STARTs and Stops: The Precarious State of U.S.-Russia Arms Control

The U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control establishment must be upheld to preclude a major reversion with severe consequences.

By Katherine Baughman 

April 10, 2017

Presidents Obama and Medvedev sign the New START in Prague on April 8, 2010 in Prague. Photo: Kremlin

The United States and the Russian Federation share special responsibilities in the sphere of nuclear arms control. Today, the combined nuclear arsenals of these two nations comprise more than 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons. Washington and Moscow also possess the most experience in nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. These factors make it all the more troubling that only two major bilateral arms control agreements currently bind the two nuclear powers: the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), which is of indefinite duration, and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is up for renewal in 2021.

Though most analysts agree that the INF Treaty corresponds with U.S. interests, the fragility of this agreement on the Russian side has long been a subject of concern in the U.S. foreign policy community. Russia’s intermediate-range periphery is host to many more potentially hostile nuclear powers than that of the United States, and the latter has accused Moscow of multiple violations of the treaty since its signing. Combined with the worsening prospects for U.S.-Russia rapprochement following National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s resignation and the investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, these factors incentivize Russian withdrawal from or further violation of the INF agreement.

The renewal or replacement of New START, on the other hand, was long considered a given. But in the current climate of unprecedented — and largely unpredictable — global and domestic politics, this key agreement for global stability is now also on uncertain ground.

The Benefits of New START

Russia has much to gain from its participation in New START. Firstly, the treaty allows Russia to keep a degree of oversight on U.S. nuclear capabilities. This structural element of the treaty benefits both parties. More importantly, nuclear arms agreements with the United States provide Russia with certain symbolic advantages. The treaty serves as a rare platform for Russia to be dealt with as an equal partner of the United States. This dynamic is central to the country’s self-legitimization as a great power with special status in the global sphere. Though some argue that Russia would be better served by the eventual replacement of New START than by its renewal, participation in the present framework serves Russian interests.

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New START also provides the United States with several key advantages. Firstly, as explained above, it allows detailed inspections of and certain controls on the Russian nuclear arsenal and program, providing Washington with valuable data on the volume and composition of Russia’s nuclear weaponry. Secondly, the treaty puts a cap on costly weaponry, and analysts suggest that the defense establishment is currently more than content with the volume allowed under the terms of the treaty. Lastly, a landmark arms control deal is a prestigious accomplishment for any administration, and it is still possible that President Trump will pursue the renewal of or a potential replacement for New START with this in mind.

Potential Threats to New START

The bilateral climate and domestic politics on both sides will play a deciding role in the likelihood of the treaty’s renewal. Although New START can be extended for five years after its expiration in 2021, this renewal is contingent upon the agreement of both parties. If a deal is not reached due to strained relations, including future Russian violations of or withdrawal from the INF treaty, it is possible that the United States Senate would not consent to approve a replacement. What’s more, the current administration has shown interest in bolstering anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense in Europe, an issue that Russia has long insisted is linked to offensive nuclear capabilities and should be curbed. This crucial and recurring area of disagreement could seriously hinder dialogue with Russia on the future of New START.

The Trump administration’s lack of experience on arms control constitutes another potential barrier to renewing New START. In his first phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin in February 2017, President Donald Trump allegedly dismissed New START, which he incorrectly termed “START-Up,” as a “bad deal” negotiated by former President Barack Obama that gave an unfair advantage to Russia. Though this statement could prove to be no more than bluster, many of Trump’s pronouncements have been followed by action in kind. If concrete policy, or lack thereof, follows rhetoric in this case, New START may be in jeopardy even before it is set to expire.

A World Without Bilateral Arms Control

Should U.S.-Russia relations worsen and should the above developments come to pass, the deterioration of arms control and the nonproliferation establishment will be among the unintended consequences. Under these circumstances, China may decide to break its current pattern of moderate nuclear growth, which could provoke a costly and dangerous arms race or, at the very least, a nullification of one or both bilateral treaties.

In a setting in which both New START and the INF are reneged upon, a return to an unregulated 1960s-era global nuclear configuration is plausible. This outcome would increase the likelihood of more states and non-state actors gaining nuclear capabilities, undermining decades of progress in nonproliferation. Such high-stakes scenarios must be avoided at all costs.

In an era of decreasing interest toward nuclear issues and of increasing multilateralism in the global nuclear environment, the fragile state of U.S.-Russia arms control is cause for serious concern. Neither Washington nor Moscow should dismiss or disregard the importance of these agreements and should be fully aware of the advantages they bring, as well as the potential consequences that they guard against. This understanding necessitates a concrete effort to ensure that President Trump is fully briefed and informed on the nuanced dynamics of New START. The U.S. defense establishment should also be more candid and vocal in its consultations with the Trump administration about its budgetary needs regarding nuclear arms. These steps would help to prevent a premature collapse of New START.

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Both Presidents Trump and Putin should actively work to strengthen the existing agreements, as well as the diplomatic foundations on which they are based. Substantive actions to this effect include both more caution on the Russian end in operating within the confines of the INF Treaty, and more careful deliberation on the U.S. end on the effectiveness, timing and manner of communicating concerns over violations to that fragile agreement. As demonstrated by North Korea’s hack of Sony Pictures in 2014, the government has a choice of whether and how to make announcements of violations to U.S. security and official agreements rather than quietly deal with the issue via diplomatic or other channels. The United States’ tendency to publically release accusations of Russian violations without disclosing the intelligence proving the violations has left European allies unable to back us in our claims in good conscience, limiting us to rather ineffective unilateral, official declarations. A de-emphasis or scaling back of rhetorical support for missile defense by the Trump administration would also help to ease tensions with Russia in the nuclear sphere. These measures, along with Senate hearings that highlight the numerous advantages of New START, will improve the likelihood that the agreement will be renewed or replaced in 2021.

Though it may seem to some to be composed of “bad deals” for one side or the other, the bilateral U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control establishment must be upheld to preclude a major reversion with severe geopolitical, military and, potentially, human costs. 


Katherine Baughman is a member of the 2016-2017 CGI Rising Experts Program and a current M.A. student at the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies (CERES) at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She graduated from Middlebury College summa cum laude with a B.A. in Russian and Eastern European Studies in May 2016.

The author would like to thank Angela Stent, Michael Kofman, Steven Pifer, Andrew Kuchins, and Alexander Golts for their invaluable input, assistance and time in the preparation of this essay.

The Center on Global Interests does not take institutional positions. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the affiliated institutions or individuals.



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