Is Doomsday Coming Closer?

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is the only remaining international agreement that limits the atomic arsenals of the U.S. and Russia – and it will expire in February 2021.

Knowing what we know of the horrors of nuclear war, memorial is essential, yet eloquence never enough, as Barack Obama surely understood in 2016 as he spoke to the assembled crowd at Hiroshima, the Japanese city that was levelled to the ground by the first atom bomb dropped in 1945.

“Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning,” he said, “death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.”  

Yet, despite the massive destruction, U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals continued to grow to dangerous levels during the decades of the Cold War that followed. It was only in the final years that several arms control treaties helped to constrain the strategic nuclear weapons of the world’s two major nuclear powers. 

Among the most important international agreements was the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START Treaty) that was negotiated during the 1980s and signed by George H.W. Bush and Michael Gorbachev in July 1991. It expired in 2009 and was replaced by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START Treaty), signed by Barack Obama and Dimitry Medvedev in April 2010.

The New START significantly constrains the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and Russia by setting legally-binding limits. This far-reaching reduction helps to avoid a dangerous and costly nuclear arms race, it limits the likelihood of nuclear war and reduces the danger of an accidental nuclear clash. 

The New START Treaty is part of a carefully-crafted framework of several other arms control treaties that were designed to keep the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals in check. Yet, after U.S. President Donald Trump decided to scrap most of those agreements, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the framework is now in tatters.

This makes the New START Treaty currently the only remaining international agreement that limits the atomic arsenals of the U.S. and Russia. It will expire in February 2021 unless both states agree to extend it. If it is not extended, there will be no limits on nuclear weapons for the first time since the early 1970s.

This dangerous doomsday scenario is now much closer to becoming a reality. 

Three rounds of intense U.S.-Russia negotiations during the summer in Vienna – a place with a long history of hosting U.S.-Russian talks – yielded no concrete results. A fourth round in the Finnish capital Helsinki in October only confirmed the deadlock. 

From the beginning of the talks, the U.S. imposed unattainable conditions for an extension of the Treaty. During much of the negotiations, Washington was adamant about bringing China on board, claiming that Beijing is hiding behind what Washington calls a “great wall of secrecy” while pursuing a doubling of its atomic arsenal. 

Furthermore, the U.S. wanted the new treaty to cover the complete nuclear arsenals of both sides, which would include all types of warheads, and asked for stronger verification and transparency measures.

Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution calls an extension of the New START Treaty a “no-brainer”. “The best solution is a simple extension of New START for five years. The U.S. and Russia can then consider next negotiating steps. That will be a long and complex negotiation, which is why a five-year extension for New START would be good,” Pifer told Metropole.

This viewpoint is close to Russia’s position. Moscow has said that it is ready to extend the New START Treaty without preconditions and also emphasised that time was running out to negotiate a complicated new agreement. 

Furthermore, China is vehemently opposed to a trilateral deal and has made this abundantly clear on several occasions, citing the “huge disparity” between the Chinese nuclear arsenal and that of the U.S. and Russia. 

Indeed, according to the Washington-based Arms Control Association, the world’s nuclear-armed states possess a combined total of nearly 13,500 nuclear warheads, out of which 90% belong to the U.S. and Russia. To be more precise, the U.S. currently has 5,800 nuclear warheads, Russia has 6,375, and China only 320. 

Despite those arguments, the U.S. continued to insist on Chinese participation in the talks. On one occasion in June, U.S. diplomats even staged a photo, showing Chinese flags in front of empty seats inside the Palais Niederösterreich on Herrengasse in Vienna, where the nuclear talks were held. This was widely seen as a way to exert pressure on China over its refusal to take part in the talks. 

Ambassador Marshall Billingslea, who led the arms control negotiations on behalf of President Donald Trump, posted the photo on Twitter, declaring “China is a no-show.”

The stubborn insistence on a trilateral arms control agreement led to valuable time lost. But with Trump lagging in the polls, securing a foreign policy success prior to the November presidential election all of a sudden became an important priority. 

It seems that this led Washington to announcing an alleged breakthrough in the negotiations at the beginning of October, with Billingslea confirming: “We believe that there is an agreement in principle at the highest levels of our two governments.” He added that the U.S. was ready to extend the New START Treaty for one year, in exchange for Russia and the U.S. freezing all nuclear warheads, tactical and strategic, during that period. Suddenly, Chinese participation was not a condition anymore. 

The claim was swiftly rejected by Moscow. 

In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry called the alleged breakthrough a “delusion” and a “fraud.”

But on 20 October, Russia seemed to turn the tables and gave in to a key U.S. demand, raising expectations that an agreement may be within reach. “Russia proposes to extend the New START Treaty by one year and is ready, together with the United States, to make a political commitment to ‘freeze’ the number of nuclear warheads held by the parties for this period,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. 

“This can be implemented strictly and exclusively if there is understanding that the ‘freezing’ of warheads will not be accompanied by any additional demands from the United States,” the statement said.

Yet, instead of agreeing to this deal, the U.S. continued to insist on additional demands, first and foremost strict verification measures. 

Despite those hopeful moments, at the time of writing of this article, it seems clear that negotiations have reached a dead end, and the future of the New START Treaty hangs in the balance. The world’s largest nuclear arsenals could be left unlimited and undisclosed making the world a more dangerous place – unless former Vice-President Joe Biden wins the election in November.

“The fate of New START likely rests on the outcome of the election,” Shannon Bugos, Research Assistant at the Arms Control Association, told Metropole. “Billingslea has insisted on a set of conditions for the New START extension that Moscow wascertain to, and did, reject.” 

Former Vice-President Joe Biden, Trump’s democratic opponent in the election, has promised to extend the New START Treaty without preconditions. If he wins, he will have just 16 days after Inauguration Day to call Russian President Putin and agree on an extension before the Treaty expires on 5 February 2021.

This would indeed honour Barack Obama’s words in Hiroshima in 2016: “We have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.”

Stephanie Liechtenstein
Stephanie Liechtenstein
Stephanie Liechtenstein is a diplomatic correspondent and freelance journalist based in Vienna, Austria. Her articles and research are focused on the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), multilateral negotiations, international organisations, foreign and security policy, the EU, East-West relations, and Austrian politics.

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