The New START Must Not Become an Ironic END of Bilateral Russia-U.S. Arms Control

As John Bolton said, “Why extend the flawed system [New START] just to say you have a treaty?”

Whether intentionally or not, the former US National Security Advisor might have asked one of the most pertinent questions amidst the current precariousness of arms control at a modest rally for Young Conservatives in July 2019. His rhetorical question illustrates a frame of mind that potentially exposes US reasons for withdrawing from a string of international treaties and agreements in recent years. The answers to it could become the keys necessary to save the last remaining Russia-U.S. nuclear arms control agreement that only has a window of six months left to extend for another five years — the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Should it expire, it brings with it the death of an entire tradition of established bilateral agreements between the world’s two nuclear superpowers, a tradition that despite its various shortcomings, may serve as a platform and fallback at a time when arms control moves into novel, multilateral directions containing further degrees of complexity. A tradition that, for the sake of world stability, must continue.

A Quagmire of Russia-U.S. Arms Control — How Did We Get Here?

Before providing an answer to John Bolton’s rhetorical question about hypothetical extensions, one should first confront the dire reality of the present: why do we find ourselves in a situation in which one sole framework of Russia-U.S. bilateral nuclear arms control remains in existence and is itself stuck in a deadlock with only six months left to negotiate its continuation?

It is possible to find some answers to this particular question by seeing it as a natural progression from those historical arms control imperfections that arose during the Cold War and which has spiraled into a record of “mutual disappointments and grievances” in the past two decades; these negotiated treaties and their control mechanisms could not attain an idealized form and deteriorated as relations soured. From SALT I to the present, they were, in other words, often subject to the tenor of the overarching bilateral relationship.

Those ambitious attempts that sought to create something of lasting significance, or of “unlimited duration”, such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, eventually fell apart. The latter occurring in 2002 at the initiative of the George W. Bush administration, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its termination was, back then, alarmingly speculated and predicted to be linked to the failure of future arms control efforts. Until this day, this exit has been labelled by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “mistake," one that has subsequently called into question America’s own safety and security post-withdrawal.

Regardless of these shortcomings, the arms control process served as an invaluable platform of contact and dialogue between the two rival superpowers and remained the cornerstone of world stability and security at the time of the Cold War. However, extrapolating these imperfections of the past to the present, is ambitious as the world has undergone a great number of transformations; the Soviet Union is no more, alliances have been re-structured and tensions have renewed due to novel, distinctive geopolitical flare-ups. Assumptions about the elimination of weapons, treating them as a cause of world conflicts, rather than a symptom of them have also fallaciously lingered in the public view.

Contemporary views and doctrines vis-à-vis nuclear arms and disarmament have similarly been taken to new, albeit alarming, places on both sides of the Russia-U.S. relationship. The emergence of a new global power, China, has additionally required a re-thinking of arms control mechanisms and looking beyond bilateral treaties to more encompassing formats. It is, therefore, imperative to look for answers closer to the turbulent context of the present.

A Context of Four Defining Words: “Trump Pulls Out Of …”

This approach entails looking for those notable patterns of behaviour, in this case applicable to the space of time within which three arms control deals were left by the US in annual succession; the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 2019 and the announcement to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty (OST) in May of this year. This pattern of disengagement has, particularly, extended to other treaties and agreements abandoned beyond the field of arms control and it has become a common sight to read headlines beginning with four reappearing words: “Trump Pulls Out Of …

The notable observations derived from this pattern are two-fold: (I) these frequent, successive withdrawals occurred and were initiated by the current Trump administration and, in regard to those deals concerning Russia and the US, the blame and reason for leaving was persistently directed at the former by the latter (II).

I. The Trump Doctrine — Reckless Pragmatism Extends Into Arms Control

To address the first point of observation, this now habitual practice chiefly derives from the Trump administration’s overarching policy, one that has been identified as being uniquely rash in execution in regard to deals and negotiations. In a more general sense, this disengagement from international agreements forms a part of an idiosyncratic doctrine, one that Richard Haass has fittingly called a “withdrawal doctrine”; coupled with an aggressive America First type of unilateralism, he argues that such an approach is used to provide Trump with leverage for future negotiations and as a strong display of political messaging. An approach of pragmatism is key to this understanding.

Trump’s policy of pragmatism approaches arms control and security in a similar way it does the economy. Upon election, it became known that Donald Trump would wage a campaign of economic nationalism; embracing the two pillars of protectionism and restrictionism, thereby expanding on his “Art of the Deal” in an international political context. Bringing on board characters such as John Bolton, known for his “Americanist” approach to US national security and foreign policy, would solidify a direction that would not bode well for bilateral and multilateral agreements should they not coincide with this vision of America First.

In doing so, he correspondingly furthers the legacy of Republican neoconservative skepticism of arms control apparent at the turn of the century. Parallels between the Bush administration, withdrawing from the ABM Treaty in 2002, and the one of Trump, exist in their questioning of the role of arms control in strengthening US national security. Furthermore, the release of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the first to be conducted since 2010 and outlines the role of nuclear weapons in US strategy, has even more alarmingly been described as “an advocacy paper for nuclear weapons” and seen a shift towards a more bellicose nuclear strategy.

The Trump administration’s view of arms control could be symbolized by the discovery that appeared three weeks prior to Bolton’s question; the Office of strategic stability and Deterrence Affairs, a key institution of US arms control, saw 70% of its staff dropped and has been described as “critically understaffed”. Whether this was a gesture of non-belief in arms control or its de-prioritizing has been demonstrative of a worrying US position in light of the current context.

Such a pragmatic view risks the security of both Russia and the United States when the termination of treaties do not come with more feasible alternatives and an unhealthy blame game results instead of a presentation of potential solutions which has, thus far, been the case. It is an attempt at a quick fix that shatters years-long processes, negotiations and further destabilizes the Russia-U.S. relationship and the world at large.

II. The blame game — American Accusations Do Not Outweigh Russian Concerns

In addressing US accusations of Russian violations, one needs to consider the above new context that has presented itself, together with the complex “multi-dimensional nature of compliance-related interactions (political, technical and tactical)” which forms the very essence of Russia-U.S. agreements in the sphere of arms control. It is of limited significance to simply pinpoint violations as the key reason for their falling apart as broader inspections of the mentioned political and strategic imperatives are required. It is this complex array of factors that has spurred on the blame game and finger-pointing that has arisen in regard to these bilateral treaties since their inception.

Overarchingly, the underlying verification and compliance mechanisms of agreements between the two have similarly not been and are not perfect. Experts agree that the existing verification system is not optimal and universally reliable to control compliance and its different phases since the time of SALT I have not been devoid of problems. Grey areas, misinterpretations and pure disagreements are thrown into the mix. With this reality in mind, one of the more noteworthy US nuclear treaty withdrawals can be examined — The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

The landmark INF Treaty was signed in 1987, placing a ban on ballistic missiles and ground rockets with ranges greater than 500 and less than 5,500 kilometres. In the post-Soviet period, it has been surrounded by rounds of accusations from both sides with each pointing to a specific instance of violation. The early 2000s from the Russian perspective when it claimed American Hera missiles should’ve been prohibited under the treaty and more recently, a technical analysis demonstrating how the United States may have violated the INF during the Obama years by the presence of Aegis-ashore systems in Eastern Europe. Despite these concerns, Russia has shown a political commitment to preserving it at an official level and has reiterated such a position consistently, even though there have been statements from President Putin in the past to achieve a more expanded format and the inclusion of other states.

From the standpoint of the US, these have largely come in the last decade from both the Obama and Trump administrations accusing Russia of not complying with its arms control obligations in relation to the treaty. In 2014, the Obama administration had concluded that Russia tested a ground-launched cruise missile in violation and the latter having qualms about Russia’s 9M729 missile which was the given reason for the culminating US INF withdrawal. While the US position is adamant about these violations, to suggest that Russia is solely responsible without taking into account Russian concerns is misleading. As the last few years have demonstrated, no careful treading or commitment to safeguard these mechanisms from the Trump administration has been shown. The rash approach was chosen, and the treaty is no more.

Even though the technical aspects of these violations continue to be debated and investigated, including the questionable US exit from the Open Skies Treaty last year, this leaves both sides with reasonable cause to, at least, bring the other to the table. Throughout the narrative of this blame game, however, it is the former that has now pursued the line of this withdrawal doctrine. A line that makes John Bolton’s question all the more relevant; should treaties continue to exist despite the traditional suspicions, accusations and violations simply “for the sake of it?” It is a perfectly valid postulation.

Why Extend the Flawed System [New START] Just to Say You Have a Treaty?

The turbulent history of Russia-U.S. bilateral nuclear arms control agreements now spans over five long decades and there are now only six pivotal months remaining to extend the very last nuclear arms control treaty left between the two countries — the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or New START. The treaty restricts the US and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads each and to no more than 700 strategic missiles and bombers. With Russia and the US currently being in possession of 91% of the world’s nuclear warheads, its discontinuation would mean that it would be the first time in half a century without legal restrictions controlling them and would occur during a period of great difficulty in the Russia-U.S. relationship at large, being continuously rocked by geopolitical challenges.

Following the pattern of treaty disengagement from the side of the Trump administration, this time the misgivings about its extension come from the former yet again while Russia has reiterated its position of being ready to extend it without any preconditions. With world stability hanging in the balance, this is the right opportunity for the New START to signal a complete reversal of this alarming trend, especially after a series of strategic stability talks having taken place in Vienna with ambiguous signals about its future. While President Trump has continued down this line, these talks have been demonstrative of a more serious commitment to work towards the treaty from the American side — symbolized by the fact that it sent one of the highest-level delegations ever but concluded with the assertion that the “ball was now in Russia’s court.” With six months left, the dialogue is welcomed, but the results are not enough.

I. The New START Isn’t Flawed — The American Unilateralist Approach Is

After John Bolton’s departure in 2019, it was purported that it would signal and revive hopes to save the treaty. Judging from his past remarks and actions during his time as National Security Advisor, this was not a radical assertion. From his own words in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that appeared in 2010, he expressed his position clearly in relation to it: he believed that the “treaty's little-noticed limits on conventional weapons systems will reduce American ability to project power around the world.” If power and projection are determinants of saving the treaty, then it is not the treaty that needs to adapt to this position, but it is ultimately this unilateralist view that needs changing in the multipolar world that continues to be built. Donald Trump has somewhat realized this regarding the New START with the hopes of including rising power China, but it has been too little too late as China’s recent rejection of American negotiation tactics has meant that such an inclusion is unlikely to negotiate in time due to the complexity of trilateral approaches.

Arms control mechanisms are especially important in the search for common approaches as it is not only the bilateral relationship that is affected, but world stability in its entirety. Conceptualizing US statements and actions in recent years as “moving beyond MAD [Mutually Assured Destruction] in pursuit of strategic superiority” is one that also signals danger knowing well that adversaries will adjust to such a position. However, if this is instead approached from the perspective of seeking strategic stability, then Bolton may begin to see its value differently.

II. The Loss of New START Would Be a Detriment to strategic stability

For both Russia and the United States, there is one notable concept that has been central to preventing war — strategic stability; “the absence of incentives for any use of nuclear weapons, which effectively also requires preventing major military conflict among the nuclear weapon states.” Even though Russia and the United States have different interpretations of the concept, the erosion of strategic stability may result in potential escalations leading the way to dangerous scenarios of conflict.

Without the New START or any formal treaty in place, their strategic nuclear arsenals would go unconstrained with the possibility of both countries being able to upload hundreds of additional nuclear warheads to their long-range delivery systems, thus endangering an already-worsened strategic stability situation due the loss of the landmark INF. If John Bolton was worried about America’s projection of superiority in this regard, then Russia would even be able to “rapidly upload more additional warheads in the short term due to its heavy missiles, several open missile production lines” and recent modernization should the New START expire. The modernization of US nuclear capabilities is, similarly, lagging behind that of Russia and would incur significant costs in the process.

In light of geopolitical conflicts from the Middle East to Eastern Europe and with Russia-U.S. relations constantly encountering obstacles, the failure vis-à-vis the New START would add to this instability. Rose Gottemoeller, a former Deputy Secretary-General of NATO who ranked as one of President Barack Obama's top nuclear security experts, has warned that failing to renew the treaty is "not a wise direction to travel.” The New START and the decades-long existence of strategic nuclear arms agreements between the two countries have, conversely, bolstered this strategic stability and thus maintaining this balance is in the interests of both parties.

III. The New START Maintains Transparency and Predictability Amidst Russia-U.S. Tensions

When former US and Russian Presidents, Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, agreed on the treaty in 2010, it was seen by the former as having put in place an effective verification regime that would “provide the ability to monitor all aspects of the Treaty.” Verification includes on-site inspections, exhibitions and a notification system where both sides receive information about missile or bomber movements between bases, significant exercises and is essential in making sure with high confidence that the obligations of the treaty are matched. The successive Trump administration has seen it in an opposite light, pointing to its perceived weaknesses as being “loopholes that the Russians have been exploiting”. The latter view is contradictory in itself, as Gottemoeller confirms, when considering the State Department’s annual compliance report that affirms Russia’s full compliance with the New START.

Even if that were the case, the demise of the treaty would entail a situation where both would have to increase spending by obtaining that information through NTM (National Technical Means). Without this understanding about the other side’s capabilities, they will also be more inclined to engage in worst-case scenario planning, thereby increasing costs of developing destabilizing systems. With this in mind, a loss of transparency into the composition of their respective nuclear arsenals creates the conditions for a dangerous new arms race, especially given the historical tendency of overestimating opponent capabilities.

IV. The New START Serves as a Platform and Fallback When Arms Control Moves Into Complex, Multilateral Approaches

Arms control is evolving, both as a term (e.g. controlling the means of violence or CMV) and in focus of the contemporary instruments with which armed violence is perpetrated, such as fighter planes, hypersonic and bio-weapons, etc. A significant addition to the debate, as has been noted as a key concern for the United States, is the inclusion of multiple actors, particularly China. Trump’s insistence on bringing in China in a tripartite agreement, however, has ended early for now with a Chinese rejection both of American negotiation offers and curtailing its nuclear weapons stockpile. As Sino-American competition grows and in light of Washington’s assessment that China is “likely to at least double its nuclear weapons stockpile”, continuous attempts of finding an agreement are likely to occur despite its complexity. Such a process, however, can take years of negotiations and, until or if such a reality occurs, some framework of nuclear arms control must serve as a fallback not only due to the practical, but the symbolic way of showing that nuclear arms control is still being practiced by two of the major powers — the New START is the logical choice.

This is especially important to consider in relation to the context of continuous withdrawal from the part of the US. When Donald Trump withdrew from the INF and Open Skies treaties, it was purported that analogous replacement mechanisms would take their place. There is no evidence to suggest that attempts towards these replacements have been made by the current administration and it begs the question of why this time would be different. It is easier to extend this “flawed” system for another five years, rather than to negotiate a completely new one.

V. The New START is the Last Fragment of a Rich Tradition of Familiarity

It wasn’t shaped overnight, but its legacy will shape the future; the Russia-U.S. arms control relationship is unique and is incomparable to any such relationship on the world stage when it comes to controlling the most powerful weapons known to man. This relationship has undoubtedly been a turbulent one and continues to be, but the shared history between the two is no less significant as they have jointly carried out this one-of-a-kind Herculean task through dialogue and the mutual understanding of the consequences should it fail. This is an exchange worth over 20,400 total notifications, decades-long processes of communication, talks, reviews, inspections and idiosyncratic experiences. They also know what it means to be in a Cold War and witnessing the destructive power of one’s own nuclear arsenal while imagining the size and force of the other.

The New START is the last fragment of this relationship that should serve as a platform for the future of arms control and not mark its demise. Extending the treaty until 2026 would, in any case, leave enough breathing room to figure out what should come next if this chapter does come to an end. While the Russian position is clear, the American one is less so with presidential elections on the horizon. The prospects and window of possible extension would be brighter with a Joe Biden victory, but even this is not guaranteed in light of recent aggressive rhetoric against Russia.

The only disengagement from President Trump until then, however, should be from his stalling of the treaty and should accept President Putin’s offer of extending it for another five years, without any preconditions. The world has had enough of irony in the year 2020 and the New START must live up to its name.

This article was originally published with the Russian International Affairs Council.