On May 14, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Sochi, Russia to discuss what the State Department called a “new era” in “arms control to address new and emerging threats” with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin.
The trip follows reports that Donald Trump has directed his administration to seek a new arms control agreement with Russia and China that should include: “all the weapons, all the warheads, and all the missiles.”
U.S. officials, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, have criticized the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) because it only limits U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons and does not cover Russia’s stockpile of sub-strategic warheads in central storage inside Russia.
New START, which caps each side’s enormous and devastating long-range nuclear weapons to no more than 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed strategic missiles and bombers, will expire in February 2021 if Trump and Putin don’t agree to an extension.
Russia has said it is ready to begin talks on a five-year extension of the treaty. The Trump administration, which has been conducting an interagency review of the treaty for over a year, is still undecided on whether to maintain or discard the agreement.
After his meeting in Sochi with Lavrov, Pompeo said they had agreed that their respective “teams will begin to work not only on New START and its potential extension but on a broader range of arms control issues that each of our two nations have in our shared best interests in achieving agreement on.”
At first glance, a broader nuclear arms control deal with Russia and China may sound promising. But the Trump administration does not appear to have the capacity to negotiate such a far-reaching agreement, which would be complex and would take years to conclude even if all sides were interested—and not all of them are.
Agreement on the extension of New START, which will be difficult enough, should be the first step forward.
On May 6, and before he set off for Sochi, Pompeo acknowledged that a trilateral deal involving China and that covers all types of U.S. and Russia nuclear weapons might be “too ambitious," noting "there’s just a couple years left before New START expires. It may be that we have to do that on a bilateral basis.”
The day after the Pompeo visit to Russia, the lead nuclear and arms control officials from the State and Defense Departments appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but their responses only raise more questions and concerns.
Ranking Democrat Robert Menendez asked Under Secretary of State Andrea Thompson “if Russia is in compliance, do you believe it in the nation’s best interest to extend New START?”
She replied that “we’re engaged in an interagency process” and “it is too soon to tell.”
He asked: If New START expires, could Russia target the United States with hundreds or perhaps thousands of additional nuclear warheads?
Thompson replied: That is a great question for Russia, Senator.
“No, that is a great question for you,” Menendez shot back. “I am asking legitimate questions, [seeking] answers so that I can make policy decisions. I am not asking Russia about our national defense, I am asking you!”
“That is a hypothetical, senator, and I am not going to answer,” Thompson insisted.
In fact, it is not hypothetical. As an in-depth CNA report concluded, if New START is discarded, Russia could upload hundreds of additional nuclear warheads on its long-range missiles. And the United States could do the same.
If New START is allowed to expire, then we would also lose the treaty-mandated inspections, data exchanges, and notifications that provide insights into Russia’s nuclear forces. As the head of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, told a February 26 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, the United States has “very good intelligence capabilities, but there’s really nothing that can replace the eyes-on, hands-on ability to look at something” that New START provides.
Menendez wanted to know why the Department of Defense believed that China, which has a far smaller nuclear arsenal than either Russia or the United States, would want to engage in trilateral nuclear disarmament talks at this stage?
He noted that China has roughly three hundred nuclear warheads, of which fewer than one hundred are deployed on intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. United States and Russia have more than six thousand each.
Under Secretary for Policy David Trachtenberg could not give a plausible explanation. “I can’t speak to what would compel China” because “I can’t get into the mind of the Chinese leadership,” he said.
Democrat Sen. Edward Markey pointed out that just days earlier, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said: "China will not take part in any trilateral negotiations on a nuclear disarmament agreement,” and he asked if China’s “participation or nonparticipation is relevant for New START extension?”
Thompson said the administration had not reached any conclusions yet.
The baffling non-answers from the senior administration officials strongly suggest that the president’s impulse for a grand U.S.-Chinese-Russian arms control bargain is not backed up with a realistic plan. Worse yet, it may be a poison pill designed to create a pretext for killing the New START agreement.
As Senator Menendez noted, “this new initiative must not serve as an excuse for suddenly withdrawing from another international agreement. If new agreements can be reached, they should add, not subtract from our existing arms control architecture.”
While Russia is open to broader arms control talks with Trump, it has its own list of grievances about U.S. policies and weapons systems—including missile defense systems, cyber weapons, weapons development in space, and advanced conventional arms.
For example, if U.S. negotiators seek limits on Russia’s estimated two thousand tactical nuclear weapons that are kept in central storage, Russia is sure to press for the removal from the United States arsenal of approximately 180 tactical nuclear bombs deployed in five European NATO countries that can be delivered on fighter jets. Such weapons, which serve no meaningful military or deterrence mission for either side, should be eliminated. But any negotiations to verifiably reduce this other class of nuclear weapons won’t be easy.
A large number of Democratic senators and some Republicans, understand very well that it would be extremely unwise to abandon New START before a new and more ambitious agreement might be reached. That is why they, along with major U.S. allies are urging Trump and Putin to promptly agree to a five-year New START extension.
Last week, the Democratic Chair, Eliot L. Engel, and the ranking Republican, Michael McCaul, on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs introduced a bill urging the extension of New START. Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren and others also introduced another bill to prohibit funding to increase U.S. strategic nuclear weapons above New START limits so long as Russia does not.
Without a decision to extend New START, there will be no legally-binding, verifiable limits on the world’s two largest nuclear stockpiles for the first time since 1972. The risk of an unbridled arms race would grow. If President Trump can’t understand that, Congress must step in to prevent it.
Daryl G. Kimball is the Executive Director of the Arms Control Association