Bilateral agreements aimed at restricting the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia have been in place since the early 1970s. For the first time in nearly 50 years that nuclear arms control architecture is now potentially heading towards a crisis.

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Bilateral talks aimed at restricting the nuclear arsenals of the Soviet Union and the United States began during the late 1960s as concern mounted over the rapid expansion in the number of warheads and delivery systems. Over the decades that followed a series of arms control regimes emerged. Of those only the New START treaty, concluded in 2010, remains in force after the US officially withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty on 2 August 2019.

Under the terms of New START the US and Russia committed to a limit of 1,550 strategic operationally deployable warheads and a combined limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers, submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments. The treaty also establishes a verification regime that combines various elements of the original START verification regime and measures that are tailored to the current treaty.

Both countries are in compliance with the Treaty and it will remain in force until February 2021, unless it is superseded by a subsequent agreement, or extended for no more than five years.

What next for arms control?

The US and Russian Presidents have the opportunity to either extend the treaty up to 2026, negotiate a successor agreement, achieving further reductions in their nuclear arsenals, or to let the New START treaty lapse. If the New START treaty expires in February 2021, and is not replaced by a successor treaty, there will be no limits on the strategic nuclear forces of the two largest nuclear weapon states for the first time since 1972. That scenario has prompted fears of a quantitative nuclear arms race. It will also leave the US and Russia with fewer tools with which to verify the size and composition of each other’s nuclear arsenals.

Observers have also pointed out that it will leave both countries in violation of their disarmament obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Prospects.

While Russia has expressed its unconditional support for extending the New START treaty and agreed to discuss potential future arms control, the US has continued to keep its options open.

For the longer term, President Trump has stated his desire to see a “grand bargain” in future arms control that would move beyond the traditional bilateral approach to nuclear reductions and include China. It would also encompass a wider variety of nuclear weapons capabilities, including Russia’s arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weapons and the new weapons systems it has under development. The US administration has linked progress on such issues with any agreement on extension.

The latest round of US-Russian strategic stability talks took place on 22 June 2020. While no agreement on New START was reached, both sides agreed to establish working groups on several key issues, with a view to a further round of dialogue in August 2020.

Concerns have been expressed, however, at how much can be achieved in the next six months before New START expires. Russia is unlikely to agree any curbs on its non-strategic nuclear capabilities, or the new systems it has under development unless the US places missile defence and US non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe on the table for discussion. China has also declined the invitation to participate in talks, highlighting the huge disparity between its nuclear stockpile (320 warheads) and that of Russia and the US.

Extending the treaty, while arms control negotiators pursue a new multilateral agreement, is widely favoured as an option. This is supported by Russia, NATO allies and many members of Congress and the US military. But much will depend on how the US administration views progress on these issues in the next few months, and whether President Trump wins a second term in November 2020.

If President Trump is re-elected and the treaty is allowed to lapse, without arms control progress elsewhere, then he will be the first sitting US President since Richard Nixon not to have engaged in, or agreed to, meaningful arms control restrictions with Russia. If the Democrats win the election in November 2020 they will have little more than two weeks after the inauguration of the new President in late January 2021, in which to change course.

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