Just three and a half months after the United States and Russia agreed to extend a bilateral treaty limiting their nuclear arsenals, Moscow has voiced concerns over Washington’s compliance. On Monday, May 24th, Russia’s foreign ministry claimed that the number of U.S. launchers and bombers exceeded the limit outlined by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The ministry conveyed that it was unable to confirm that 56 launchers and 41 heavy bombers were no longer nuclear-capable, as Washington had declared, nor could it verify the removal of four underground missile silos. The United States has insisted that it is meeting the treaty’s requirements.
New START first entered into force in 2011 and has since marked a cornerstone of global nuclear arms control. Last February, the treaty was just two days from expiring before President Putin and President Biden extended it until 2026. The treaty’s extension prompted sighs of relief worldwide amid tensions between the two countries over hacking attempts and human rights abuses. However, Moscow’s allegations this week cast some doubt on what had looked like progress in repairing relations between the two nuclear superpowers. According to a report from Reuters, Russia has raised similar concerns in the past. “The United States has explained many times why U.S. conversion procedures are in full compliance with its treaty obligations…and is prepared to do so again,” said a State Department spokesperson.
Verifying Moscow’s accusations, or Washington’s compliance, is no simple task. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which produces annual reports on the global state of nuclear armaments, has cited a lack of transparency from most nations regarding their nuclear stockpiles. Even so, its 2019 report confirmed that the United States is continuing a nuclear modernization program started by the Obama administration. During Trump’s presidency, the program’s focus shifted towards expanding the capabilities of its nonstrategic nuclear weapons, which it claimed was necessary without offering evidence that the existing arsenal was insufficient, says Defense News. While the modernization program does not violate New START’s terms, it paints an ominous picture of the path that nuclear armament may take without such a treaty. In the 2019 report, SIPRI noted that the actions of the U.S. may prompt other nations to follow suit. The same report warned that Russia appears to be shifting its nuclear efforts in the same direction, which may trigger China to do the same.
Establishing lasting nuclear arms agreements with Russia has been a delicate process since the 1970s. The outlook for preserving any sort of bilateral treaty looked especially bleak just before Biden took office last year, as diplomatic relations with Russia had become increasingly strained. After efforts to secure a stricter arms control treaty ended in stalemate in 2019, Donald Trump became the first American president in 50 years to reach no agreement on nuclear weapons, according to the Brookings Institution. Worse still, the United States formally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty during the Trump administration, which had been responsible for the successful destruction of 2,692 missiles. New START is now the only bilateral agreement between Russia and the U.S. limiting nuclear weapons, while a new ban on intermediate-range missiles remains nonexistent.
Moscow’s accusations are a reminder that cooperation on matters of nuclear disarmament between Russia and the U.S. are by no means a foregone conclusion, the extension of New START merely offers some breathing room. Yet before it can even hope to make further advances, the U.S. must ensure that its current agreement with Russia is stable. As President Putin remarked in June 2019, without New START, “there will be no instruments left to curb the arms race.” Although President Biden is taking a tougher stance toward Russia than his predecessor, nuclear disarmament is an area where delicate diplomacy is an unconditional necessity.
Whatever the Biden administration’s goals, the risk of unconstrained nuclear competition puts them in jeopardy. If Biden hopes to build momentum off of the treaty’s five-year extension, he must prioritize cordiality and transparency in Washington’s dealings with Moscow over the implementation of the only remaining nuclear treaty.