US, Russia must lead the way on nuclear arms control
Two countries, Russia and the US, possess between them 91 percent of the world’s 13,410 nuclear warheads, and thereby have the capability to destroy the planet. You would imagine, therefore, that the world might pay more than a smidgeon of attention when the clock is running down on the last remaining nuclear arms control agreement between them. Do we want to see another nuclear arms race? The lack of attention and urgency is baffling.
On Feb. 5, 2021 — unless an agreement is reached — the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) deal between the US and Russia will expire. This was signed back in the Barack Obama era in 2010. New START restricts the two countries’ deployed strategic nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550. It also places limits on deployed land and submarine-based missiles and nuclear-capable bombers.
Why does the US seem so reluctant to extend New START? Some point to the fact that President Donald Trump views it as another appalling Obama-era deal. In his first call with President Vladimir Putin, he slammed the treaty as favoring Russia, describing it as: “One of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration.” Meanwhile, critics accused Russia of violating the agreement.
Trump has not been a fan of existing arms control agreements. His administration has pulled out of three so far: The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Treaty on Open Skies, which allows parties to overfly other states as a verification measure. The US pointed out that Russia was not allowing overflights over Kaliningrad. Trump’s critics accuse him of running down the clock, perhaps trying to put pressure on Russia.
The US president has several demands. Firstly, he wants New START to cover Russia’s entire nuclear weapons arsenal, including its non-strategic capabilities — the weapons that do not threaten each other’s homelands, where Russia has superiority. Secondly, he wants a trilateral deal that includes China. He views Beijing as a threat but, in nuclear weapons terms, this is more in the future. For the purposes of New START, China is pretty much irrelevant. It has a much smaller arsenal and has none that are operationally deployed, as its missiles and warheads are stored separately. Insisting on Chinese involvement is tantamount to killing off any chance of a deal. This looks like a condition the US will drop. It is tough to predict what a second-term Trump will do. His Democratic rival in next week’s presidential election, Joe Biden, says he would extend the deal if elected.
Russia also has its concerns. It wanted to discuss launchers and delivery vehicles as well as anti-ballistic missile systems. Despite this, it has said it would agree to the five-year extension proposed in New START’s terms. Putin has even proposed a one-year extension and would allow the US to inspect Russia’s hypersonic glide vehicle, Avangard, a weapon designed to pierce American anti-missile defenses. That said, how far would Russia be willing to go down the path of an arms race? It does not have the economy to sustain it.
One also has to question how much pressure other states are applying. The EU should be pressing both sides even more vigorously, and it should not be alone. Just encouraging dialogue is not enough. Other states should join this effort and not use the situation to pursue their own military ambitions.
Does all this matter? Yes, beyond all doubt. The absence of any non-proliferation treaty increases the risks and tensions. It would be too expensive for either country to enter a pointless arms race. If the two major nuclear powers cannot limit their arsenals, it sends a message to others. We have an alarming nine nuclear powers in the world at the moment, but many more might be added.
North Korea could smugly protest that, if these powers cannot even be bothered to negotiate a treaty extension, why should it listen to their concerns about proliferation? Pyongyang launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US back in 2017, and may have even tested a hydrogen bomb. Nobody should want to see Iran join this nuclear club either, but it gets harder when the big boys say one thing and do another. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, which aims to reduce existing stockpiles in exchange for other countries not going nuclear, would be at stake should the New START talks fail.
Extending New START should be the bare minimum goal, albeit right now, with just over three months to go, it is the best scenario. The ambition must be to extend it for five years and negotiate to agree on a successor treaty.
Of course, New START does not assuage every concern. The US should be concerned about Russia’s non-strategic stockpile. China’s ambitions in this field also have to be constrained, with the Pentagon believing that Beijing’s stockpile of warheads will double from 200 to 400 over the next decade. At the same time, other powers should listen to China’s fears about not ignoring them. Its arsenal is outmatched by both Russia and the US, and hence it feels threatened.
Technological developments necessitate that any new treaty caters for the latest weapons systems, such as boost-glide missiles, air-launched ballistic missiles, nuclear-powered torpedoes, and nuclear-powered cruise missiles. A new anti-ballistic missile treaty is likewise vital, especially to prevent any scenario where a nuclear war could feasibly be won.
If the two major nuclear powers cannot limit their arsenals, it sends a message to others.
Both sides require 100 percent confidence that the other cannot achieve a strategic advantage, so that one party becomes inferior. Everyone should understand the perils of trying to outmatch the other offensively or defensively. All of this is sadly occurring at a time of ever-increasing tensions among the major powers, as well as when question marks are appearing over the US’ commitment to many of its traditional allies. Trust is at a premium. This is why transparency matters, and why strong verification procedures to assess each other’s arsenals are vital.
We must not lose sight of the ultimate goal: The elimination of all nuclear weapons. More than 120 nations have signed up to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which comes into force in January. The least we should expect from the nuclear-armed states is to head in that direction, which they are certainly not doing right now.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech