First, negotiations on a new treaty to replace New START cannot commence anytime soon. The Trump administration has begun, like its predecessors, with a Nuclear Posture Review, which has just been published. The next step is the adoption of implementation documents, which are supposed to translate strategy into specific programs. Until the desired shape of the U.S. nuclear posture is clarified, position for negotiations cannot be developed. In practical terms, this means that the United States can hardly have a detailed position until the end of 2018 or, more likely, early 2019. Two years is not enough for negotiations and ratification, or even for negotiations alone, given the complexity of the issues that need to be resolved. This means that even under the best of circumstances, the two countries will have to live without a treaty for an unknown period of time.
In a broader context, the United States and Russia have unintentionally stumbled into the same asynchronous replacement-and-modernization cycle that plagued arms control throughout the Cold War. Namely, at the time when one country was preparing to replace aging weapons systems (and was interested in establishing stricter quantitative and qualitative limitations that would allow them to save money), the other was already completing such a cycle and was seeking to secure the investment (consequently trying to design limitations that would accommodate the existing and projected force). A few years later the roles would be reversed. Today, Russia is completing a large-scale program to replace weapons systems inherited from the Soviet Union with brand-new ones; the bulk of investment has already been made and this represents at least partial explanation why Moscow objected to Barack Obama’s proposal for a one-third reduction in the New START-mandated level. The United States, in contrast, is only beginning such a cycle, and is thus not only more flexible with regard to the shape of the future treaty, but might also be receptive to additional reductions, which could allow it to save funds required for a future posture.
The 1987 INF Treaty casts a long and dark shadow over any U.S.-Russian arms-control negotiations. The United States has formally found Russia in material breach of that treaty by testing and, more recently, deploying a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range above five hundred and below 5,500 kilometers; the INF Treaty bans all ground-launched missiles, both ballistic and cruise, within that range. Russia denies that charge and has, instead, accused the United States of several treaty violations. The most significant of them is the claim that the Aegis Ashore missile-defense system, which is being deployed in Romania, can launch not just defense interceptors, but also Tomahawk-type cruise missiles. There is no doubt in U.S. policy circles that Russia violated the treaty: Congress recently authorized research and development of a new GLCM (such work will not constitute a violation of the treaty until testing begins). Until the INF compliance issue is resolved, talks on a new treaty are virtually impossible.
Without doubt, Russia made a strategic mistake when it chose not to take American accusations seriously at the time they were communicated through confidential channels (2008–11). If it had, it could limit damage to the arms-control process at large. Perhaps it was possible to address the charges at a later date with somewhat greater damage. Since 2014, when problems in the bilateral relations began to mount, it has become exceedingly difficult to find a solution, and even should one be found, damage to arms control will be significant, perhaps near fatal. An option that is informally discussed these days is reciprocal demonstrations of systems that cause concern: the suspected Russian GLCM and Aegis Ashore. That option might have been feasible several years ago; it still holds promise, but only barely.
Moreover, the political climate in the United States is highly unfavorable to a new round of arms-control negotiations, given the state of U.S.-Russian relations. The crisis is multifaceted, involving the issues of Ukraine, Syria and, above all international controversies, the accusation of Russian meddling in the U.S. election in 2016. The current state of U.S.-Russian relations is certainly the worst since the end of the Cold War, and possibly since the early 1950s. Simply put, negotiations with Russia on anything, much less an issue so sensitive and central to national security, are almost out of the question. It will take years of patient efforts to recreate even a minimally acceptable atmosphere for resumption of the arms-control process.
Last, but not least, is the sheer complexity of the arms-control agenda. The issues that have prevented progress since the conclusion of New START have not disappeared. The controversy over missile defense has remained the same and, although a compromise is not infeasible, it would require a major decision, which is difficult to imagine in the strained political atmosphere. The issue of long-range conventional weapons, on the other hand, is changing. Formally, the American and Russian positions remain the same, but since 2015 the United States has lost the monopoly on these assets. In Moscow, one can hear voices—albeit unofficially—that further discussion of that issue, as well as nuclear-arms reduction, should wait until Russia has time to build up its long-range conventional capability. It seems almost inevitable that the American position will have to change, and that these weapons will eventually be included in the agenda, but there is no precedent for limitations on long-range conventional weapons. Finding common ground will be difficult and time-consuming. These challenges could further grow if and when testing of long-range hypersonic weapons begins.
In 2017, the United States and Russia launched a dialogue on strategic stability. Little is known about it, but there are reasons to believe meetings are businesslike and professional, and address all issues of substance. This appears to be the right decision under the current circumstances. The arms-control agenda needs to be reformulated; to do so, the discussion has to address a broad array of challenges, at first without direct implications for a possible future agreement. If the structure of arms control is falling apart, the parties need to begin with laying a new foundation; hopefully these consultations will help achieve that task. It will take significant time, but since a new treaty is not on the horizon, it is best to approach the task methodically, step by step, taking as much time as necessary. We can only hope that the process will continue in the same manner in which it has started.
A Quick Fix: Extension of New START
New START allows for a five-year extension. This appears the only feasible option, and also a highly desirable one in the current atmosphere. The extension will not require congressional action; it can be implemented through an exchange of notes between the two governments. It will not resolve any issues, but can buy the United States and Russia extra time to sort out the highly complex, controversial and even confrontational bilateral agenda.
Perhaps more importantly, the extension will preserve the transparency, predictability and verification framework, thus avoiding the gap that emerged after the expiration of START I. Then, the gap only lasted a bit over a year; today, such a gap could be considerably longer. It would serve no one to lose predictability of the strategic balance, hence the extension will be in the interests of the United States as much as Russia.
Moscow has already proposed such an extension, but Washington has not yet responded. That silence is understandable: the U.S. government had to wait for the new Nuclear Posture Review, and even such a small step might be controversial in the current political climate. Luckily, there are at least two more years, perhaps a bit longer, in which to make that decision. It is a quick fix, a stopgap measure, but that is the best that can be done today and in the near future. Doing nothing—allowing New START to expire—would be much, much worse.
The seventh anniversary of New START, instead of being a cause for celebration, brought in a new dark cloud. A statement made by the Russian Foreign Ministry on February 5 questioned the procedures used by the United States to convert some launchers of SLBMs and B-52 heavy bombers. It appears that the “INF disease” of mutual accusations of violation has spread to New START, which appeared the only remaining uncontroversial arms-control agreement. While there is little doubt that New START will survive until 2021, even its extension no longer seems as assured as only a few days ago.
In principle, these issues are of a technical nature and can be resolved with relative ease, but there appears to be little appetite for cooperation and compromise on both sides, and it remains to be seen whether Moscow will want to use the new issue to undermine the process. The new developments make early extension of New START a high priority—the parties need to move forward before a new conflict undermines the chance.
Dr. Nikolai Sokov is senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.