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Keeping New Start alive is vital for the world’s nuclear future

The writer is a lecturer at Stanford University, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO, and formerly chief US negotiator on New START.

The US has just said that Russia is not complying with the New START treaty, the last remaining legally binding nuclear arms control measure between the two countries. The questions are simple: Washington asked for the reinstatement of on-site inspections, which both sides suspended during the pandemic, and demanded a meeting of the body to implement the treaty. Moscow refused on both counts.

These problems are easy to fix. Russia does not violate the treaty’s central framework, which limits both countries to a maximum of 1,550 warheads on 700 delivery vehicles (missiles and bombers). The New START continues to keep under control the total number of nuclear forces in Moscow and Washington. But by abandoning important implementation obligations, Russia is beginning to tear the fabric of the treaty. This is especially troubling at a time when Vladimir Putin has been making veiled threats to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine.

The question is why? Obviously, it is in Russia’s national interests to keep the treaty. The US is embarking on a modernization of its strategic nuclear forces that will take the next two decades. During this period, he will calculate his reaction to the emergence of two equal nuclear competitors, China and Russia. There will inevitably be pressure from some quarters to build up nuclear weapons beyond the New START quotas.

Russia itself should be wary of the brilliant new triads of nuclear submarines, bombers and ballistic missiles being developed by the US and China. Although Moscow will never accept a challenge from Beijing, they faced each other in their own version of the 1969 Cuban Missile Crisis, when both countries issued nuclear threats during a border conflict on the Ussuri River.

Like the US, Russia should have persuaded China to sit down at the negotiating table and discuss its plans for nuclear modernization. Will Beijing be willing to impose limits on its nuclear power buildup? Will he be able to discuss his future nuclear targets?

Such predictability has so far been the most valuable dividend of the nuclear agreements that the US and the USSR, and now Russia, have negotiated in the last 50 years. This allowed both countries to plan and prioritize their military forces rather than blindly spending money on nuclear weapons. They have mainly concentrated on conventional forces, which have a combat capability that nuclear weapons cannot match. The emphasis in nuclear weapons is on deterrence, not on the battlefield.

But if New START fails and China continues its buildup without restraint, then all three capitals will be forced to invest more money in nuclear systems at a time when new technologies are revolutionizing conventional weapons. The demonstration of unmanned aerial vehicles in Ukraine is an example of this. It would be better for all three to invest in this arena where the wars of the future will be fought, and not in nuclear weapons, a 70-year-old technology that, by all accounts, should remain on the shelf.

However, Russian officials appear to be in some sort of alternate universe, seeking to use New START to solve their problems with NATO expansion and Ukrainian sovereignty. Asked last month about progress on the treaty, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the US of cutting off ties. Two weeks later, his deputy, Sergei Ryabkov, publicly pushed for a package of demands that Russia had put forward before invading Ukraine a year ago. Among them were demands for NATO to return to the 1997 borders and for Ukraine to disarm. He pointed out that progress in nuclear arms control depended on these measures, which would not be forthcoming.

At this tense moment, it may have been inevitable that Moscow would link New START to NATO and Ukraine. So far, however, Washington and Moscow have managed to keep the work on issues of mutual interest, no matter how bad the general state of relations. Even in the current deep freeze, they negotiated a prisoner exchange that brought basketball star Brittney Griner home.

Maintaining the “New START” is no less in the interests of both countries. The Treaty guarantees the clarity and predictability of our bilateral nuclear future. It provides the moral, political and technical background against which each of us can interact with China. And that means we will not be building up again to the 12,000 nuclear warheads that we have trained against each other by the end of the Cold War.

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