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Tuesday, February 23, 2021, 16:31 (GMT+7)
Ups and downs of the New START Treaty

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is set to expire in February 2021. Over the course of 10 years’ implementation, the two sides faced a number of ups and downs and were on the verge of collapse. Nevertheless, the Treaty was extended at the last moment when the newly elected president Joe Biden had a talk with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.


If the limitation of strategic nuclear weapons is a matter of life or death for global security, the New START Treaty signed between American President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April 2010 after one year’s negotiation and officially entered into force on 5 February 2011 was considered a symbol of cooperation between the two leading nuclear powers in the world.

In early 1950s, strategic arms limitation was mentioned but, for different reasons, negotiations about “Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty” (SALT) between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) officially began in April 1970. After 2 years’ negotiation, SALT-I was officially signed. Accordingly, each party might have no more than 100 ballistic missile launchers at self-selected sites. The United States was limited to 1,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and 710 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). The Treaty limited the USSR to 1,409 ICBMs and 950 SLBMs. The Treaty limited many nuclear weapons, but there remained many issues that needed to be addressed. A more comprehensive document was negotiated between the United States and the USSR right after the ratification of SALT-I. However, no breakthroughs were achieved in negotiations. Then, SALT-II was signed between U.S. President Jimmy Carter and leader of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev at the Vienna Summit in June 1979. This highly anticipated treaty “died soon thereafter” since the United States postponed its actions in response to deployment of the Soviet troops to Afghanistan in December 1979.

On realising the importance of strategic arms limitation, the two superpowers quickly sought an alternative agreement. Accordingly, the United States and the USSR negotiated about “Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty” (START-I). The START-I, which was introduced by President Ronald Reagan in the United States on 9 May 1982 and officially signed between U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush and leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev on 31 July 1991, was regarded as the largest and most complex arms control treaty in history. The Treaty ran for 15 years and entered into force since 5 December 1994. It helped to remove approximately 80 per cent of existing nuclear weapons in the world when the two parties reduced their nuclear forces to 6,000 warheads apiece, ICBMs and bombers to 1,600 apiece. However, soon afterwards, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s possession of most the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons, Moscow and Washington had to negotiate a new treaty – START-II. This Treaty was signed by U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush and his counterpart Boris Yeltsin on 3 January 1993. Despite propitious negotiations and signing, START-II suffered the same unlucky fate. According to Moscow, START-II only survived on the condition that both sides adhered to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Consequently, START-II was officially dead when Washington withdrew from AMB Treaty in 2001. To fill this gap, the two sides signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), also known as Moscow Treaty. The Treaty entered into force on 1 June 2003. Accordingly, both Russia and the United States had to reduce their deployed nuclear forces to 2,200 warheads apiece.

After a long journey with some signed but unrealistic agreements, the New START Treaty, in essence, is a replacement for START-I and SORT. Experience and provisions of previous documents are the reasons for quick approval of this Treaty. In addition, the New START Treaty is simpler than START-I. If START-I requires 12 types of on-site inspection in 28 annual inspections and 152 types of notification, the New START Treaty requests only 2 types of on-site inspection in 18 annual inspections and 42 types of notification. Besides, the New START Treaty proves its complete superiority when providing both sides with greater flexibility. There is no longer a specific ceiling on heavy ICBM as well as limitation on modernisation of nuclear systems. The Treaty continues to lower ceilings on ICBM and SLBM. The delivery vehicles of the two types of missile as well as heavy bombers and accountable warheads were reduced from 1,600 to 800 and 6,000 to 1,500, respectively. Nevertheless, these provisions did not make the New START Treaty less important. Inspectors believed that the New START Treaty was more effective. Right after its conclusion, Russia considered this document a “golden standard” on strategic weapons control. The Treaty was to remain in force for 10 years and might be extended up to 5 years as stipulated by Article XIV of the Treaty.

The New START Treaty marks an important milestone in the control of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the world and is the first agreement on reduction of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era. Cooperation between the two nations with largest nuclear arsenals in the world is a good signal that heralds progress in U.S.-Russian relationship. Moreover, the signing of the New START Treaty has helped two countries to build strategic trust in a key issue, which paves the way for further reduction of nuclear weapons in the future. The Treaty clearly demonstrates that Russia and the United States still pursue their commitments to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Given its significant importance, this event is regarded as one of diplomatic accomplishments of President Barack Obama Administration, who proclaimed the commitment to non-proliferation policy since the onset of his presidency.

The thorny path to implementation

Given his “American first” stance, when Donald Trump entered the White House as President, he tended to withdraw from international agreements. Therefore, response to the proposal for extending the New START Treaty put forward by President Vladimir Putin at their first meeting was statements full of doubts about this document. According to President Donald Trump and his senior advisors, the New START Treaty was not a good deal for the United States because it did not include over 60 per cent of Russia’s strategic weapons. The Obama Administration was aware of this but had no concrete reactions. The Americans believed that Russia’s nuclear arsenal witnessed a steady rise in range, destructive power, and types of weapons. Russia also made huge investment in manufacturing infrastructure. This meant that Russia possessed more nuclear warheads than those laid down in the Treaty. Furthermore, this capability was being strengthened year after year. Therefore, the stance of President Donald Trump Administration was that the new agreement needed to include all nuclear warheads. Trump was not pleased that the New START Treaty affected only 45 per cent of Russia’s nuclear stockpile while it controlled from 90 to 92 per cent of the United States’ nuclear arsenal. The Trump Administration claimed that this was very disadvantageous to the United States, which potentially made Washington fall behind in the development of new strategic weapons.

A new proposal made by the 45th President of the United States for talks about extension of the New START Treaty was to expand the agreement to include China. According to the United States, the New START Treaty was a nuclear arms control agreement designed from Cold War worldview. This approach was no longer appropriate in a world where China was rigorously strengthening its defence capabilities. According to data provided by the Federation of American Scientists, Russia possessed the largest nuclear stockpile in the world with 6,370 warheads. It was followed by the United States and China with 5,800 and 320 warheads, respectively. Despite China’s smaller nuclear force, the Trump Administration claimed that China made massive investment in defence industry and intended to strengthen its nuclear force. China also had an ambition of becoming a superpower. Thus, China needed to act like a superpower and reverse the trend by participating in bilateral or trilateral talks. In answer to demands of the United States, China affirmed that it did not wish to join New START talks unless the United States was willing to reduce its nuclear arsenal to China’s level. Obviously, this was an impossible request. Consequently, the fate of the New START Treaty was still an unknown until President Donald Trump left the White House for Joe Biden who won the presidential election in November 2020.

A last-minute breakthrough

Leaders of Russia and the United States agreed to extend the New START Treaty for another 5 years in their first phone call. The Federation Council and State Duma of Russia immediately voted for this decision. The highly anticipated event helps the world to avoid the circumstance that the treaty between the two nuclear powers collapses. It is also a step in the right direction to reduce global tension.

Biden’s decision to extend the New START Treaty on his first days in office has proved his enthusiasm for strategic arms control and his seriousness for global security. In fact, President Joe Biden had taken part in arms control program for many years, since working as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and later Vice President during Barack Obama Administration. He was also the one who made a great deal of effort to promote the approval of the New START Treaty during the terms of the first African American president. He was committed to extending this Treaty for another 5 years without any preconditions.

Although the New START Treaty does not collapse and lasts until 2026, both parties do not have much time to begin negotiation about a new treaty. However, it is a crucial time to hopefully bring the United States back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) compliance. Although President Joe Biden has clearly expressed his position on opposing nuclear arms race and maintaining strategic stability between Russia and the United States, in his capacity as head of a nation, President Joe Biden cannot ignore the strengthening of defence capabilities by means of developing cutting-edge ballistic missiles. This is the key issue that ultimately decides success of negotiations between the two military powers about an effective arms control regime in the future.


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