thank you” from the United States. A move like that would need to be reciprocal. For example, it would be possible to raise the question of the United States’ orbital unmanned vehicles, which Russia does not have.

I believe that until all these issues are resolved, it should be possible to keep the New START under the current conditions by automatically extending it for five years and use this time to develop a new treaty that would take into account the new reality. However, the negotiation will have to be conducted in a different environment and not in the current conditions of severe confrontation and “wars” in all directions – from sanctions and trade to diplomacy.

Source: RBC (Russia)