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Russia allowed US inspectors to examine Russia’s Avangard hypersonic nuclear missile The Kremlin claimed to be capable of penetrating the US military defence, Associated Press reported Wednesday (November 27).

The inspectors arrived in Russia for a two-day visit to examine the missile as part of the bilateral nuclear treaty New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which will expire in 2021.

Previously Russia expressed its willingness to extend the treaty. However, the US has yet to respond to Moscow’s proposal.

What is the New START treaty?

The US and then-Soviet Union signed a historic agreement to reduce the stockpiles of nuclear warheads to one-third in July 1991. Then-President George W.Bush and then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev inked the treaty known as the New START in Moscow.

After the signing of the treaty, the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, before the New START ratification. Then, the agreement was reached by The Russia Federation and three former Soviet states where nuclear weapons were placed: Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine.

It took more than nine years to negotiate the treaty, as BBC History wrote. Under the agreement, Soviet saw the 50 per cent cut in its ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM)

The agreement also restricts the numbers of deployed ICBMs, submarine-based ICBMs, and heavy bombers used for nuclear missions up to 700 units. The deal limits the total numbers of deployed and undeployed assets to 800 units.

Both Washington and Moscow have been in a dispute over the Cold War nuclear agreement The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) signed in 1987. Both nuclear powerhouses withdrew from the treaty after accusing each other of violating the deal.

The collapsed INF banned the launch of ground conventional and nuclear missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 kilometres. The treaty forced the US and Russia, then the Soviet Union to relocate around 2,700 short-range and intermediate-range missiles from the battlefield.

Russia claims Avangard does not breach  New START

Russia’s Ministry of Defense stated that the exhibition of the Avangard aimed to maintain the treaty viability and effectiveness.

“Under the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, a US inspection group was shown the Avangard missile system with the hypersonic boost-glide vehicle on the territory of Russia on November 24-26, 2019,” said the ministry in a statement as TASS reported.

The ministry added that the hypersonic glider would resume its combat service in December 2019. A source in the country’s defence industry told TASS on November 13 that the first two UR-100 UTTKh ICBMs equipped with Avangard vehicle would enter an experimental combat duty at the end of November or early December in the Dombarovskaya division of The Strategic Missile Forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin mentioned that Avangard is the latest breakthrough since the Soviet Union started its satellite mission in 1957. He claimed the newest vehicle could manoeuvre by making sharp twists and be activated a few seconds before reaching targets, making it difficult to be traced by any nuclear defence system. Also, Avangard can fly 20 times faster than the speed of sound, or one mile per second.

Will New START Be Extended?

After the INF was over, US President Donald Trump considered including China in the arms control talks with Russia, given Beijing’s modernized weaponry.

However, China refused to join, citing that the numbers of nuclear weapons possessed by the US and Russia are bigger than that of China. Also, Beijing felt that the US’ exit from the Iran nuclear deal made Washington less trusted.

The world has 14,000 nuclear warheads, and the US and Russia possess more than 90 per cent of them while China has around 290 nuclear warheads, according to the Arms Control Association.

Instead of letting the New START lapse, Trump and Putin have an option to extend the treaty for the next five years, as Iain King wrote for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). 

Extending the deal until February 2026 can be the best and the most realistic option as both Russia and the US have more time to think about whether to involve China in an arms control discussion, decide which technology that goes with the agreement and discuss about what to do to anticipate if either of them breach the deal.

The START is one of the few international treaties Russia adheres to. Therefore, there should be a strong commitment from both Russia and the US to avoid a further global arms race.

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