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

The writer is a lecturer at Stanford University, former deputy secretary-general of Nato and previously the US chief negotiator on New Start

The US has just declared Russia to be in non-compliance with the New Start treaty, the last remaining legally binding measure between the two countries to control nuclear arms. The issues are straightforward: Washington has asked to restore on-site inspections, which both sides suspended during the pandemic, and requested a meeting of the treaty’s implementation body. Moscow has refused on both counts.

These issues are easy to fix. Russia is not violating the central limits of the treaty, which put a cap for both countries on deployment of warheads at a maximum of 1,550 on 700 delivery vehicles (missiles and bombers). New Start continues to keep the overall numbers of both Moscow’s and Washington’s nuclear forces under control. But by refusing important implementation obligations, Russia is beginning to tear at the fabric of the treaty. This is particularly worrying at a time when Vladimir Putin has made veiled threats about the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine.

The question is, why? It is manifestly in Russia’s national interest to keep the treaty alive. The US is embarking on a modernisation of strategic nuclear forces which will take the next two decades. During that period, it will be calculating its response to the emergence of two peer nuclear competitors, China as well as Russia. There will inevitably be pressure from some quarters to boost nuclear weapon systems beyond the New Start quotas. 

Russia itself should be wary of the shiny new triads of nuclear submarines, bombers and ballistic missiles under development in the US and China. Although Moscow will never admit the challenge from Beijing, the two faced off in their own version of the Cuban missile crisis in 1969, when both issued nuclear threats during their border conflict along the Ussuri River.

Like the US, Russia would do well to persuade China to come to the table to talk about its nuclear modernisation plans. Will Beijing be willing to place constraints on its nuclear build-up? Will it be amenable to discussing its future nuclear objectives?

Such predictability has so far been the most valuable dividend of the nuclear agreements that the US and USSR, now Russia, have had in place for the past 50 years. It has allowed both countries to plan and prioritise their military forces, rather than blindly throwing money at nuclear weapons. They have concentrated overwhelmingly on conventional forces, which have war-fighting potential that nuclear weapons cannot match. The emphasis with nuclear weapons is on deterrence, rather than use on the battlefield.

But if New Start falters, and China pursues its build-up without any curbs, then all three capitals will be forced to sink extra money into nuclear systems at a time when new technologies are driving a revolution in conventional weapons. The drone warfare on display in Ukraine is a case in point. All three would be better off investing in this arena, where wars of the future will be fought, rather than in nuclear weapons — a 70-year-old technology that everyone agrees should stay on the shelf.

However, Russian officials seem to be in some alternative universe, seeking to leverage New Start 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 breaking off contact. Two weeks later, his deputy Sergei Ryabkov pressed publicly for the package of demands that Russia rolled out prior to its invasion of Ukraine a year ago. They included demands for Nato to pull back to 1997 borders and for Ukraine to disarm. He indicated that progress on nuclear arms control is dependent on these measures — which are not going to happen.

At this fraught moment, perhaps it was inevitable that Moscow would link New Start to Nato and Ukraine. However, until now, Washington and Moscow have been able to maintain work on issues that are in their mutual interest no matter how poor the state of the overall relationship. Even in the current deep freeze, they negotiated a prisoner exchange that brought basketball star Brittney Griner home.

Sustaining New Start is no less in the interest of both countries. The treaty ensures that our bilateral nuclear future is clear and predictable. It provides a moral, political and technical backdrop against which we can each engage China. And it means that we will not again build up to the 12,000 nuclear weapons that we readied, one against the other, by the Cold War’s end.

Letter in response to this article:

New Start nuclear arms treaty is worth fighting for / From Admiral Lord West of Spithead, House of Lords, London SW1, UK

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