By Niranjan Chandrashekhar Oak*
On 8 August 2022, Russia temporarily halted the United States (US) inspections of the former’s nuclear sites agreed under the New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (New START) on account of lack of parity and equality vis-à-vis access to the US inspection facilities for Russian inspectors.1For Moscow, the decision was triggered by the US notification regarding its intention to inspect Russian nuclear sites, although such inspections under the New START treaty were paused due to Covid-19 in early 2020 by mutual consent.2
At the Tenth Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (RevCon) 2022, both countries sounded conciliatory regarding their views on arms control. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a message to the conference, stated that Russia has “fully implemented” its bilateral commitments with the US on nuclear arms reduction. Putin added that a “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought…”.3
In the same vein, US President Joe Biden asserted that “Even at the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to work together to uphold our shared responsibility to ensure strategic stability. Today, my Administration is ready to expeditiously negotiate a new arms control framework to replace New START when it expires in 2026.”4 Despite such positive comments, the inspection and verification aspects of the treaty are in trouble. Thus, it is pertinent to discern the challenges before New START and its successor agreement.
First, the US and Russia differ in their threat perceptions vis-à-vis each other’s weapon arsenal. The US is concerned about new Russian weapons such as the air-launched ballistic missile, the nuclear-powered cruise missile and the nuclear-propelled, nuclear-armed unmanned undersea vehicle.5 At the same time, Russians are anxious about the US missile defence systems along with high-precision conventional weapons having a strategic impact.6
Thus, the parties will have to negotiate differing priorities of both countries in the successor treaty. If Washington and Moscow do not find common ground to start negotiations, it would be detrimental to global arms control efforts. According to the U.S. Department of State, the US would have inadequate knowledge about the Russian nuclear forces without the New START’s verification measures, leading to “less information upon which to base decisions about U.S. nuclear forces”.7The converse of this proposition is that the temporary suspension of inspections will have ramifications for both sides, impacting the global strategic stability during current tumultuous times.
Second, there is a debate about the scope of the new treaty and whether it should include the consequential emerging technological innovations. The emerging technologies include difficult-to-intercept hypersonic missiles, drone swarms that are capable of targeting high-value counterforce or counter command infrastructure,8 cyberattacks against military command and control systems, and anti-satellite capabilities, among others. Military technology has been progressing continuously, and innovations in hypersonic technology have led to new systems that have not been included under the arms control treaty.9
According to Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia Sergei Ryabkov, the future agreement on strategic stability between Moscow and Washington should include traditional strategic weapons along with “all nuclear and non-nuclear weapons that can carry out strategic missions”.10 Apart from the new category of weapons, there is a scope for the successor treaty to cover non-strategic and non-deployed warheads, which are out of the scope of the current New START.
Third, China has made spectacular advancements in developing hypersonic missiles and has a massive inventory of its Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBMs). According to Bonnie Jenkins, Under Secretary, U.S. Department of State, China’s nuclear build-up seems to encompass unique nuclear-powered capabilities and a substantial augmentation of its silo-based ICBM forces. One cannot disregard the destabilising dynamic resulting from Beijing’s quick and covert nuclear build-up.11 A report by the U.S. Department of Defense has predicted that China would likely have 1,000 warheads by 2030 and already has a “nascent nuclear triad with the development of a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) and improvement of its ground and sea-based nuclear capabilities”.12 Any future nuclear arms control deal, therefore, will have to include the rapidly increasing Chinese nuclear arsenal.
Gen. Anthony Cotton, slated to be commander of U.S. Strategic Command, warned about China’s rising nuclear arsenal while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 15 September 2022. He spoke about China’s shift away from minimal nuclear deterrence and highlighted China’s “bona fide triad”.13 The Committee Chairman, Senator Jack Reed, predicted that the US would enter a trilateral nuclear competition era.14 Thus, there is a legitimate worry about the effects of Chinese nuclear breakthroughs on global strategic stability.
Fourth is an inability of the parties to insulate the treaty from global geopolitical developments. The current pause of the inspections has been preceded by a similar response by the US, where Washington had halted arms control talks with Moscow at the beginning of the Ukraine crisis in February 2022.15 Even in 2014, the Obama administration had paused arms control talks post the Crimean crisis.16 Along with the Ukraine crisis, Washington and Moscow have a history of being involved in various global issues, including the far-flung Syrian civil war of 2011 and the ongoing Iran nuclear contentions. Therefore, the former superpowers still hold sway in global politics and possession of more than 90 per cent of nuclear stockpile makes treaties like New START an absolute necessity for the 21st century.
So far, the treaty’s extension has given both sides a clear picture of each other’s strategic forces and has offered Washington and Moscow space to negotiate a new nuclear arms control agreement. Though it is naïve to think that arms control talks can be delinked from extant geopolitical developments, it is extremely desirable to have some mechanism which keeps parties engaged with the treaty obligations irrespective of geopolitical tensions. The New START treaty has a Bilateral Consultative Commission to discuss issues related to the implementation of the treaty. The same has been utilised to resolve the current issue of inspection pause. However, success of such mechanisms depends on state actors’ intent.
While the world has moved away from Cold War-era bipolarity, the US and Russia remain two of the most consequential powers vis-à-vis the nuclear domain. The bilateral arms control treaties have, to some extent, contributed to reducing the risk of nuclear war, enhancing mutual trust between the antagonistic superpowers, reducing the number of nuclear weapons and providing overall strategic stability during the peak of the Cold War rivalry. However, the New START and its successor treaty face credible challenges—one, from a rising China and two, from emerging technologies. The dysfunctional relationship between the US and Russia post the Ukraine crisis has adversely impacted its execution.
If the countries fail to negotiate a successor agreement to New START, China might get a free pass to expand its nuclear arsenal. Moreover, there is the possibility of an unrestricted arms race with significant detrimental implications. The challenges to implementing the treaty are not insurmountable. If the US and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics could successfully negotiate and implement arms control treaties during the peak of the Cold War, the same can be achieved even today.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.
*About the author: Mr Niranjan Chandrashekhar Oak is a Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi.
Source: This article was published by Manohar Parrrikar IDSA
- 1.“Russia Notifies US It is Exempting its Facilities from Inspections under New START”, TASS, 8 August 2022.
- 2.“Russia Paused New START Inspections ahead of US Plan to Conduct Such Probe in Days”, TASS, 9 August 2022; Amy Mackinnon and Jack Detsch, “Russia Suspends U.S. Nuclear Inspections”, Foreign Policy, 9 August 2022.
- 3.“Statement by Mr. Igor Vishnevetskii, Deputy Head of the Russian Delegation at the General Debate of the 10th NPT Review Conference”, Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, 2 August 2022.
- 4.“President Biden Statement Ahead of the 10th Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons”, The White House, 1 August 2022.
- 5.Miles A. Pomper, William Alberque, Marshall L. Brown, Jr., William M. Moon and Nikolai Sokov, “Everything Counts: Building a Control Regime for Nonstrategic Nuclear Warheads in Europe”, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, CNS Occasional Paper No. 55, May 2022.
- 6.Ibid.; James M. Acton, Thomas Macdonald and Pranay Vaddi, “Reimagining Nuclear Arms Control: A Comprehensive Approach”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 16 December 2021.
- 7.“New START Treaty”, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, U.S. Department of State.
- 8.Stephen J. Cimbala and Lawrence J. Korb, “Reviving Arms Control, post-Ukraine: Why New START Still Matters”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 13 July 2022.
- 9.Andrey Baklitskiy, “A New Start for Arms Control?”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 3 February 2021.
- 10.“Ryabkov Told What Should be the Strategic ‘Equation’ with the United States”, RIA Novosti, 30 November 2022.
- 11.“Under Secretary Bonnie Jenkins’ Remarks: Nuclear Arms Control: A New Era?”, U.S. Department of State, 6 September 2021.
- 12.“Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China”, Department of Defense, United States of America, 2021.
- 13.Karoun Demirjian, “U.S. General Warns of China’s Expanding Nuclear Arsenal”, The Washington Post, 15 September 2022.
- 14.Jack Detsch and Robble Gramer, “Biden Halts Russian Arms Control Talks Amid Ukraine Invasion”, Foreign Policy, 25 February 2022.
- 15.Amy Mackinnon and Jack Detsch, no. 2.
- 16.“Russia, US Working on Ways to Resume Inspections Under New START Treaty”, Business Standard, 21 August 2022.