War Stories

A New Start for New START

The GOP objections to the U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty don’t hold up.

Obama and Medvedev each sign their copy of the treaty, sitting beside each other at a table with American and Russian flags behind them. Medvedev smiles broadly as he puts pen to paper.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Prague on April 8, 2010. Yuri Kadobnov/AFP via Getty Images

Some Senate Republicans are urging President Joe Biden not to renew the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, which expires on Feb. 5. They are wrong. The treaty benefits the United States and Russia—in some ways, us more than the Russians—without harming either. In any case, Congress has no say in the matter. Article XIV of the treaty—which more than two-thirds of the Senate ratified in 2010—permits the two countries to extend its terms by up to five years with a simple stroke of the pen. Both Biden and President Vladimir Putin are keen to extend the treaty, while Donald Trump wanted to let it lapse.

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The treaty—which was signed by then-Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev—limits each side to 1,550 nuclear warheads on long-range missiles and bombers. Meeting this limit required only modest reductions. But New START also imposes highly intrusive procedures to verify that neither side is cheating. Each side has to notify the other whenever it produces, deploys, or moves a missile, warhead, or bomber (Russia has issued 20,000 such notifications in the decade since the treaty went into effect). And each side can demand up to 18 on-site inspections of the other side’s weapons sites per year—in addition to the intelligence gained from spy satellites and other monitoring.

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Since the U.S. is relatively open about its nuclear activities (anyone can read about them in congressional hearings) and Russia is relatively closed, these inspections and notifications give us an inside peek that we wouldn’t otherwise have.

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And the treaty has been effective. Though critics complain that Russia has violated most of the other arms control treaties it has signed, nobody seriously contends that it has cheated on New START—the only treaty that restricts the U.S. weapons that can destroy Russia and the Russian weapons that can destroy the U.S.

Finally, no U.S. military officers are chomping at the bit to build more nukes. (Many want new nukes to replace the existing ones, but that’s a different issue.) A special unit at U.S. Strategic Command draws up nuclear war plans to conform to the limits set by the treaty, and no one in the unit has complained that they don’t have enough weapons to do whatever it is they think they might need to do.

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In fact, shortly after signing New START, Obama ordered a detailed review of the nuclear war plan. Senior officials from the White House, the Pentagon, and StratCom spent months poring over the plan in excruciating detail—examining how many U.S. warheads were aimed at each Russian target and whether so many were needed. In the end, the officials all concluded that the arsenal could be cut by an additional one-third—from 1,550 to roughly 1,000—with no harm to national security. (I describe this highly classified exercise in my 2020 book The Bomb, which—shameless plug—comes out in paperback next week.)

The Joint Chiefs of Staff affirmed the group’s report, but told Obama that they would not endorse any cuts of that size unless the Russians made similar cuts in their arsenal. Obama had hoped that New START would spark talks for a follow-on treaty, but Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its armed incursion into eastern Ukraine quashed those hopes.

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The point here, though, is that New START gives StratCom more than enough weapons. There is no rationale for letting the treaty lapse in order to build more.

But those who want to end New START make a different argument. They note that the treaty restricts only long-range weapons. Therefore, they argue, before the U.S. agrees on an extension, Russia should cut the number of its short-range nuclear weapons in Europe. They also insist that China should join the treaty, so that its growing arsenal can be cut down in size as well.

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Russia does have about 2,000 nukes that could hit targets in Europe. There is much concern about these “tactical” nukes, but few believe they give Russia a real advantage in the event of war. In any case, no U.S. officers have argued that we need to put thousands of nukes in Europe to match. Russia has nukes in Europe primarily as a way to counter what they see as U.S. and NATO superiority in conventional arms on the continent—just as, in the 1960s to ’70s, the U.S. had as many as 7,000 short-range nukes in Western Europe to counter the Soviet and Warsaw Pact’s conventional edge.

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In other words, it is unlikely that Russia will get rid of those short-range nukes. Nor is it likely to adopt some formula that includes them in some treaty that allows each side an equal number of total nuclear weapons—short-range and long-range combined. Such a treaty would give the U.S. numerical superiority in long-range weapons, which Russia would regard as politically unacceptable. If we lack the leverage to cut their short-range nukes, it’s best to retain the limits on their long-range ones.

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As for China, it makes no sense to include that country in a follow-up to New START. China has only about 300 nuclear weapons. Its leaders have no desire to join a treaty with the U.S. and Russia. If they did join, they would soon demand parity. In other words, simply putting them in the forum would give them an incentive to build a lot more nuclear weapons than they have now. China has never been engaged in a nuclear arms race with either country. Its nuclear policy has been mainly to build enough weapons to deter either country from attacking it. It has enough to do that. Why give them the slightest excuse to build more?

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The real reason most critics want to finish off New START is that they don’t like arms control treaties, period. They fear that any internationally imposed restraint, however beneficial, inherently shackles our sovereignty. They also fear that any reduction in tensions with our adversaries—any forum that gives us more cause for dialogue and trust (or at least less distrust)—is prone to make us complacent and is, therefore, dangerous.

This is the worst kind of shortsightedness. Even for those who aren’t keen about nuclear disarmament, arms control treaties are a valuable way to “bound the threat.” Without New START’s verification procedures, U.S. intelligence agencies would draw up worst-case scenarios on how large the Russian arsenal might grow. In response, StratCom’s generals would demand more weapons in response. If New START is extended, we will know the size of Russia’s arsenal for the next five years—muffling the alarm bells.

Moscow and Washington aren’t on good terms, to say the least. Russia’s interference with the 2016 election and, more recently, its massive hacking of SolarWinds mark it as, in many ways, a threat. However, this was true, to an even greater degree, during the last three decades of the Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviet Union negotiated several arms control treaties, cooperated to fight terrorism, and even jointly developed a smallpox vaccine. Then as now, we have common and converging interests, and it’s worth pursuing those, whatever else is going on.

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