What is the status of negotiations on extending New START?
On January 21, news broke that U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration will seek a five-year extension of the treaty, something Russia seems ready to agree to. It is unlikely there will be any conditions attached—both parties are eager to secure an agreement.
Senior U.S. officials seem keen on extending New START, while also moving quickly to address harmful actions Russia has taken against the United States in the past several years, such as the SolarWinds cyber attack. The Biden administration is taking a pragmatic view on New START—extending the treaty is in U.S. national security interests, but this does not preclude steps the administration may take to punish Russia for its misbehavior.
In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, announced that the United States would seek to extend the treaty, and he signaled that he would be consulting with senators “almost immediately” to begin the process. After these consultations, the United States will likely reach out to Russia through diplomatic channels to secure an agreement to extend the treaty.
How quickly could the United States and Russia complete an extension?
Under U.S. law, such an agreement does not require Senate advice and consent. A simple exchange of diplomatic correspondence between the two governments (referred to as diplomatic notes) is all that is needed. For Russia, extension requires domestic ratification. However, Moscow could implement the treaty provisionally if these formal procedures cannot be completed by February 5—a step both parties commonly take when signing a new agreement and waiting for ratification to be completed in each capital.
The Biden administration should engage the Kremlin, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, as quickly as possible to set this process in motion. It should also convey to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee the administration’s intention to extend New START, a requirement in the 2010 Resolution of Advice and Consent to Ratification.
How is the coronavirus pandemic affecting New START?
Although Russian and U.S. officials met in person to negotiate New START’s future, the two countries agreed to suspend inspections indefinitely because of the pandemic. Meetings of the Bilateral Consultative Commission, the treaty’s implementing body, were also canceled in 2020. It’s unclear when inspections or commission meetings will resume, but the Biden administration should make every effort to safely restart these treaty implementation activities as soon as possible.
Inspections are important because they help verify the valuable information exchanged between the two countries. Such information includes data on where individual ballistic missiles and heavy bombers are located, and when they are tested or transported. These activities must resume swiftly—along with the accompanying diplomatic discussions for resolving any implementation disagreements. Without inspections, both states may have less confidence in the other’s treaty compliance.
What have U.S. allies, partners, and other countries said about a New START extension?
The United States’ allies and partners have expressed strong support for a New START extension. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in June 2020, “we should not end up in a situation where we have no agreement whatsoever regulating the number of nuclear weapons in the world . . . we cannot risk losing the New START agreement without having something else.”
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres also urged the United States and Russia to extend New START, describing it as “among the most urgent disarmament and international security priorities of the moment.” Government officials from a host of countries—including Argentina, Canada, Finland, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland—similarly supported the extension of New START in a February 2020 joint statement.
China supports a New START extension too, although Beijing has remained firm that it is not interested in joining a trilateral arms control agreement until the United States and Russia have made deep reductions to their nuclear arsenals.
If New START is extended, what comes next?
Even after the extension of New START, there are further steps Washington and Moscow should consider taking to avoid expensive arms buildups and to lower the risk of nuclear escalation in a crisis.
Russia and the United States should broker a deal that imposes limits on strategic weapons, including kinds that have emerged since New START was first hammered out. Such an agreement must also assuage worries about implementation. For example, the United States should address Russia’s concerns about the U.S. practice of converting launchers on ballistic missile submarines and bombers so they can no longer launch nuclear weapons. This lets the United States reduce the number of its forces below the New START numerical limits, something that is allowed under the treaty. But Russia sees it as a way of dodging the rules. Moscow argues the U.S. procedures do not convert the systems in a confirmable way and insists that both countries must agree on the procedures before they are used. If this disagreement isn’t resolved, Russia may accuse the United States of noncompliance, leading to far more difficult future negotiations.
Next, the United States should seek to negotiate five proposals to foster transparency and confidence building. Doing so would lower the risk of nuclear escalation and brinkmanship. These proposals—politically binding transparency and confidence-building measures—should address sensitive issues such as ballistic missile defense, nonstrategic nuclear weapons, and China’s nuclear arsenal. These cannot realistically be included in a treaty today because strained domestic politics and tense diplomatic relations, particularly with China, would make any such treaty a tough sell for lawmakers.
For example, Russia and the United States should confidentially exchange data about sea-launched cruise missiles and nonnuclear boost glide systems to reduce the risks of worst-case assessments of each other’s capabilities. The two countries should also agree to reciprocal inspections of empty actual or suspected warhead storage facilities to prove that no warheads are present. And Moscow and Washington should agree to a package of confidence-building measures on European Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense installations to show that the interceptors are not fast enough to catch and destroy Russian ICBMs and that the installations could not launch offensive missiles.
To ease jitters about Beijing’s nuclear ambitions, the United States and China should agree on a joint cutoff in the production of weapon-usable fissile material to prove that China does not seek to match the size of the U.S. and Russian arsenals. And China, Russia, and the United States should agree to a trilateral ballistic missile and space launch notification agreement—effectively, promising to let each other know when they are carrying out such a launch—to reduce the risk of such a launch accidentally triggering escalation.
Lastly, it’s common for new U.S. administrations to look at nuclear policy and arms control policy early on, often as part of a nuclear posture review. In a recent report, Carnegie scholars recommend changes to U.S. nuclear strategy, policies, and posture, including on arms control. The Biden administration may want to read this report and pursue its suggestions.