By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos
With only two days remaining until its expiration, the United States and Russia officially extended the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years, keeping in place the treaty’s verifiable limits on the deployed strategic nuclear arsenals of the world’s two largest nuclear powers.
The U.S. State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry issued separate statements Feb. 3 announcing that the formal exchange of documents on the extension had been completed. The treaty was set to expire Feb. 5.
Biden administration officials stressed that the extension would buy time and space to pursue follow-on talks on new arms control arrangements.
In a Feb. 3 statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that President Joe Biden “made clear” that the New START extension “is only the beginning of our efforts to address 21st century security challenges. The United States will use the time provided…to pursue with the Russian Federation, in consultation with Congress and U.S. allies and partners, arms control that addresses all of its nuclear weapons.”
“We cannot afford to lose New START’s intrusive inspection and notification tools,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a Jan. 21 statement after news first emerged that the Biden administration would pursue a five-year extension. “Failing to swiftly extend New START would weaken America’s understanding of Russia’s long-range nuclear forces.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry emphasized on Feb. 3 the importance of New START’s extension for maintaining strategic stability. In a statement, the ministry said, “Considering the special responsibilities that Russia and the U.S. carry as the world’s largest nuclear nations, the decision taken is important as it guarantees a necessary level of predictability and transparency in this area, while strictly maintaining a balance of interests.”
The ministry also signaled that Moscow “is ready to do its part” to return the U.S.-Russian dialogue on arms control “back to a more stable trajectory [and] reach new substantial results which would strengthen our national security and global strategic stability.”
Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke for the first time Jan. 26 and “discussed both countries’ willingness to extend New START for five years, agreeing to have their teams work urgently to complete the extension,” according to the White House readout of the call.
Although Biden did not need to secure the Senate’s approval for the extension, Russian domestic law required that Putin obtain the consent of the Russian parliament for his decision to extend the treaty. The Kremlin submitted the necessary bill to parliament Jan. 26.
Russian officials had warned that it could take weeks, if not months, for the Russian legislature to act on an extension, but the State Duma and the Federation Council each approved the extension law in less than a day. Putin signed the law Jan. 29, which allowed the two countries to officially seal the extension with an exchange of diplomatic notes Feb. 3.
Russia in recent weeks had reiterated its long-standing support for an unconditional five-year extension of New START, the maximum amount allowed by the treaty. Although Biden had expressed his support for an extension on the 2020 presidential campaign trail, he did not specify how long of an extension he would seek. Some of his advisers were reportedly encouraging a shorter extension. (See ACT, November 2020.)
The Washington Post reported on Jan. 21 that the Biden administration would seek a five-year extension, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed the report later that day.
Biden “has long been clear” that the treaty extension “is in the national security interest of the United States, and this extension makes even more sense when the relationship with Russia is adversarial as it is at this time,” she said.
New START’s extension comes after the Trump administration did not seriously pursue arms control talks with Russia for more than three years and then, in the last six months of 2020, hinged a short-term extension of New START on additional conditions that Moscow repeatedly rejected.
Last October, the two countries exchanged proposals on a one-year extension of New START paired with a one-year freeze on all U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads. The Trump administration maintained that there was an agreement in principle on this concept, but Russia firmly dismissed any agreement and rejected the Trump administration’s insistence that a freeze be accompanied by detailed definitions of a warhead, a warhead stockpile declaration, and a plan to verify a freeze. (See ACT, November 2020.)
Extending New START for five years “really abandons all the leverage one has with the Russians,” said Marshall Billingslea, the former U.S. special envoy for arms control, in January. Appointed as special envoy in April 2020, Billingslea led the Trump administration’s failed discussions with Russia on New START and arms control.
“We’re aware that the last administration engaged in negotiations on an extension of…New START for months but was unable to come with an agreement,” a senior U.S. official told The Washington Post. “We also understand there have been various proposals exchanged during those negations, but we’ve not seen anything to suggest that at any point an agreement on the terms that have been reported was in place,” the official said.
The Trump administration also had initially insisted on the inclusion of China in trilateral arms control talks as a prerequisite for a New START extension. That demand eventually fell away as Beijing repeatedly refused to join talks. (See ACT, June 2020.)
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Jan. 27 that Beijing welcomes New START’s extension. “It is conducive to upholding global strategic stability and promoting international peace and security, which meets the aspiration of the international community,” he added.
In the Feb. 3 statement, Blinken said that the Biden administration “will also pursue arms control to reduce the dangers from China’s modern and growing nuclear arsenal.” Unlike its predecessor, the Biden administration plans to seek bilateral talks with China in parallel with a U.S.-Russian dialogue, rather than trilateral arms control talks.
When dialogue between the United States and Russia might begin remains unclear.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Jan. 29 that the treaty’s extension “is the beginning of the story on what is going to have to be serious, sustained negotiations around a whole set of nuclear challenges and threats that fall outside of the New START agreement, as well as other emerging security challenges.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov struck a similar tone on Jan. 27. “We now have a significant amount of time in order to launch and hold profound bilateral talks on the whole set of issues that influence strategic stability, ensure security of our state for a long period ahead,” he said.
Without extending New START for five years, “this task would have been much more difficult,” Ryabkov argued.
The United States has expressed concern about Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons and new nuclear weapons delivery systems, two of which, the Sarmat and Avangard, Moscow has already said would be covered by New START, as well as China’s advancing nuclear capabilities. For its part, Russia has said that, in future talks, it would like to take into account U.S. missile defenses, hypersonic weapons, missiles formerly banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the inclusion of France and the United Kingdom in arms control measures.
Ryabkov told the RIA Novosti news agency on Jan. 27 that the October proposal involving a warhead freeze “came in a package” with the Trump administration’s proposal to extend New START for one year and has since been canceled under the new Biden administration. “Now there is no reason to return” to the previous proposal, he said. “We will negotiate from a different starting point.”
Meanwhile, U.S. allies and partners welcomed the news that the Biden administration planned to seek a five-year extension of New START and encouraged further dialogue on arms control.
“I have repeatedly stated that we should not end up in a situation where we have no limitation whatsoever on nuclear warheads,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Jan. 22. “NATO allies have made clear that the preservation of New START is of great importance.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Peter Stano, European Commission spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, also said that they applauded the extension of the accord. In addition, France, Germany, and the UK issued statements of support.
In the U.S. Congress, Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.), who had introduced bipartisan legislation in 2019 calling for the extension of New START, released a statement on Jan. 22 welcoming the Biden administration’s decision.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) also commended the treaty’s extension. “Despite Russia’s wide-ranging malign activities, ensuring limits on and insight into Russia’s nuclear arsenal is unquestionably in the national security interest of the United States,” they wrote.
Most Republican lawmakers, however, criticized the extension decision. They echoed former Trump administration officials in arguing that the treaty was a deeply flawed agreement and that a shorter extension would have enhanced U.S. leverage in follow-on talks with Russia.
Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), a top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said on Jan. 22 that although he agreed with the president’s decision to extend the treaty, he was “concerned with the length of extension given Russia’s continued undertaking of massive modernization and its building of new capabilities that leaves out entire classes of nuclear weapons.”
Also on Jan. 22, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) said in a statement that “[h]aving secured the longer extension he desired, President Putin has no incentive to negotiate with the United States and will, as he has done, decline to engage in any further discussions.”
Signed in 2010, New START caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each. Inspections under the treaty and meetings of the Bilateral Consultative Commission, the implementing body of the treaty, have been suspended since early 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. But Ryabkov commented on Feb. 11 that Washington and Moscow have launched efforts to restart the inspections.