President Trump’s first in-person meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which occurred July 7 on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit meeting in Hamburg, Germany, was reportedly dominated by discussion on many of the irritants in the U.S-Russia relationship, including Russia’s interference in the U.S. election, Syria, and Ukraine.
Among the issues unfortunately not discussed, however, was how to stabilize the increasingly troubled nuclear relationship between the world’s largest nuclear powers. As the two presidents and their top diplomats continue to engage in the future, they should prioritize dialogue on reducing nuclear weapons risks, beginning with extending the landmark New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START.
One of the few remaining bright spots in the U.S.-Russia relationship is New START. Signed in 2010, the treaty requires each side to reduce its deployed strategic nuclear forces to no more than 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery systems by 2018. It also includes a comprehensive suite of monitoring and verification provisions to help ensure compliance with these limits. So far, both sides have abided by its terms, a good measure of how much they value its contributions to bilateral stability, predictability, and transparency.
The agreement, which is slated to expire in 2021, can be extended by up to five years if both Moscow and Washington agree. But if it is allowed to lapse, there will be no limits on Russia’s strategic nuclear forces; moreover, the United States would have fewer tools with which to verify the size and composition of the Russian nuclear stockpile. This could lead military planners to make worst-case assessments that might help justify a costly and potentially unnecessary surge in nuclear and conventional weapons procurements.
It is in both countries’ shared interest to avoid such a scenario. As the possessors of over 90 percent of the roughly 15,000 nuclear weapons on the planet, Russia and the United States have a special responsibility to avoid direct conflict and reduce nuclear risks. The quickening downward spiral in their relations makes these objectives all the more urgent.
For these stated reasons and others, the U.S. military and U.S. allies strongly support the New START agreement. Gen. John Hyten, who leads U.S. Strategic Command, told Congress in March that he is a “big supporter” of New START. Hyten added that “bilateral, verifiable arms control agreements are essential to our ability to provide an effective deterrent.” It thus seems likely the Pentagon would welcome an extension. Additionally, in a statement at an international nuclear disarmament conference last summer, a group of U.S. European allies, including Germany and Poland, praised New START and even called on the United States and Russia to begin negotiations to further reduce their nuclear forces.
As the U.S.-Russian relationship continues to deteriorate, the value of New START only grows, and the extension of the treaty becomes more urgent. By verifiably capping U.S. and Russian deployed nuclear forces, the treaty bounds the current tensions between the two countries. This is especially important given that other key pillars of the U.S.-Russia arms control architecture, like their broader bilateral relationship, are under siege.
Most problematically, the United States has accused Russia of testing and deploying a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty. Moscow denies it is violating the agreement, and in return has accused Washington of breaching the accord. In addition, U.S. and NATO officials have expressed concern that Russia is developing new nuclear weapons and lowering the threshold for when it might consider using them.
By extending New START, Trump and Putin could add stability and predictability at a time when both are in short supply in the relationship, and build trust that could help to facilitate solutions to other disputes. The choice should be a no-brainer.
The Trump administration should recognize the urgency of working with Moscow to extend New START as soon as possible. Yet, unfortunately, it seems that Trump fails to understand the value of the treaty. He has called New START a one-sided deal that favors Russia. He also reportedly responded negatively to Putin’s suggestion to extend that treaty in a January phone call. In addition, Trump has pledged to “strengthen and expand” already formidable U.S. nuclear capabilities.
These comments suggest the president is ill-informed about the treaty, which places equal limits on both sides. They also put him at odds with his Secretaries of Defense and State, both of whom support the treaty; and they reflect a lack of understanding about the unique dangers posed by nuclear weapons.
Also troubling are steps being taking by U.S. critics of the treaty to block an extension. The version of the fiscal year 2018 defense authorization bill passed by the House Armed Services Committee last month would prohibit extending New START until Russia returns to compliance with the INF treaty.
Connecting the treaties like this is senseless and counterproductive. By “punishing” Russia’s INF violation in this way, the United States would simply free Russia to expand the number of strategic nuclear weapons pointed at the United States after New START expires in 2021.
Expressing support for extending New START could have been an easy win for the President in his meeting with Putin. An extension would be a positive step for improving the U.S.-Russia relationship, reducing the risk of unconstrained nuclear competition, and strengthening global security – all without making an unwise or impractical concession to Moscow. Such progress would also reassure U.S. allies unsettled by Trump and the state of relations between Moscow and Washington.
Failing to begin talks on an extension of New START was a missed opportunity that should not continue to be missed in the future.
Image: Mikhail Klimentiev/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images