The Window to Extend New START Is Closing, and Fast

5 MINS READMar 20, 2019 | 09:00 GMT
Then-Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, left, heads for a closed session of the Senate on Dec. 20, 2010, to discuss the strategic arms treaty known as New START.

The U.S. Senate voted 71-26 on Dec. 22, 2010, to ratify New START. Then-Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, left, opposed the strategic arms treaty.

  • Once seen as relatively secure, the New START arms control agreement is in peril amid increasingly hostile U.S.-Russia relations and the suspension of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
  • The United States has expressed it wants to expand the scope of New START to limit Russia's development of nuclear delivery systems.
  • However, Russia will likely only agree to an expanded agreement if it also includes some of its key priorities, such as limiting U.S. investment in missile defense technology.
  • But the deadline for the treaty extension is rapidly approaching, leaving little time for much-needed negotiation — increasing the likelihood of its demise come February 2021.

With the looming demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, New START remains one of the last — and the most important — bilateral arms control agreements still in effect between the United States and Russia. Signed in 2010, New START regulates and limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads and their delivery systems. It was built upon a relatively stable foundation of similar treaties between Moscow and Washington, with both sides keen to pursue limits to their most destructive weapons arsenals.

Aside from occasional squabbles over perceived breaches of compliance, New START is traditionally viewed as being in better health than the long-embattled INF Treaty. This is helped by the fact that no other country has an arsenal of strategic nuclear warheads anywhere near the size of those harnessed by the United States and Russia, so the agreement has not suffered from problems similar to the INF Treaty’s lack of limits on China’s large ballistic missile arsenal.

However, even New START is beginning to face some significant headwinds, with the United States and Russia in disagreement over the scope of the treaty amid emerging new weapons technologies. As relations between the two great powers worsen, and the February 2021 deadline to extend the treaty closes in, there is increasingly less time — and less room — for compromise on a new start for New START.

The Big Picture

New START is one of the last and most critical strategic arms control treaties between the United States and Russia. The collapse of the agreement — while less likely than that of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty — would be significantly more impactful in propelling the arms race and heightening tensions between the two great powers.

The Split Over Scope

While Russia has signaled it would be open to simply renewing the treaty as is, the United States has been more inclined to propose changes before agreeing to extend New START past 2021. Washington's hesitance is largely due to Russia's development of a series of nuclear weapons delivery systems in recent years. While these actions are not technically banned under the current treaty, the United States is still wary of Russia's move to create such powerful weapons, which include nuclear-powered cruise missiles as well as nuclear-powered unmanned undersea vehicles.

In recent testimony to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, who oversees the country's nuclear forces, echoed this sentiment — stating that he's concerned Russia's continued development of these delivery vehicles could pose a significant threat to the United States in the next decade if not addressed in a new version of the treaty.

A graphic showing U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles, and the arms reduction treaties that limited them, 1992-2013.

Russia, on the other hand, is largely content with maintaining the current scope of New START and has pushed back against these proposed changes. In addition to wanting to continue developing these strategic delivery systems for its own security purposes, Russia is also keen on leveraging its new "super weapons" to discuss limits on other U.S. weapons and technology that Moscow sees as particularly threatening — namely, Washington's efforts to develop ballistic missile defense technology. Some of the strategic weapons being developed by Moscow, such as the nuclear-powered cruise missile, are largely impractical, at least in the shorter term. It is therefore very plausible that Russia is deliberately hyping its development of these weapons systems to have something to bargain in a wider arms control agreement that would also include some of its own key priorities.

Anatoly Antonov, who is Russia's ambassador to the United States and was its lead negotiator on New START, reflected this on March 11 when he said his country would not be interested in expanding the treaty to other delivery systems — adding that such a change should be part of a wider discussion that also encompasses Moscow’s concerns over the United States' missile defenses and its military presence in Europe, as well as issues related to cybersecurity and the militarization of space.

Time Is of the Essence

Hashing out these fundamental disagreements over scope will thus require serious negotiations between Russia and the United States. But as the February 2021 deadline for New START's extension draws nearer, time is quickly running out to iron out the details on a treaty extension — much less agree on a revamped agreement. There is also a chance that the United States will postpone its decision on New START’s renewal until after the next presidential election in November 2020 — leaving even less time for serious negotiations on the treaty's fate.

As U.S.-Russia relations grow more hostile, so too grows the likelihood that New START will meet its demise in 2021.

With that said, as things stand today, a New START extension remains more likely than not — considering both Russia and the United States still generally view the arms control agreement as mutually beneficial. However, that probability continues to decrease in light of the approaching deadline and increasingly sour relations between the two great powers.

The looming demise of the INF Treaty, for one, has supercharged previously existing issues of mistrust and allegations of breaches between Moscow and Washington. The United States announced its decision to withdraw from the treaty in February 2019 after accusing Russia of developing weapons that violate the pact. Meanwhile, both sides' continued development of new weapons technology — including hypersonics, missile defenses and new nuclear warheads — is also driving the United States and Russia to rethink their remaining arms control agreements as a whole.

As U.S.-Russia relations grow more hostile, so too grows the likelihood that New START will meet its demise in 2021. Should that happen, the negotiation of a replacement treaty will be no easy feat either, given the remaining disagreements between the two countries — and could thus very well prove unfeasible, at least in the near future. What's more likely in the event of New START's dissolution, however, is that it will serve as yet another driver in the accelerating global arms race within the context of the great power competition between Russia and the United States.

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