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New START and the Prospects for Weapons Limitation in Russian-American Relations

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Evgeny Buzhinsky

Now that the New START Treaty is extended, the parties need to make efforts to work out a realistic new agreement that takes into account as many of the parties’ concerns as possible, but it should not set impossible tasks as a precondition, writes Valdai Club expert Evgeny Buzhinsky.

Following the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the difficulties with the extension of the Prague Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (New START), which arose during the Trump administration, it seemed that nearly fifty years of nuclear arms control history had come to an end.

If New START had ceased to exist on February 5 this year, the nuclear arms control system would have been completely dismantled, after which the question of the viability of the NPT and CTBT would obviously arise.

In addition, the destruction of this system would most likely lead to an uncontrolled multilateral arms race, including strategic land-based and submarine-based missiles, medium-range missiles, non-strategic nuclear weapons, as well as space strike systems, cyber and laser weapons, and many other innovative weapons systems.

As a consequence, the concept of strategic stability based on transparency and predictability would disappear and the threat of armed conflicts would increase, which could well develop into a global nuclear catastrophe.

Fortunately, the above-described scenario for the development of events in the field of nuclear arms control has not been implemented.

US President Joe Biden, almost immediately after taking office, made a decision to extend the New START Treaty for five years practically on Russian terms, i.e. in the form in which it was signed in 2010. The only reason the Americans conditioned the extension of the Treaty was the start of negotiations on the next agreement in the field of nuclear weapons, during which, obviously, all the questions that the previous administration put as preconditions for the extension of New START will be raised, namely, the involvement of China, limitation of new types of nuclear weapons that have appeared in the arsenal of the Russian Federation and, most importantly, limitation of non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW). In turn, Russia also has its own concerns, namely the US global missile defence system and American plans to militarise space. In early February, the parties exchanged diplomatic notes on the completion of domestic procedures and the New START Treaty entered into force for the next five years, until February 5, 2026.

Yes, the existing system of nuclear arms control is bilateral, but only for one reason: the nuclear potential of the United States and Russia are incomparable with those of other countries that possess nuclear weapons. At the same time, the idea of translating this system into a multilateral format is becoming more and more popular.

Moreover, some very authoritative experts argue that in modern conditions it has become impossible to control new types of weapons and military technologies using old treaties and agreements, which should be replaced by multilateral forums, where the preconditions for nuclear disarmament should be developed and the foundations of nuclear deterrence should be strengthened, based on transparency and predictability. In their opinion, the current arms control crisis was inevitable and does not pose a great danger; it is possible to exist without formal agreements on the arms limitation and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Do these ideas have a chance of being implemented in the foreseeable future? I am certain that they don’t.

First, multilateral nuclear arms control, as well as multilateral nuclear deterrence, is extremely unlikely, due to the clear superiority in nuclear weapons of the United States and Russia, which account for 92 percent of the global nuclear potential (there are 14,500 nuclear warheads in the world, including those in reserve and pending disposal).

Second, there is virtually no such thing as multilateral nuclear deterrence. For example, India and Israel are not concerned with the size and condition of the nuclear capabilities of Russia, the United States, Britain and France. India is concerned about the nuclear capabilities of China and Pakistan, and Israel is concerned about the nuclear capabilities of Pakistan and Iran’s military nuclear programme. Russia is pursuing a policy of nuclear deterrence of NATO forces led by the United States and possibly Pakistan, but not China or India. China, in turn, is aiming at nuclear deterrence for the United States and India, but not Pakistan and Russia.

Third, it is practically impossible to create a multilateral system of control over the respective arsenals of the countries possessing nuclear weapons, due to their obvious imbalances.

And finally, the beginning of multilateral negotiations of the actual possessors of nuclear weapons should be preceded by the recognition of at least India and Pakistan (and possibly Israel and the DPRK) as nuclear powers in the context of the NPT.

I think that the existing model of nuclear arms control has not completely outlived its usefulness.

It should be noted that for decades the strategic offensive arms reduction treaties between the United States and the USSR/Russia ensured strategic stability by maintaining a balance of nuclear potentials and by providing for the exchange of comprehensive information on the status of strategic offensive nuclear forces and plans for their modernisation. This stability was achieved via hundreds of on-site inspections, transmitted notifications on the status and transportation of nuclear weapons, and the exchange of telemetry information on the launches of ICBMs and SLBMs.

The accumulated experience indicates that the absence of this information would inevitably lead to an overestimation of the capabilities of the opposite side and, consequently, to a quantitative and qualitative increase in their own arsenals. It is believed that in the absence of the Treaty, Russia and the United States can compensate the lack of information at the expense of their national capability. The possibilities for space exploration are rather limited. For example, satellites are unable to determine the number of warheads on ICBMs and SLBMs.

After the extension of the existing Treaty, the parties have already agreed to begin consultations on the conclusion of a new agreement which would possibly cover of additional types of weapons.

There are a number of weapons of concern to each of the parties to be included into a possible further agreement.

First of all, these are air, land and sea-based cruise missiles with a range of more than 600 km, space-based strike systems, hypersonic gliding units, unmanned aerial attack vehicles, as well as uninhabited underwater strike systems such as Russia, Poseidon. Some of them, for example, Russia’s Avangard hypersonic gliding block, can be relatively easily incorporated into the warhead counting rules, since they are slated to be equipped with heavy Sarmat ICBMs. The inclusion into common ceilings for air-launched cruise missiles, which was already provided for by the provisions of START I and START II, should not be problematic either. Technically mutually acceptable solutions can also be found for land-based and sea-based cruise missiles.

The situation is more complicated with space strike systems and attack UAVs, which have never been the subject of the restrictive provisions of any arms control agreements. At the same time, with regard to offensive and defensive space-based systems, the greatest concern for both Russia and the United States is caused by anti-satellite systems, which include non-nuclear interceptor missiles, laser components and electronic warfare components. This type of weapon poses the main threat to missile attack warning systems.

The issue of unmanned underwater systems is even more difficult, since any agreements in the field of arms control are based on the principles of parity and reciprocity. If one of the parties has such a system and the other does not, reaching a mutually acceptable agreement seems problematic.

And, of course, a completely special type of armed struggle is cyber weapons; the achievement of any restrictive agreements regarding them is hardly possible due to a whole range of organisational (inability to identify a state or non-state source of threat) and technical difficulties.

In conclusion, it is better to mention two more types of weapons that Russia and the United States insist on limiting. For Russia, these are anti-missile systems and the deployment of combat systems in space, for the United States — non-strategic nuclear weapons. It is hardly possible to restrict one of these types without affecting others in the foreseeable future. At the same time, the most difficult issue is the limitation of NSNW. The fact is that all the Russian NSNW are in storage, while the American arsenal is warehoused, in a partly deployed state at air force bases in five Western European countries. Neither Russia nor the United States have any experience in controlling nuclear warheads in storage. Moreover, even technically, neither Russian nor American experts clearly understand how this can be done. There are various theoretical options for implementing such control, but they are either technically very difficult or extremely expensive. In addition, if the problem of controlling warheads in storage is resolved, the Americans would either have to withdraw their NSNW to US soil and store it there, or allow Russian inspectors to visit their air bases in Europe.

Some experts propose, in parallel with the negotiations on a new agreement on strategic offensive arms control, resuming bilateral consultations on strategic stability issues, during which doctrinal issues would be discussed, including the sides’ views on the use of nuclear weapons, including non-strategic ones, the issue of missile defence, strategic high-precision weapons systems in conventional equipment, hypersonic weapons, the possible militarisation of outer space and cyber security.

In the context of the ongoing US accusations of Russian and Chinese hacking of one or another system of state and party administration, the parties simply need to agree on a ban on cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure related to nuclear weapons: communications satellites, missile warning systems, attack, control and communication systems.

Now that the New START Treaty is extended, the parties need to make efforts to work out a realistic new agreement that takes into account as many of the parties’ concerns as possible, but it should not set impossible tasks as a precondition.