Former U.S. President Barak Obama and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sign the New START treaty in 2010.
Former U.S. President Barak Obama and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sign the New START treaty in 2010.

New START Expires in 3 Years and Nobody Knows What Comes Next

February 06, 2018
Nikolai Sokov

This article originally appeared in The National Interest with the subheading: "It is almost inconceivable that the United States and Russia will conclude a new treaty in the remaining three years of New START’s life."

February 5 marked the seventh anniversary of the entry into force of the New START Treaty. That treaty was signed by U.S. president Barack Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 and entered into force on February 5, 2011; all deadlines are counted from that date. By the end of the seven-year period, the two countries should complete reductions mandated by that document—that is, comply with the following limits:

- No more than 1,550 warheads on deployed strategic delivery vehicles (ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers);

- No more than seven hundred deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers equipped with nuclear arms; and

- No more than eight hundred deployed and undeployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers and heavy bombers equipped with nuclear arms.

There is little doubt that both countries will meet their obligations without much effort. They have been hovering around the level of 1,550 warheads for years; the limits on delivery vehicles and launchers are also comfortable (in fact, Russia is significantly below them). According to data exchanged on September 1, 2017, figures for the United States were 1,393 warheads, 660 delivery vehicles, and 800 launchers and bombers; for Russia, 1,561, 501 and 790. The “dip” in U.S. levels below New START limits is temporary—the U.S. Navy was in the process of reducing the number of launch tubes on submarines from twenty-four to twenty, and each submarine is not counted for the duration of refurbishing. On the Russian side, the pace of reductions is primarily determined by the pace of dismantlement of old, Soviet-produced weapons systems; the process has been moving ahead steadily, and there is little doubt that numbers will reach the 1,550 level in time.

New START has a ten-year lifespan, meaning that is set to expire on February 5, 2021. The remaining three years of its life are likely to be smooth and uncontroversial: the United States and Russia will only need to adhere to these levels, which will hardly cause any complications. A more pertinent question is what will come next.

New START: What It Did and Didn’t Achieve

Seen in the context of more than forty years of U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russian arms control, New START is a fairly simple treaty—a stopgap measure to save the faltering arms-control process and perhaps pave the way for a more comprehensive agreement. Its main purpose was certainly not as a step toward nuclear disarmament, even though its text refers to Article VI of the Nonproliferation Treaty, and American and Russian representatives seek to depict it as such in multilateral fora. Its main purpose was to restore the transparency and predictability that were lost with the expiration of the 1991 START I Treaty in 2009, and New START did that job in a satisfactory manner.

By the end of the previous decade, strategic nuclear arms control was in dire straits. START I was a good and balanced treaty, but it was conceived in the last years of the Cold War. Consequently, its limits on strategic nuclear weapons were too high, at six thousand warheads for each side. It was excessively prescriptive on how each party was allowed to maintain and operate its forces, and its verification system, although highly efficient, was too cumbersome and expensive. These drawbacks were not the fault of negotiators: in the late 1980s, six thousand warheads represented a very significant reduction. Trust between the parties was still low, and there was little experience with designing and operating an efficient verification system. It was a good treaty whose time had probably passed by the end of the 1990s. As both the United States and Russia continued to reduce their strategic arsenals well below the START I limits and acquired significant experience with verification, the need for a new treaty became increasingly apparent.

Yet two attempts to negotiate a replacement failed. START II was signed in 1993, but never entered into force, and was formally abandoned by Russia in 2002 after the United States withdrew from the 1972 ABM Treaty. In 1997, the two countries agreed on a framework for a new treaty, which could have become START III, but negotiations were still in an early stage by the time the White House passed from the Democrats to the Republicans in 2000, and talks did not resume in 2001.

In its place, the George W. Bush administration proposed a much simpler arrangement—effectively a joint statement, with a promise of significant new reductions. Although it was given, at Moscow’s insistence, the status of a legally binding treaty, in essence 2002’s Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) remained little more than a joint statement. More importantly, it lacked its own verification mechanism, while the START I verification system was poorly designed to confirm compliance with the central limit of 2,200 deployed nuclear warheads. With the planned expiration of START I, SORT was set to remain without any verification whatsoever—yet the George W. Bush administration remained unenthusiastic about concluding a new treaty.

Barack Obama’s administration, which came to the White House in January 2009, had only limited time to address the problem. What the United States and Russia needed most of all was the restoration of the transparency and verification system. Extension of START I was possible, but not desirable, because the treaty itself was outdated. The two countries needed something smoother, more flexible and less expensive.

To fully assess the role that New START played in the history of U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russian arms control, it is worth recalling that the central mission of any arms-control treaty is predictability: it is supposed to provide each party with reasonably solid knowledge of the security landscape (in this case, the strategic nuclear balance) in future years. The absence of predictability is likely to trigger fear of aggression, worsening political relations or even an arms race. Quantitative and qualitative limitations obviously play an important role as well, but they are not particularly useful without predictability. Verification can enhance the quality of the treaty as well, but has limited value in the absence of other components.

START I was perhaps the most balanced treaty, bringing together limitations, verification and predictability in almost equal shares. During the next decade, treaties increasingly came to emphasize limitations over other components. Accordingly, the main mission of New START was to rebalance that drift, although it did also provide for about a one-third reduction of the two countries’ strategic nuclear forces. The system of limitations and verification is significantly simpler than that of START I making its implementation less cumbersome and much cheaper. All in all, it is a good treaty that achieves the task it was designed for.

What New START Doesn’t Resolve

However, by design, New START has limited scope, and did not fully address some important issue areas:

- Missile defense. Russia continues to operate on the same assumptions that underlay the 1972 ABM Treaty: namely, that unlimited development of defenses is bound to hurt the strategic balance and could trigger an arms race in offensive weapons. Put differently, the lack of predictability in defensive weapons undermines predictability in offensive weapons. New START only made a broad reference to the existence of a relationship between offensive and defensive weapons, but did not limit the latter in any way.

- Conventional strategic weapons. The United States’ virtual monopoly in long-range conventional weapons used to be (and to extent remains) a key concern for Russia. Such weapons are not only usable, in contrast to nuclear weapons, but have been used in several conflicts, beginning with the 1991 Gulf War. New START allowed the United States to have at least a hundred delivery vehicles with conventional warheads, and to increase their number at the expense of nuclear weapons if necessary. Moscow accepted that compromise, but has never treated it as fully satisfactory.

- Tactical nuclear weapons. Russia’s superiority in that category has always been a major concern for the United States and its allies. New START is limited to strategic weapons and thus has left tactical nuclear weapons completely untouched.

In fairness, there was little chance to resolve these long-standing major issues in the short time the two countries had to finalize New START. On the other hand, it was designed to remain in force for at least ten years, providing seemingly sufficient time to address them during subsequent negotiations.

Unfortunately, the parties have failed to achieve any progress on these and other issues since the entry into force of New START. In 2013, President Obama proposed an additional one-third reduction of strategic nuclear weapons within the framework of New START, which could be implemented through an executive agreement without going through a painful and controversial ratification process. Moscow, however, refused to even consider that offer, saying that it was wrong to concentrate on just one element of the overall strategic balance (nuclear weapons) without addressing the others (primarily missile defense and long-range conventional weapons). The Trump administration inherited this impasse.

What Next?

It is almost inconceivable that the United States and Russia will conclude a new treaty in the remaining three years of New START’s life. There are four main obstacles, and any one of them can derail such an endeavor.

First, negotiations on a new treaty to replace New START cannot commence anytime soon. The Trump administration has begun, like its predecessors, with a Nuclear Posture Review, which has just been published. The next step is the adoption of implementation documents, which are supposed to translate strategy into specific programs. Until the desired shape of the U.S. nuclear posture is clarified, position for negotiations cannot be developed. In practical terms, this means that the United States can hardly have a detailed position until the end of 2018 or, more likely, early 2019. Two years is not enough for negotiations and ratification, or even for negotiations alone, given the complexity of the issues that need to be resolved. This means that even under the best of circumstances, the two countries will have to live without a treaty for an unknown period of time.

In a broader context, the United States and Russia have unintentionally stumbled into the same asynchronous replacement-and-modernization cycle that plagued arms control throughout the Cold War. Namely, at the time when one country was preparing to replace aging weapons systems (and was interested in establishing stricter quantitative and qualitative limitations that would allow them to save money), the other was already completing such a cycle and was seeking to secure the investment (consequently trying to design limitations that would accommodate the existing and projected force). A few years later the roles would be reversed. Today, Russia is completing a large-scale program to replace weapons systems inherited from the Soviet Union with brand-new ones; the bulk of investment has already been made and this represents at least partial explanation why Moscow objected to Barack Obama’s proposal for a one-third reduction in the New START-mandated level. The United States, in contrast, is only beginning such a cycle, and is thus not only more flexible with regard to the shape of the future treaty, but might also be receptive to additional reductions, which could allow it to save funds required for a future posture.

The 1987 INF Treaty casts a long and dark shadow over any U.S.-Russian arms-control negotiations. The United States has formally found Russia in material breach of that treaty by testing and, more recently, deploying a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range above five hundred and below 5,500 kilometers; the INF Treaty bans all ground-launched missiles, both ballistic and cruise, within that range. Russia denies that charge and has, instead, accused the United States of several treaty violations. The most significant of them is the claim that the Aegis Ashore missile-defense system, which is being deployed in Romania, can launch not just defense interceptors, but also Tomahawk-type cruise missiles. There is no doubt in U.S. policy circles that Russia violated the treaty: Congress recently authorized research and development of a new GLCM (such work will not constitute a violation of the treaty until testing begins). Until the INF compliance issue is resolved, talks on a new treaty are virtually impossible.

Without doubt, Russia made a strategic mistake when it chose not to take American accusations seriously at the time they were communicated through confidential channels (2008–11). If it had, it could limit damage to the arms-control process at large. Perhaps it was possible to address the charges at a later date with somewhat greater damage. Since 2014, when problems in the bilateral relations began to mount, it has become exceedingly difficult to find a solution, and even should one be found, damage to arms control will be significant, perhaps near fatal. An option that is informally discussed these days is reciprocal demonstrations of systems that cause concern: the suspected Russian GLCM and Aegis Ashore. That option might have been feasible several years ago; it still holds promise, but only barely.

Moreover, the political climate in the United States is highly unfavorable to a new round of arms-control negotiations, given the state of U.S.-Russian relations. The crisis is multifaceted, involving the issues of Ukraine, Syria and, above all international controversies, the accusation of Russian meddling in the U.S. election in 2016. The current state of U.S.-Russian relations is certainly the worst since the end of the Cold War, and possibly since the early 1950s. Simply put, negotiations with Russia on anything, much less an issue so sensitive and central to national security, are almost out of the question. It will take years of patient efforts to recreate even a minimally acceptable atmosphere for resumption of the arms-control process.

Last, but not least, is the sheer complexity of the arms-control agenda. The issues that have prevented progress since the conclusion of New START have not disappeared. The controversy over missile defense has remained the same and, although a compromise is not infeasible, it would require a major decision, which is difficult to imagine in the strained political atmosphere. The issue of long-range conventional weapons, on the other hand, is changing. Formally, the American and Russian positions remain the same, but since 2015 the United States has lost the monopoly on these assets. In Moscow, one can hear voices—albeit unofficially—that further discussion of that issue, as well as nuclear-arms reduction, should wait until Russia has time to build up its long-range conventional capability. It seems almost inevitable that the American position will have to change, and that these weapons will eventually be included in the agenda, but there is no precedent for limitations on long-range conventional weapons. Finding common ground will be difficult and time-consuming. These challenges could further grow if and when testing of long-range hypersonic weapons begins.

In 2017, the United States and Russia launched a dialogue on strategic stability. Little is known about it, but there are reasons to believe meetings are businesslike and professional, and address all issues of substance. This appears to be the right decision under the current circumstances. The arms-control agenda needs to be reformulated; to do so, the discussion has to address a broad array of challenges, at first without direct implications for a possible future agreement. If the structure of arms control is falling apart, the parties need to begin with laying a new foundation; hopefully these consultations will help achieve that task. It will take significant time, but since a new treaty is not on the horizon, it is best to approach the task methodically, step by step, taking as much time as necessary. We can only hope that the process will continue in the same manner in which it has started.

A Quick Fix: Extension of New START

New START allows for a five-year extension. This appears the only feasible option, and also a highly desirable one in the current atmosphere. The extension will not require congressional action; it can be implemented through an exchange of notes between the two governments. It will not resolve any issues, but can buy the United States and Russia extra time to sort out the highly complex, controversial and even confrontational bilateral agenda.

Perhaps more importantly, the extension will preserve the transparency, predictability and verification framework, thus avoiding the gap that emerged after the expiration of START I. Then, the gap only lasted a bit over a year; today, such a gap could be considerably longer. It would serve no one to lose predictability of the strategic balance, hence the extension will be in the interests of the United States as much as Russia.

Moscow has already proposed such an extension, but Washington has not yet responded. That silence is understandable: the U.S. government had to wait for the new Nuclear Posture Review, and even such a small step might be controversial in the current political climate. Luckily, there are at least two more years, perhaps a bit longer, in which to make that decision. It is a quick fix, a stopgap measure, but that is the best that can be done today and in the near future. Doing nothing—allowing New START to expire—would be much, much worse.

New Developments

The seventh anniversary of New START, instead of being a cause for celebration, brought in a new dark cloud. A statement made by the Russian Foreign Ministry on February 5 questioned the procedures used by the United States to convert some launchers of SLBMs and B-52 heavy bombers. It appears that the “INF disease” of mutual accusations of violation has spread to New START, which appeared the only remaining uncontroversial arms-control agreement. While there is little doubt that New START will survive until 2021, even its extension no longer seems as assured as only a few days ago.

In principle, these issues are of a technical nature and can be resolved with relative ease, but there appears to be little appetite for cooperation and compromise on both sides, and it remains to be seen whether Moscow will want to use the new issue to undermine the process. The new developments make early extension of New START a high priority—the parties need to move forward before a new conflict undermines the chance.


Nikolai Sokov

Nikolai Sokov is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.