U.S. & Russia extend New START nuclear treaty for five years
In this March 10, 2011, file photo, then-Vice President Joe Biden, left, shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia. Russia and the United States exchanged documents Tuesday Jan. 26, 2021, to extend the New START nuclear treaty, their last remaining arms control pact, the Kremlin said. The Kremlin readout of a phone call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin said they voiced satisfaction with the move. The extension deal just signed is a reminder that the U.S. and Russia have common interests despite being described as "adversaries" by most of the media. | Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Thanks to a process set in motion by the Biden administration on its first full day in office, the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, set to expire Feb. 5, has been extended for the maximum possible five years.

The New START treaty, negotiated in 2010 under President Obama and imperiled by Donald Trump’s addiction to abandoning international agreements, will now be in force until early 2026. Between them, the U.S. and Russia account for some 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.

During his campaign, Joe Biden had said he wanted to extend New START, and the Russian government had also said it wanted to extend the agreement. On Jan. 21 – his first full day in office – Biden formally proposed a five-year extension to the Russian government. He and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked about the treaty during their first phone call Jan. 26. The next day, both houses of the Russian Parliament voted unanimously to extend the treaty for five years; in the U.S., the extension didn’t require Congressional approval.

Formally announcing the extension on Feb. 3, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the treaty’s verification regime “enables us to monitor Russian compliance” and “provides us with greater insight into Russia’s nuclear posture, including through data exchanges and onsite inspections that allow U.S. inspectors to have eyes on Russian nuclear forces and facilities.” He emphasized that the U.S. has determined Russia has consistently been in compliance with New START since the treaty became effective in 2011.

“Especially during times of tension,” Blinken said, “verifiable limits on Russia’s intercontinental-range nuclear weapons are vitally important. Extending the New START Treaty makes the United States, U.S. allies and partners, and the world safer. An unconstrained nuclear competition would endanger us all.”

Blinken said during the extension, the Biden administration will negotiate further arms control with Russia, and will also pursue arms control measures with China.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty replaced the 1991 START I treaty and the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), signed during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. It continues the path those treaties set, to control and gradually lower the deployment of nuclear weapons under strict conditions of verification.

Though it was clear the treaty was approaching expiration, the Trump administration stalled and slow-walked matters until last October, when after a weeklong flurry of exchanges with the Russian government, a possibility of last-minute talks for a one-year extension emerged – a prospect that failed when Russia rejected conditions Trump sought to impose.

New START limits nuclear warheads deployed on each country’s strategic (long-range) launching vehicles to 1,550 and limits the ballistic missiles and bombers on which the warheads can be deployed to 700. Though the treaty doesn’t limit the number of warheads each country has in storage, these are continuously monitored to make sure they are not deployed.

Leaders in the arms control and disarmament community see the extension of New START as a crucial first step toward achieving a nuclear-weapons-free world.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, applauded the “business-like, no-nonsense” decision by the two presidents to go for the maximum extension under the treaty. He said in a statement that maintaining New START “will enhance U.S. and global security, curtail dangerous nuclear arms racing,” and create conditions for “more ambitious steps” moving towards a nuclear-weapons-free world.

Kimball added that the extension should be the beginning of U.S.-Russian nuclear disarmament talks because both countries have a special responsibility and a national interest in eventually eliminating their “bloated, costly and deadly” nuclear arsenals. He urged Biden and Putin to quickly start talks for a follow-on agreement for deeper cuts and to try to engage the other nuclear weapons states in the disarmament process.

The treaty was quickly approved this week by the Duma, the Russian Parliament. In the U.S. the treaty does not have to be approved by Congress for it to take effect. | The State Duma, The Federal Assembly of The Russian Federation via AP

On the eve of President Biden’s inauguration, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Board Chair Jerry Brown, former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, and Stanford University International History Professor David Holloway pointed out that despite very difficult relations between the two countries, Russia is “an essential partner in managing the global nuclear order.” That partnership made the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty possible during Soviet times, and more recently, the Iran Nuclear Deal negotiated under President Obama.

“In light of this,” they said, “your announced intention to extend New START … is absolutely the right step to take … When things are bad – as they are now – is precisely the time to talk.”

Laura Grego, Senior Scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote on Jan. 26 that extending New START “provides the opportunity and necessary time to pursue a new generation of arms control agreements. This is no time to stop.”

To prepare for the next, challenging round of negotiations, she added, “the Biden administration should undertake a fundamental reassessment of how nuclear weapons, strategic missile defense, and the inevitable interaction between them undermine our national security.”

The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation called extending New START “an important action” by the U.S. and Russia, especially after the Trump administration’s four years of undermining and withdrawing from arms control agreements.

“However,” NAPF said, “it’s important to remember that it is not a disarmament step – it’s simply an extension of the current levels of nuclear arsenals … we must view it as just one step in the larger picture of total nuclear disarmament. There is still much work to be done.”

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Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.