The World May End Up with No Agreement to Limit Nuclear Weapons

The United States hasn’t decided whether or not it needs the New START to be extended

Less than a year is left before the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START) expires. Alexey Arbatov, Head of the Center for International Security at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations and a full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, spoke about the arms control situation to NG-Diplomatic Courier editor-in-chief Yuri Paniev.

– The United States believes that, from a legal perspective, the treaty already provides for the extension of the New START, and, subject to consultations, it can be confirmed through diplomatic exchanges. Is that true?

– Yes, that is true. The New START does not require new ratification. It was ratified in 2011 by Russia and the United States and, if extended, provides for diplomatic exchanges and the execution of relevant presidential decrees. The New START can only be extended one time for a period of no more than five years.

Russia favored extending the treaty without any preset conditions. This is a major shift in Moscow’s position over recent years. The extension is necessary to save time for negotiations on the next agreement to replace the New START, or we will be in exactly the same situation five years from now. After the New START, Russia has refused to continue the dialogue because of such obstacles as the American missile defense program, non-nuclear precision-guided weapons, NATO expansion, and sanctions. Now, however, Moscow is not setting any conditions for the New START extension or for subsequent negotiations.

– What should further negotiations cover?

– Vladimir Putin has said that all the latest systems he announced in his Spring 2018 presidential address could be the subject of further dialogue. It is understood that the same applies to those American weapon systems that concern us. It is a shame that this reasonable position was not clearly and fully expressed earlier, before we were under such time pressure. But the Americans are dragging their heels and trying to set additional conditions. Their position is vague and unclear. They have not yet decided for themselves whether they need the New START to be extended or not, and what they will ask for in return.

– Secretary of Defense Mark Esper listed three conditions for the extension of the New START: the treaty must cover Russia’s new strategic weapons; Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons must also be under the treaty; and China must be a part of it. How realistic are these demands?

– The US continues to confuse strategic issues. Russia has already announced that two of the six systems Putin announced in 2018 will be included in the New START if it is extended. These are the famous hypersonic glide vehicle Avangard and the heavy intercontinental silo-based ballistic missile Sarmat, which replaces the Voevoda missile.

The other new systems require a special agreement. These are the Burevestnik, a ground-based cruise missile with a nuclear engine and nuclear warhead, which is still being tested, and a nuclear-powered underwater high-speed super-torpedo with a nuclear warhead. Neither of these systems fall under the New START. The treaty does not even have their definitions. Technically, they could become the subject of a new treaty, maybe a START IV, but not the extended New START.

– What about the Pentagon chief’s conditions on tactical nuclear weapons?

– This can be explained one of two ways: either Esper simply does not understand what he is talking about, or he is intentionally muddying the waters in order to gain some time while they scratch their heads in the White House. Tactical nuclear weapons have been a special topic of discussion for a very long time. These weapons were significantly reduced by parallel initiatives of Russia and the United States in the 1990s. We will have to deal with this issue at some point in the future, but it is impossible to include them in the New START extension in any way. Favorable conditions for doing so could be created by renewing agreements to reduce NATO’s and Russia’s conventional armed forces in Europe, so that neither side is concerned about the other’s superiority and preparing a nuclear response. It will be difficult to agree on this as long as there are state borders in the region that are not recognized by all parties.

– And what about China?

– Esper’s idea about China’s accession to the New START is even less clear. The treaty allows the parties to have no more than 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles and no more than 1,550 warheads on them. According to various foreign estimates, China has about 150 strategic delivery vehicles and the same number of warheads (and a total of about 300 nuclear weapons of all kinds). If we add China to the New START, we essentially recognize its right to increase the number of vehicles by more than a factor of four and warheads by a factor of ten. Are the Americans ready for this? Probably not. We would end up discussing a new treaty instead of the New START. China will definitely have to join the nuclear arms control process, over time and under certain conditions, but this will require separate and very difficult negotiations.

It must be noted that the Russian platform on this issue has shifted significantly: since the New START was signed, Moscow has asserted repeatedly that the bilateral format is not sufficient anymore, and that we need to switch to multilateral agreements. Now, Russia supported China’s refusal to join the negotiations but wants to extend the New START and continue the dialogue, which means continuing to deal with this issue bilaterally with the United States. This approach is quite reasonable for a time when we are trying to figure out the formula for involving third countries in the process on a voluntary basis. Meanwhile, nobody has offered anything concrete yet. The United States doesn’t know what to do with China either, but it keeps pushing and using the “wait and see” strategy. You know what they say: “Be careful what you wish for. You may be sorry if it comes true”.

Hypersonic technology seems to be one of the main areas of advancement in the revolution in military science. How prepared is the United States for such a revolution?

– Let’s not jump to conclusions about a revolution. At the regional level, the hypersonic glide vehicles used in ordinary conflicts provide the offensive strategy with advantages over the defensive strategy in a struggle between the two that has been going on for a long time and with variable results. Regarding the global strategic level, the offensive strategy will continue to prevail in the foreseeable future because it is supported by existing multiple-warhead ballistic missiles.

Strategic hypersonic glide vehicle systems will be redundant as long as there are no effective Star Wars-style missile defense systems, such as the ones the unforgettable President Reagan dreamed about. Instead, they serve mainly as a symbol of a country’s technical superiority.

It is not surprising that, since 2018, Putin has said on multiple occasions that Russia is not catching up with the United States anymore. It has pulled ahead, and now the United States can try to catch up with Russia. Of course, the Americans could not but accept this challenge. They are ready to compete, and this year they invested USD 5 billion in hypersonic systems equipped with non-nuclear warheads. If any country succeed in creating a large number of such weapons with sufficient accuracy to destroy the silo and mobile missile launchers and protected command centers, then we can talk about a revolution in military technology. The possibility of a disarming non-nuclear strike will undermine the very foundation of the nuclear deterrence system on which global peace has been based for the past 70 years, as the Russian President and many others see it. There is already a competition in this area, if not an arms race, although, to tell the truth, I do not see the difference between the two concepts.

In this context, how effective is Russia’s initiative to convene a summit of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, if, of course, a summit takes place at all? After all, international meetings and forums have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

– It is not my place to talk about the coronavirus. From the political point of view, however, such a summit could have had symbolic importance if the five leading nuclear powers represented by their heads of state came together and confirmed their commitment to move along the path of nuclear disarmament. However, speaking of practical advances in this area, I would like to remind you that summits of the Great Five have been held on a regular basis for over ten years at the level of government officials and experts, and there have been no tangible results. The nuclear potentials of the five powers in question are too asymmetrical, with Russia and the United States holding 90% of the global nuclear weapons. No third country will agree to sign a treaty enshrining its nuclear gap, even if it is not striving for parity with the two nuclear superpowers, while Russia and the United States are not going to reduce their arsenals to the third-country level yet.

– Forecasting is a thankless job, but I would like to know your opinion on whether the New START is going to face the same lamentable fate as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty?

– Formally speaking, the answer is no, because the INF Treaty was an indefinite agreement, and the United States simply denounced it. The New START is about to expire, and now the question is whether to extend it or not. If it is not extended, then there will be no treaty to limit specific nuclear weapons. Trump’s main argument against the New START is that Obama’s treaty allegedly provides Russia with great advantages. Now Trump has the opportunity to show that the New START is not Obama's treaty anymore, since Russia has agreed to include new systems that are already being deployed. The Treaty’s verification regime ensures a large-scale system of military transparency and predictability, which is why even the Pentagon supports it. In addition, Trump could knock out the Democrats’ argument that he behaves like a bull in a china shop, destroying everything around him.

That said, Trump is unpredictable and seems to act on instinct. He has chosen people for his administration who want to keep their jobs, always say “Yes, Sir!” and never dare to contradict him. Logically, the United States should agree to extend the New START and start negotiating a new treaty, but human history would be very different if countries were governed by logic and common sense.

Source: Nezavisimaya Gazeta