Keeping New Start alive is vital for the world’s nuclear future

The writer is a lecturer at Stanford University, a former deputy secretary general of NATO and previously the US chief negotiator of the New Initiative.

The United States has now declared that it will not comply with the New Start Treaty, the last remaining legal step between the two countries to control nuclear weapons. The issues are simple: Washington has called for the resumption of on-site inspections that both sides suspended during the pandemic and a meeting of the agreement’s implementation body. Moscow has denied both claims.

These problems are easy to fix. Russia is not violating the agreement’s central limits, which limit both countries to deploying a maximum of 1,550 warheads on 700 delivery vehicles (missiles and bombers). The new initiative continues to keep the overall numbers of both Moscow’s and Washington’s nuclear forces under control. But by reneging on important implementation obligations, Russia is beginning to tear at the fabric of the agreement. This is particularly worrisome at a time when Vladimir Putin has made veiled threats about using nuclear weapons against Ukraine.

The question is, why? Keeping the treaty alive is clearly in Russia’s national interest. The United States is embarking on a modernization of strategic nuclear forces that will take the next two decades. During that period, it will calculate its response to the emergence of two peer nuclear competitors, China as well as Russia. There will inevitably be pressure from some parties to increase nuclear weapons systems beyond the New Start quota.

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Russia itself should be wary of the shiny new triad of nuclear submarines, bombers and ballistic missiles being developed by the US and China. Although Moscow has never accepted a challenge from Beijing, both faced their own version of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1969 when they issued nuclear threats during their border conflict along the Ussuri River.

Like the US, Russia would do well to get China to come to the table to talk about its nuclear modernization plans. Is Beijing willing to impose limits on its nuclear build-up? Would it be appropriate to discuss its future nuclear ambitions?

Such predictability has been the most valuable dividend of the nuclear accords between the United States and the Soviet Union, now Russia, over the past 50 years. It has allowed both countries to plan and prioritize their military forces, rather than blindly throwing money at nuclear weapons. They have focused more on conventional forces, which have a war-fighting potential that nuclear weapons cannot match. The emphasis of nuclear weapons is deterrence rather than battlefield use.

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But if the new start falters and China pursues its build-up unhindered, all three capitals could be forced to sink extra cash into nuclear systems at a time when new technologies are revolutionizing conventional weapons. A case in point is the drone war on display in Ukraine. All three would be better off investing in this area of ​​future warfare than in nuclear weapons — a 70-year-old technology that everyone agrees should stay on the shelf.

However, Russian officials appear to be in some alternate universe, trying to use the new opening to address their grievances over NATO expansion and Ukrainian sovereignty. When asked last month about progress on treaty issues, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed the US for severing ties. Two weeks later, his deputy, Sergei Ryabkov, publicly lobbied for the package of demands that Russia had put forward before invading Ukraine a year ago. They included demands that NATO withdraw to its 1997 borders and disarm Ukraine. He pointed out that progress on nuclear arms control depended on this step — and it would not happen.

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At this difficult moment, perhaps it is inevitable that Moscow will link the new beginnings to NATO and Ukraine. So far, however, Washington and Moscow have been able to work on issues of mutual interest, no matter how poor the overall state of the relationship. Even in the current deep freeze, they negotiated a prisoner exchange that brought basketball star Brittney Griner home.

Sustaining a new beginning is not less in the interests of both countries. The agreement ensures that our bilateral nuclear future is clear and predictable. It provides the moral, political and technological backdrop against which we can each engage with China. It means that by the end of the Cold War we will not be building up to 12,000 nuclear weapons ready against each other.


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