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Last major nuclear arms pact could expire with no replacement, Russia says

President Vladimir Putin’s government has said that Russia hopes to renew or revise the treaty — but that the negotiations to revise it would have to begin immediately.

By: New York Times |
Updated: November 2, 2019 7:46:02 am
Last major nuclear arms pact could expire with no replacement, Russia says President Donald Trump, front, walks past President Vladimir Putin of Russia as they and other heads of state take their places for a group photo at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times/File)

Written by Richard Pérez-Peña, Ivan Nechepurenko and David E. Sanger

A Russian arms control official said for the first time on Friday that there was not enough time to replace the last and most important nuclear arms-limitation treaty with the United States before it expires early in 2021, raising the possibility that Washington and Moscow would then be free to expand their arsenals without limits.

The fate of the New START treaty has been in considerable doubt since President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of another treaty, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement, this year. But New START is considered a far more critical agreement because it limits the number of strategic weapons — the most powerful weapons both sides can launch from submarines and bombers and on intercontinental ballistic missiles.

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States collectively possessed tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. After a series of arms-reduction treaties, New START, which went into effect in 2011, limited the strategic arsenals to 1,550 each. (Smaller tactical weapons were not covered.)

New START expires in February 2021, just weeks after the next presidential inauguration in Washington. While it can be extended for five years by mutual agreement, Trump and his aides have signaled repeatedly that he intends to let it expire unless it can be broadened to include other nations with strategic weapons, chiefly China.

But the Chinese are not interested — their arsenal is far smaller and they have shown no interest in negotiating a nuclear weapons deal. Trump’s insistence on including other nations, including China, in a renegotiation has largely been seen as a move to kill the treaty, which was negotiated by President Barack Obama.

President Vladimir Putin’s government has said that Russia hopes to renew or revise the treaty — but that the negotiations to revise it would have to begin immediately.

“It is already clear that within the remaining time — and the treaty expires on Feb. 5, 2021 — we won’t be able to come up with a full-scale document to replace it,” Vladimir Leontyev, the deputy director of the arms control department of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said on Friday.

“The prospects of extending the treaty are unclear, too,’’ he told a panel of experts in Moscow. “The U.S. administration is silent about it.’’

Leontyev appeared to be acknowledging what has been evident for months, but it was the latest in a sobering list of signals that the great powers appear headed for a new arms race.

Revising the treaty, especially expanding it to other nations, would be extremely complex and, history suggests, would take years to complete. Most experts believe that even if talks started now, which the Trump administration is not prepared to do, negotiators could not complete a new accord before the treaty expires.

A straight renewal would be far easier. But even if a new president were to take office in January 2021, that person would have mere days to extend the existing treaty.

Both nations are investing heavily in new weapons. When Trump withdrew the United States from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement, or INF, this year, accusing Russia of violating it with the deployment of a new weapon near Western Europe’s borders, Putin followed suit.

The United States is now testing a weapon that would have violated the INF, and may deploy it in the Pacific to counter Chinese intermediate weapons, Pentagon officials say. The Trump administration had expressed frustration that the INF treaty — like New START — did not apply to China and hindered the development of new weapons to counter those being deployed by Beijing.

Leontyev said that Washington and Moscow had barely discussed New START. Trump administration officials have met with their Russian counterparts to talk about nuclear weapons only twice, he said, and a meeting planned for this month was canceled because of staff changes in the State Department.

“The overall impression is that the current American administration is organically against any restrictions being imposed on the United States,” he said.

Leontyev said talks on a new or revised treaty were in limbo because the State Department undersecretary for arms control, Andrea Thompson, recently left the agency, leaving the Russians waiting to learn whom they will be talking with, and when. No replacement has been nominated, and the nominee would need to be confirmed by the Senate.

Veterans of the Cold War era see a rapid slipping back into old patterns.

“The United States and Russia are now in a state of strategic instability,” wrote Ernest J. Moniz, a former energy secretary, and Sam Nunn, a former senator from Georgia who helped draft the legislation that financed the drastic reduction in former Soviet nuclear forces.

“Not since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis has the risk of a U.S.-Russian confrontation involving the use of nuclear weapons been as high as it is today,” the two wrote in an article titled “Return to Doomsday” in Foreign Affairs this year. “Yet unlike during the Cold War, both sides seem willfully blind to the peril.”

New START, signed by Obama in 2010, requires each nation to have no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, and no more than 700 “delivery vehicles” for them, meaning long-range missiles and bombers. It does not apply to tactical nuclear weapons, which are smaller bombs intended for battlefield use.

The INF treaty, signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan, prohibited land-based ballistic or cruise missiles with shorter ranges, from 310 miles to more than 3,400 miles. Short-range missiles are considered more destabilizing because they can, in some circumstances, hit their targets so quickly that an enemy has no time to respond.

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