Many arms control advocates breathed a sigh of relief in late January when President Biden emerged from phone calls with President Putin announcing that the U.S. and Russia were to renew the terms of New START, the last remaining bilateral arms agreement dating back to the Cold War. Quickly, the Russian Duma had approved the move and five more years of agreed limits on strategic nuclear weapons were confirmed, just days before the agreement was due to expire on February 5. Taken on its own, the renewal of New START begins the repair of U.S. commitments to peace and restraint worldwide, where similar agreements had been voided under former President Trump. In reality, that is the easy part over with. Work must now begin to craft fresh arms control agreements that plug the holes that the loss of other agreements—and New START itself—has allowed the beginnings of a new nuclear arms race to leak through.
The first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty—or START—was signed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1991, and capped accountable strategic warheads on both sides to 6,000 each according to the Arms Control Association. It expired in 2009 and was replaced the following year by New START, which brought the numbers of permitted nuclear warheads, missiles, and other delivery vehicles down further in line with post-Cold War disarmament. Accountable deployed strategic nuclear warheads were capped at 1,550 each, deployed submarine-launched (SLBM) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) were capped at 700, and all launchers both deployed and non-deployed were restricted to 800. When it entered into force in 2011, it was intended to be renewed every five years. Citing national security disadvantages to the United States and the absence of China in the deal, former President Trump overlooked renewal as the U.S. reneged on commitments to other arms treaties.
By preventing mass arms build-ups on both sides, New START plays a critical role in preventing the sort of nuclear arms race that defined the Cold War. Global Zero CEO Derek Johnson celebrated its recent renewal, noting that it is “an essential guardrail against nuclear arms-racing,” and that “allowing the agreement to expire risk[ed] unleashing a full-blown nuclear arms race that exposes the whole world to an intolerable level of risk.”
Now, both sides must build on this momentum. Renewing New START gives the U.S. time to negotiate more comprehensive arms control agreements with Russia—and other nuclear powers—that limits more than just deployed strategic warheads and delivery vehicles. A renewed bout of productive nuclear diplomacy such as this offers a building block for more challenging negotiations ahead.
A Nonstrategic Threat
While the treaty has successfully implemented a more transparent monitoring and verification regime between the two great powers, according to former U.S. STRATCOM General John Hyten, its deficiencies expose the complexities of 21st-century arms control commitments. New START does not limit current or planned U.S. ballistic missile defense programs, a source of major contention for Russia. They argue that strides in missile defense undermine the Russian arsenal and its deterrence, prompting forays into more technologically advanced and deadly hypersonic weapons that can reach their target much quicker. Moreover, non-deployed ICBMs or SLBMs—those not attached to a launcher—are not counted in the totals, while units of delivery vehicles, like bombers, are considered as one warhead even if the vehicle is capable of carrying many more.
Perhaps most pressing for Europe however is New START’s historical avoidance of capturing nonstrategic or tactical nuclear weapons within its limits. These warheads have a much shorter range and a lower yield and had seen numbers dwindle once the threat of conventional warfare during the Cold War expired. However, Russia has ramped up its development of the weapons, while the U.S. has committed to the modernization of its own smaller arsenal of B61 Gravity Bombs, most of which, about 200, are based in European NATO countries. Asymmetries in the numbers of nonstrategic warheads each side possesses have been downplayed as a risk by the U.S. in the past, but the threshold to use these weapons in a conventional conflict has teetered in previous Russian national security doctrines. The threat of escalation in Crimea, the Middle East, and even in the Baltics & Gotland today means that guaranteeing these weapons are never used is critical. Yet, they are infamously difficult to limit and differentiate from conventional warheads.
Whether or not these weapons would ever be used is one question, but their recent resurgence in importance is a worrying trend that New START fails to address. Russia maintains an arsenal of approximately 2000 nonstrategic weapons to compensate for perceived inferiority in conventional forces vis-à-vis NATO, according to the Congressional Research Service, but their lower yields make them an inherent danger as a “more acceptable” weapon. The dangers of inadvertent or accidental use with nonstrategic nuclear weapons increases, as does the risk of use by terrorist groups, while the threshold for their use is lower than strategic arms. In this, Europe is at the centre of a potentially perilous and unchecked new arms race.
Though “normal service” might have resumed at the Pentagon with regard to the U.S.’ role in these types of treaties, the acknowledged danger of a catastrophic nuclear conflict has not subsided. On January 27, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists updated its Doomsday Clock to reflect that it remains “100 seconds to midnight,” a reference for how close the world is to catastrophe. In its statement, it acknowledged the vulnerabilities that the COVID-19 pandemic had exposed in the world’s preparedness against the “existential threats” facing humanity, including climate change and nuclear weapons. The risk of “stumbling into nuclear war,” the report noted, remains high in 2021 as technological developments, failing international treaties, the refusal of nuclear powers to commit to the UN Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty, and events like the Capitol attack show the risks of miscalculation and ignorance. For nuclear peace activists, the renewal of New START cannot be the settlement. It must be the beginning, a sentiment echoed by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
A Cumulative Process
With these dangers and deficiencies understood, the question is where next? Nuclear modernization is driving the world towards a potential new nuclear arms race, and while the U.S., Russia, and China will lead that charge, Europe is near the centre. New START is an essential step to ensure catastrophic escalation does not happen. But a changed administration in the U.S. does not negate the risks of miscalculation posed by new technology or old. As good faith continues to be restored slowly between Washington and Moscow, much soul-searching must be done about the value of nonstrategic nuclear weapons to European deterrence, even if it means compromising on U.S. strategic or missile defence developments, given the asymmetries in the nonstrategic arsenals of the two. The public consensus in European states hosting these weapons is already souring, notably in Germany.
The fact that the weapons are stationed in NATO member states complicates hope of a bilateral agreement, however. The weapons do play an important role in NATO deterrence, so increasing monitoring, verification, and reliability on both sides should be a key first step. Moving them away from deployment and into centralized storage units would ease this process and the risks of terrorism and misuse. Reaffirming European faith in U.S. extended deterrence could also go some way to enabling more productive discourse on the continent about the abolition of the weapons from the NATO arsenal, in tandem with Russian deductions as well. Recognizing the dangers, European powers should leverage their relationship with the U.S. to make these deals happen, in particular the U.K. who unlike France commits its own nuclear weapons to NATO deterrence.
There is of course also the challenge of other great powers beyond the U.S. and Russia. China, though in possession of a comparatively small nuclear arsenal, is carrying out a technologically robust modernization program of its own. It is unlikely to commit a trilateral agreement in the vein of New START because its arsenal is much smaller but cannot be forgotten especially given its pressing strategic importance to the U.S. North Korea, meanwhile, is edging closer to the development of missiles capable of confidently striking the U.S. mainland, but disarmament of a rogue regime necessitates more complicated steps. These are all challenges facing the new administration after New START, and the negotiations will not come comfortably.
The renewal of New START under the new administration is a relief for nuclear peace, but it is a minimum expectation given the potential risks still at large. This momentum must now be transferred to negotiating fresh agreements that tackle the remaining prevalent threats to non-proliferation and disarmament. In Europe, that means reassessing the importance of nonstrategic nuclear weapons and the irreversible dangers they pose with even slight miscalculation, as well as bringing other key actors into the deals. These facts do not make New START a failure or a dead-end; rather, they reinforce that arms control must be a continuous and cumulative process and that this victory must be the beginning of a new wave of agreements.
- U.S.-Canada Decision To Modernize NORAD Emphasizes Strategic Importance Of The Arctic - March 4, 2021
- NATO And Russia At Odds In The Black Sea Once More - February 23, 2021
- “The Transatlantic Alliance Is Back”: Messages Of Hope From The 2021 Munich Security Conference - February 20, 2021