Off to a good START

The US and Russia have extended the treaty, but it’s not about disarmament

This story was prepared by Linda Pentz Gunter largely derived from information provided by ICAN 

The United States and Russia have agreed on extending New START for another five years.

Extending New START is an important action by these two countries after four years that saw both countries undermining arms control agreements. However, it is important to remember that it is not a disarmament step, but rather an extension of the current levels of nuclear arsenals. 

Nevertheless, it is a welcome development to see the new US administration and Russia return to where they left off four years ago rather than escalate. It also comes at an auspicious time, as the world has just witnessed the entry into force on January 22, 2021 of the first global treaty to ban nuclear weapons, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

The United States and the Russian Federation agreed on January 26, 2021 to extend the bilateral cap on U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five additional years. 

This is not the first time now President Biden has been involved in discussions around the New START Treaty. (Photo: President Barack Obama hosts a START Treaty meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Nov. 18, 2010. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).

What is the New Strategic Arms Treaty? (New START)

In 2010, the United States and Russia signed New START, which limits both countries to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, 700 deployed nuclear missiles and bombers, and a total of 800 deployed and non-deployed launchers for nuclear missiles and bombers.

Specifically, it places these aggregate limits:

  • 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments;
  • 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments (each such heavy bomber is counted as one warhead toward this limit);
  • 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.

Clearly, 700 ICBMs; 1,550 nuclear warheads; and 800 deployed and non-deployed launchers are 700, 1,550 and 800 too many. The only way forward to guarantee our survival is to rid ourselves of nuclear weapons altogether, as per the terms of the TPNW.

However, given the reality of the situation, New START sets in motion these possibilities. Without it, we are back to a dangerous and potentially deadly nuclear arms race.

Other things of note about New START:

  • The United States is estimated to have 5,800 nuclear weapons and Russia to have 6,375 nuclear weapons in total, which includes non-deployed warheads not counted under New START. 
  • The treaty expires on 5 February, but will now be extended for five years with the agreement of both countries’ presidents. 
  • Under the Trump administration, the United States made little progress to extend the treaty, instead unsuccessfully seeking a new trilateral arms control agreement with China.
  • President Biden announced early in his presidency that he would pursue an extension of New START, which was welcomed by Moscow, which had made repeated overtures to do so under the Trump administration.
  • Extending New START importantly prevents Russia and the United States from increasing their deployed nuclear warheads and delivery systems, maintaining one bilateral arms control agreement.

Consequently, New START is important for a number of reasons:

  • The extension of New START prevents backsliding on nuclear disarmament. However, additional steps will now be needed to make progress on disarmament. 
  • Since the United States and Russia first agreed to this current cap on nuclear arsenals in 2010, the international community has negotiated, adopted and brought into force a treaty banning nuclear weapons: nuclear weapons are illegal under international law.  So, even as the US and Russia may cap nuclear weapons expansion, they remain outlaw pariah states in the eyes of the world as long as they continue to hold onto nuclear weapons.
  • Throughout the time the New START agreement has been in place, Russia and the United States have spent billions each year to build new nuclear weapons systems. This is now banned under international law (although non-parties to the TPNW are not bound by it). Under current global pandemic conditions, this kind of spending is even more immoral and obscene.
  • With the New START quickly extended and the TPNW in force, the groundwork has been laid for significant disarmament advances in the coming four years. The nine nuclear armed states have no excuses not to walk that path. Nuclear disarmament need not seem daring but simply adherence to international law.
  • Simply staying at the current nuclear weapon levels will not be enough to protect the world from this catastrophic threat. One nuclear missile is one weapon too many. As studies have shown, even unleashing just 100 nuclear weapons (as India and Pakistan could do against each other) would result in global devastation, suffering and famine. Therefore, New START must be seen as just that; a start. But not enough until all nuclear weapons are abolished.
  • With the TPNW in force, there is a new international standard. Russia, the United States and all nuclear-armed nations must take active steps to move towards compliance with this international treaty and join it. 

To read more about the implications of the extension of the New START Treaty, please visit this page on the ICAN website.

Headline photo: ICBM comparison. MDA-file/Wikimedia Commons.

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