When President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office next month, he will immediately be faced with the task of saving the last arms control treaty between the United States and Russia.
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, is up for renewal on Feb. 5, 2021, just 16 days after Biden’s inauguration. The treaty, negotiated when Biden was vice president, caps the number of strategic nuclear arms — the fearful weapons designed to destroy distant targets such as cities, factories and military bases.
Even though the threat of a nuclear confrontation has faded since the end of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow still control the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. President George W. Bush, and then President Trump, withdrew from key nuclear arms agreements with Russia. With bilateral relations at their worst in decades, New START survives as the remaining treaty limiting the two countries’ nuclear arsenals.
Biden has promised to pursue an extension of New START as president, but the incoming administration won’t have much time.
“I think it’s certainly possible, and it’s on their radar screen as something that has to be done,” says Lynn Rusten, who worked on New START in the Obama administration. “But there’s not time for negotiations on anything beyond just a straight extension. You can’t start introducing something new that you want to attach or have as a condition.”
The last-minute scramble is a result of months of fruitless negotiations on New START between the Trump administration and the Kremlin. U.S. negotiators initially demanded that China be included in the talks, then pushed for a short-term extension with a freeze on all nuclear warheads, not just strategic ones. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he is ready to extend New START without any preconditions.
Rusten says Trump was ill-disposed to New START primarily because it had been signed by his predecessor, Barack Obama — even if Trump wasn’t opposed to a treaty per se.
“My sense is he did have an impulse to have an arms control agreement with Russia. But he really surrounded himself with people who have an ideological antipathy toward diplomacy, toward negotiations on arms control,” she says. “The good news is they didn’t withdraw from the treaty. And I think the reason they didn’t is because the national security interest in this treaty is so strong.”
One of the key opponents to arms control is Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton. During Bolton’s 17-month tenure, the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a landmark agreement signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
In the last Bush administration, Bolton helped lead the drive to take the United States out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
Bolton considered New START flawed because it covers neither non-strategic nuclear weapons nor a new generation of delivery vehicles. He also wanted to bring China into negotiations on New START — a demand rejected by Beijing because it owns only a fraction of the nuclear weapons that Russia and the United States do.
“The problem, of course, was that the United States was putting up conditions that were not acceptable to Russia,” says Andrey Baklitskiy, an arms control expert at Moscow’s PIR Center think tank. “They wanted a lot of things, some of those which, frankly, were beyond Russia’s reach. Russia could not bring the Chinese to the table, even if it wanted to.”
The negotiations stalled during the presidential campaign and the clock finally ran out on the Trump administration’s efforts to reach an agreement before the election.
“Probably Russia was just hedging its bets a little bit because it didn’t know who would win,” says Baklitskiy.
After the election, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the Trump administration’s position on New START as “chaotic” and said its demands were “not serious and unprofessional.”
The negotiations that led up to the signing of the original New START treaty were “harrowing,” Obama’s chief negotiator, Rose Gottemoeller, recalls. One year of intense talks with the Russians was followed by another year of consultations with the Senate, which ratified the agreement in 2010.
New START’s extension of up to five years would not require Senate approval.
The treaty was the main trophy of the “reset,” the Obama administration’s attempt to reboot U.S.-Russian relations after the chill following Bush’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the eastward enlargement of NATO and Russia’s five-day war in 2008 with its tiny southern neighbor, Georgia.
After Obama took office in 2009, he declared on his first trip to Europe that the United States was committed to a world without nuclear weapons.
In Moscow, that lofty goal was viewed with suspicion, since the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal is the one thing that puts Russia in the same league as the United States. Yet the Kremlin also wants to avoid a costly arms race like the one that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At the New START signing ceremony in Prague in April 2010, Obama addressed his counterpart at the time, Dmitry Medvedev, as “my friend and partner” and thanked him for his “personal efforts and strong leadership.”
Today the smiles and warm words between the presidents of the United States and Russia appear quaint. But the treaty was signed before Putin, then prime minister, returned to the presidency for a third term, and Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine and interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“If you look at history, all successful arms control agreements were a result of a certain détente or rapprochement or thaw in relations — and every one that failed was exactly an attempt to build arms control during a time of tensions,” says Pavel Podvig, a researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva.
“The danger, of course, is that to get to the point of this new reset, or détente, we may have to go through a period when it will be pretty scary, and we are not there yet.”
Beyond extending New START, a goal the Kremlin supports, the Biden administration will be limited in what it else can hope to achieve in arms control, says Baklitskiy — especially since it’s unclear whether he’ll have the votes in the Senate to ratify any new treaty.
“I don’t think that New START will be a turning point in bilateral relations,” says Baklitskiy. “Generally, there is a feeling in Moscow that nothing good will come out of a Biden administration; the fact that President Putin has not yet congratulated President-elect Biden shows you something.”
Still, a five-year extension of New START would at least give both sides time to consider what additional steps can be taken, Gottemoeller says.
“We’ve got to think about what other systems are out there. The Russians have developed a couple of new, so-called exotic systems, which won’t fall under the New START treaty,” she says. “They probably have a list of U.S. systems they’d like to control.”
Podvig says the numbers of nuclear weapons are no longer as important as those new systems: for the United States, a missile defense shield, and for Russia, a new generation of weapons designed to evade it.
“Unfortunately, this kind of an arms race will probably go on regardless of whether New START is extended or not,” he says.
Rusten compares the urgency of renewing the treaty with the fight against COVID-19. The use of a nuclear weapon is as hard to imagine today as a global pandemic was a year ago, she says.
“There are still 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Most, but not all, are owned by the United States and Russia. Our relationships are deteriorating. And so there’s a real risk that they could be used,” says Rusten.
“It’s important to keep our eye on the ball and not wait until the day after to say: ‘What could we have done to prevent that?'”