US and Russia discuss extension of New START

The United States and Russia recently met in Vienna to discuss the extension of the New START treaty. It is a relief that discussions are finally taking place, as New START is the last remaining binding cap on these two nuclear arsenals. However they were unable to agree to an immediate extension.

What is new START?

New START is a bilateral agreement between the USA and Russia that was signed in 2010 and that limits the number of deployed nuclear warheads at 1550. The Treaty will expire in February 2021, but with the agreement of both states it can be extended for another five years. Extending the Treaty is important, as without it it would be the frist time in decades that there would be legally binding agreement limiting the number of of strategic nuclear weapons of the US and Russia. This would be a next step on a dangerous path towards a new nuclear arms race.

What’s the holdup?

Russia already stated support for extending the treaty and proposed a moratorium on short- and middle-range missiles, but the US has not yet agreed to either. The US has two main demands for extending the New START: they want to expand the agreement to cover all types rather than just strategic nuclear weapons. It also wants China to take part in the Treaty, because according to the US, China is secretly increasing its nuclear arsenal. On the morning of the negotiations the US Special Presidential Envoy Ambassador Marshall Billingslea posted a photo on twitter of a meeting room in Vienna that the US delegation had covered with Chinese flags. China has repeatedly said it won’t join the New START extension talks, arguing the US and Russia should first significantly reduce their much larger arsenals. (NB: China has around 300 nuclear weapons, while the US and Russia have over 6000 each.

The global treaty regime restricting the development, testing and deployment of nuclear weapons is under threat, as seen by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from hard -won agreements, including the INF and Open Skies treaties. The bilateral discussions are therefore important and encouraging. The Netherlands should recognize this and call on the US and Russia to immediately extend New START, and not, as Minister of Foreign Affairs Blok did in a tweet last week, deflect attention to the question of whether or not China will join the talks.

What next?

The discussions did not result in an extension of new START, but both countries agreed to continue talking and to setting up three working groups to prepare for future negotiations. The working groups will begin meeting in Vienna, and will talk about doctrines/ arsenals, outer space, and transparency and verification.

Several multilateral disarmament agreements already exist in which China, Russia and the US can engage to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, such as the NPT, CTBT and TPNW. The nuclear armed states should fully reject all weapons of mass destruction and join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the only multilaterally agreed and legally binding instrument that comprehensively prohibits nuclear weapons with the aim of their total elimination.