Joe Biden e Vladimir Putin (la Presse)

Should the US and Russia Extend the START Treaty?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has informed his annual news conference that Russia is developing new “hypersonic weapons” in response to a new arms race, which he claims was triggered by the US.

The Russian leader urged Washington to agree to a one-year extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which maintains a nuclear balance between the two countries. The treaty expires in February.

Putin wanted more cooperation from Washington and added that he reckons US president-elect Joe Biden was more open to talking about negotiations on the issue, as opposed to current President Donald Trump.

Also known as New START, the current treaty replaced the Treaty of Moscow that was set to expire in December 2012. It calls for halving the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers.

START Negotiations Have Been Difficult

In October, the US and Russia came close to concluding negotiations over a short-term extension of New START. Putin put forward an offer to extend the treaty, but Trump’s national security advisor Robert O’Brien rejected the proposal, calling it insufficient.

In response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued a statement clarifying Moscow’s offer by saying that the Russian President envisioned a one-year extension as well as a freezing of nuclear warheads by each side.

During a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels later on in October, the US ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchinson said that an agreement was close at hand.

However, Lavrov produced another statement clarifying that the Russian Government was – and still is – awaiting an official response from the Trump administration.

Another Nuclear Arms Race is the Last Thing the World Needs Right Now

This will be one of the most pressing issues that Biden will have to deal with when he comes to office in January. Without NEW Start, both Russia and the US would be free to deploy unlimited numbers of strategic warheads and the missiles, submarines and bombers to deliver them.

As Bloomberg argued, letting the treaty lapse could open the doors to a new arms race between Moscow and Washington. As a result, there would be less transparency about each side’s intentions and that would have a destabilizing effect on global stability. It might even encourage China to expand its own nuclear arsenal. New weapons and new means to spy on rivals’ stockpiles would drain money from the conventional weapons the US needs to maintain its deterrence.

New START’s demise would also end on-site inspections that the world’s two largest nuclear powers conduct of each other’s armed forces. That would remove a critical source of intelligence used to detect cheating and to give insight into each other’s arsenals.

Is Biden Strong Enough to Stop Putin from Gaining the Upper Hand?

Biden supports an extension but he has failed to specify for how long. Meanwhile, Putin favors an unconditional five-year extension. As Reuters reported, this is because the Russian leader has learned from the Cold War that Ronald Reagan succeeded in bankrupting the Soviet Union by forcing a nuclear arms race, which he wants to avoid.

The argument is that by cutting the treaty’s length, it would tie the negotiations to all aspects of military power. Also, if New START is extended to February 2026, that would put its expiration beyond the incoming US President’s four-year term, potentially reducing his leverage to secure a follow-on pact. Biden must do everything he can to prevent Putin from gaining the upper hand in nuclear talks, which is why slashing New START’s duration seems like the most sensible option.

At some stage, China will also need to be brought into an agreement as they possess a growing stockpile of nuclear warheads.

As Trump’s four-year term comes to an end, it appears unlikely he will renew START before his term in office expires. It is a shame he will leave the White House without making progress on this issue, but there is no doubt that Putin is keen to hear how Biden intends to conclude the New START negotiations.