Opinion | Why the New START Extension Could Be the End of Arms Control as We Know It

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The arms control community can breathe a sigh of relief now that the United States and Russia agreed on Wednesday to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last remaining U.S.-Russian arms control treaty, for another five years. Had the treaty, which limits the deployed strategic nuclear weapons of each country to 1,550, been allowed to expire, there would have been nothing left to limit the size of the two countries’ strategic arsenals.

We should enjoy the moment while it lasts, because the version of strategic arms control that has been a major feature of U.S-Russian relations—bilateral, treaty-based, verifiable—is nearing the end of its life. Once the extended New START expires five years from now, there is virtually no chance that another negotiated treaty will be waiting to succeed it. New ways of managing the U.S.-Russian strategic competition are needed to address not only the numerical “balance of terror,” but to also manage new technologies that promise to be far more destabilizing than one side’s mere superiority in strategic nuclear warheads or missiles.

The obstacles in the way of progress in arms control are both political and substantive. First, politics. The New START extension was done by executive agreement in accordance with the treaty’s provisions. Any new treaty would have to gain Senate approval by a two-thirds majority. With the 50-50 split in the deeply polarized chamber, getting 16 Republicans to support a new treaty with Russia will be a struggle—and that’s assuming that all Democrats will support another treaty, which is not a foregone conclusion.

There are also sound substantive arguments that need to be addressed before any new treaty with Russia can be signed. In 2019, the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which called for the elimination of U.S. and Russian missiles with ranges of up to 5,500 kilometers, because it established as early as 2014 that Russia had violated it. That finding was endorsed by all U.S. NATO allies. Russia has denied the charge.

The INF Treaty is gone, but the question remains: Did Russia cheat, or did the United States and its allies get it all wrong? If it’s the former, why would the United States sign another treaty with a country that has breached a cornerstone of the entire arms-control edifice? If it’s the latter, the United States needs to take a serious look at how it monitors treaties before it signs another.

Some in the arms control community argue that because Russia has cheated only on the INF Treaty, but has not cheated on the New START Treaty, which limits longer-range missiles, a new treaty to reduce the latter category of weapons makes sense. That’s like saying that someone can be trusted because he cheats only in poker, but not in blackjack. It is hard to imagine that the U.S. Senate will ratify another arms control treaty of any kind with Russia until the INF controversy is resolved.

Russia’s violation of another major—this time multilateral—treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, will likely be another sticking point in negotiations over new treaties in the future. Russian security personnel have used Novichok, a banned nerve agent, in two known assassination attempts in recent years—against Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020 and former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in 2018. Both uses have been confirmed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. As with its violation of the INF Treaty, Russia has also denied these reports. These controversies, too, will have to be resolved before any administration could win Senate approval for a new arms control treaty.

And there is more. The existing U.S-Russian strategic arms-control framework does nothing to limit the arms race in areas that are most threatening and destabilizing to the balance of terror between the United States and Russia.

The existing framework limits operationally deployed strategic warheads and delivery vehicles and includes a robust verification regime, which has served both countries well. But it is concerned mostly with numbers, and not qualities, of weapons. Both Russia and the United States are pursuing high-precision long-range conventional weapons and cyber and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities—the kind of weapons whose stealthy and destructive potential matters far more than quantity.

New technologies are also blurring the lines between conventional and nuclear weapons, and some cyber and AI capabilities will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to verify. If the U.S.-Russian arms control relationship is to continue and remain meaningful, both sides will need to come up with new approaches beyond negotiated treaties and intrusive verification regimes.

After the three post-Cold War decades of unconstrained ambition in U.S. overseas pursuits, a new concept—restraint—is making inroads in the lexicon of U.S. foreign policy. It’s time to apply it to arms control as well and explore its applicability to managing the strategic balance with Russia.

There is much conceptual work to be done here on both sides, and there is little evidence that either side is ready to embrace this approach now. But there are precedents in the history of competition between Moscow and Washington going back to the Cuban Missile Crisis, when restraint and quiet mutual concessions not based on any treaty proved pivotal in steering the relationship from the brink of disaster.

The United States quietly agreed to withdraw its nuclear-armed missiles from Turkey to get the Soviet Union to remove its missiles from Cuba in 1962. The Reagan Administration observed the limits of the SALT II Treaty in the 1980s even though the United States did not ratify it after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

In the same spirit, the United States could refrain from deploying new land-based missiles in Europe that could reach targets deep in the Russian heartland, even though it can do so after the demise of the INF Treaty. There are other unilateral steps the United States could consider. If Russia reciprocates, it could be a step toward a new framework for managing the competition; if not, those steps can always be reversed.

With the five-year extension of New START, the United States and Russia got a reprieve to come up with new ways to manage their strategic competition. They should use this time to engage in a no-holds-barred dialogue about their differences and to think boldly and creatively beyond the established framework that is bound to run into the insurmountable twin obstacles of political headwinds and conceptual obsolescence.

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