Extension of U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control treaty welcome but fresh pacts needed to suit changed times
By Wen Qing  ·  2021-02-09  ·   Source: NO.7-8 FEBRUARY 18, 2021
Soldiers participate in the Rapid Trident 2020 multinational military drill in the Lviv region, Ukraine, on September 17. Over 4,000 military representatives from nine nations, including the U.S., were involved(XINHUA)

The renewal of the sole arms control treaty between the United States and Russia just 48 hours before it was to expire is critical to prevent a new nuclear weapon race, but much more needs to be done, experts say.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), extended on February 3 in the first exchange between new U.S. President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, will now be in effect for five years until February 5, 2026.

"The extension is of great significance for maintaining global strategic stability and promoting nuclear disarmament," Gong Xiaohao, an assistant researcher with the Institute of International Security at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told Beijing Review. "It repairs the devastated global arms control system, which entered its lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War during Donald Trump's administration."

The New START, signed in April 2010, limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads both countries can deploy to 1,550 each and the number of delivery platforms such as bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine launchers to 700 each.

A ruined system 

Trump left the global arms control system in tatters when he stepped down in January. Upholding the America First policy, he abandoned several major arms control treaties: the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed in 1987, in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to eliminate all ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km; the multilateral Arms Trade Treaty the U.S. joined in 2013 for regulation of transfers of

conventional arms; and the 1992 Open Skies Treaty signed by over 30 members, giving each other access to their air space for collecting information on military activities.

During Trump's presidency, despite the initial bonhomie with Russia, bilateral relations worsened following pressure by the Congress that, among other things, passed sanctions against Russian individuals and companies due to attributed causes that ranged from "invasion of Ukraine" in 2014 to meddling during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump also wanted substantial changes to New START and there were fears the muscle flexing could lead to a new round of arms race.

"In this sense, the extension plays a critical role in preventing complete disintegration of the international nuclear arms control system and checks a new round of a nuclear arms race," Gong said. "The international community would have suffered had the U.S. and Russia, who have the largest nuclear arsenals, become uncontrolled in their development of nuclear weapons."

According to the Federation of American Scientists, there are presently 14,485 nuclear warheads in the world, and the U.S. and Russia control 92 percent of them.

Hu Gaochen, an expert with the School of Social Sciences, Tsinghua University, sees the move as a good start for the new U.S. dispensation. "It will help the Biden administration rebuild America's global leadership," he said.

Trump criticized European countries on trade issues and abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, ignoring the EU's objection. Such moves disappointed the United States' allies again and again. "During Trump's administration, the credibility of the U.S. among its allies and the international community continued to fall," Hu said. "The extension is a move to win their trust."

But the positive impact of the contract renewal should not be overestimated, according to Gong. U.S.-Russia relations still have many thorny issues like the ownership of Crimea. Russia considers the peninsula, once part of Ukraine, as its own territory after a referendum in Crimea to join Russia in March 2014. The U.S. and its allies say Russia annexed Crimea.

Besides, there are cybersecurity issues and economic sanctions, as well as the two countries' own domestic problems. The renewal of the treaty, Hu said, is more a case of the two countries trying to size each other up.

Future risks 

Onlookers have urged the two countries to build on the success of the renewed pact. "We encourage both Russia and the United States to use these next five years to negotiate further reductions in their nuclear weapons, as well as new agreements that can address the emerging nuclear weapons challenges of our time and make the world a better place," Stephane Dujarric, a spokesperson of UN Secretary General António Guterres, said at a daily briefing on February 3.

However, it will be difficult going forward to reach new nuclear agreements, according to Hu.

A variety of non-nuclear technologies in the military field, such as the artificial intelligence recognition system that can locate the opponent's missile positions and other strategic weapon targets, have increased the complexity of security interactions between countries. The old arms control models, which mainly focus on limiting the number of nuclear warheads and their delivery vehicles, are no longer enough for the current situation.

In future arms control negotiations, the U.S. and Russia are likely to include more types of weapons and technical control issues. From limiting the number of weapons there may be a shift to restricting technical capabilities. "This makes negotiations complex and difficult to reach a treaty acceptable to both parties," Hu said.

Russia has advantage over the U.S. in new strategic weapons and non-strategic nuclear weapons. The U.S. reportedly has about 500 non-strategic nuclear weapons, while Russia has more than 2,000. "We have to wait and see whether the U.S. is willing to make concessions in the areas it has an advantage, such as space-based anti-missile weapons, in exchange for Russia's compromise in tactical nuclear weapons," Gong said.

According to him, of the three pillars of global strategic stability, the New START is the only one still functional. The other two are the INF Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which expired in 2002 after the U.S. withdrew from it. The ABM, signed in 1972, limited deployment of missile systems that could theoretically be used to destroy incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles.

"As the two largest nuclear powers in the world, the United States and Russia's nuclear arms control is of great significance to global strategic stability. The process urgently needs a new start," Gong said.

Biden has been reported as saying that he will use the New START as a framework for other treaties. His Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last year that he was "very much for staying engaged in Open Skies." "We should work to preserve them and then we should work to strengthen them as appropriate," he told CBS News.

Time will show if they put their money where their mouth is.

(Print Edition Title: Can Biden Go Beyond New START?)  

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar 

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