One major Cold War-era weapons treaty has collapsed. Another, aimed at building trust among the United States, Russia, and other countries, is under severe strain. Washington and Moscow are modernizing their arsenals, building new, more advanced weapons.
By most accounts, the United States and Russia are on the verge of a new arms race, if not already in one.
But last month, something unusual happened: U.S. inspectors traveled to Russia to examine a new missile that Moscow says is super-fast. The demonstration was “aimed at facilitating efforts to ensure the viability and efficiency of New START,” the Russian Defense Ministry said.
The move has arms control observers wondering whether, despite poisoned relations, Moscow and Washington may in fact find a way to agree to extend the biggest — and last — major weapons treaty restraining the holders of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals.
Dmitry Stefanovich, a researcher with the Russian International Affairs Council, said the inspection of the weapon — called Avangard by Russian military designers — was a demonstration that Moscow was eager to extend New START.
“It is more like an offer: See, we will [give] you transparency on some new weapons and probably some more in the future, but we have to extend the treaty for it to work,” he told RFE/RL. “And we expect the same from you, when your modernization of strategic weapons reaches fruition.”
Signed in 2010 by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, New START limited the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals by capping the numbers of delivery systems — long-range bombers, silo-based land missiles, and submarine-launched missiles — and deployed warheads.
As of September 1, Russia had 513 deployed strategic launchers with 1,426 warheads, according to State Department figures. The United States deploys 668 strategic launchers with 1,376 warheads, according to the data.
Taken together, the two arsenals are larger than those of the world’s other six professed nuclear-armed states combined, according to the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based research organization. That doesn’t include the undeclared nuclear states: Israel and North Korea.
The treaty expires in February 2021, although provisions allow for it to be prolonged by five years if both sides agree.
With not much more than a year to go, whether that will happen is uncertain. U.S. President Donald Trump has sent mixed signals about his intentions for New START, while making clear that he would like a treaty that also limits the nuclear arsenals of other countries, particularly China.
During a news conference in London with French President Emmanuel Macron on December 3, Trump indicated he had discussed the issue with Putin.
“Also, with respect to nuclear weapons, I’ve spoken to President Putin, and I’ve communicated with him,” Trump said. “He very much wants to, and so do we, work out a treaty of some kind on nuclear weapons that will probably then include China at some point, and yourselves, by the way. But it will include China and some other countries.”
Earlier this year, the United States pulled out of another keystone arms control agreement — the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty — after years of accusing Russia of developing, then deploying, a treaty-violating weapon.
As part of that withdrawal, the United States moved to start testing its own missiles that would also be in violation of the INF treaty. In 2018, Congress approved $48 million to develop such weaponry, and just last week, on December 12, the Pentagon tested a noncompliant ballistic missile.
However, the new defense policy legislation that passed Congress with bipartisan support a day earlier bars the Trump administration from building any such missiles.
Washington’s European allies have largely supported the United States in the INF dispute, although several have voiced specific fears about being targeted by Russian weaponry.
“After the decision of the end of the INF Treaty, we have to build something new. Because now this is a risk for Germany, France, and a lot of European countries to have new missiles coming from Russia, exposing us,” Macron said during the news conference with Trump in London.
Russia, meanwhile, has signaled that it was open to extending New START and suggested that if that didn’t happen, the United States would be to blame for it.
“Russia is ready to immediately, as soon as possible, right before the end of this year, without any preconditions, extend the New START treaty,” Putin said on December 5 at a meeting with top military and defense-industry officials. “So that there would be no further [misinterpretation] regarding our position, I say this now officially.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to reiterate that statement during a December 11 visit to Washington, where he met with Trump.
“Russia has reconfirmed its offer already now to make the decision to extend this treaty. President Putin has expressed this position, reconfirmed it in his public speech,” he said.
While Putin and other Russian officials have signaled a desire to prolong New START, Russian weapons designers have pushed forward with the development of sophisticated new weapons systems.
“I think the Kremlin is truly interested in extending New START, but it is currently taking advantage of the Trump administration’s fumbling on the issue,” Hans Kristensen, a longtime nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists, told RFE/RL.
“Putin is taking full advantage of Trump’s inability to embrace something signed by Obama by playing the good guy,” Kristensen said. “In doing that, the Kremlin is seeking to capitalize on Trump’s withdrawal from INF and opposition to New START as a way to paint Russia as the good guy and the United States as the threat to international security.”
One of the main sticking points for the United States has been a demand to include new Russian weapons in the prolonged agreement.
The new nuclear-capable systems of concern to Washington include an air-launched ballistic missile known as Kinzhal; a nuclear-powered unmanned torpedo called Poseidon; a nuclear-powered cruise missile known as Burevestnik; and the Avangard, which Putin bragged about publicly in his state-of-the-nation speech in March 2018.
The system, which can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, is designed to be launched from an intercontinental missile and to glide to its target at hypersonic speeds.
On November 24, U.S. inspectors examined the Avangard, under the rules stipulated by New START. The inspection, formally known as an exhibition, was confirmed by the State Department in a statement to RFE/RL.
“Russia hosted an exhibition under the New START Treaty,” a spokesman said. “The United States exercised its right under the treaty to participate in the exhibition. Both the United States and Russia continue implementation of the treaty. We cannot discuss any details given the confidential nature of the exhibition.”
While the White House gives mixed signals about its interest in extending New START, other military and civilian officials have made stronger arguments about its need.
Top U.S. commanders have voiced support for the New START inspections provisions, saying U.S. intelligence would lose access to valuable information that it gleans from inspections.
The treaty “has provided us with valuable insight into Russian, in this case, capabilities,” Admiral Charles Richard, the commander of all U.S. nuclear forces, said at his Senate confirmation hearing in October. “It gives us a feel for their size, capacity, capability.”
But the treaty “doesn’t address large categories of weapons that are not treaty-constrained,” he added. “It is only with Russia, and they are developing new systems.”
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During another Senate hearing in early December, Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, gave a mixed assessment of Moscow’s adherence to treaties.
“We assess that Russia does still remain in compliance with its New START obligations, but its behavior in connection with most other arms control agreements — and not merely the ill-fated INF Treaty — has been nothing short of appalling,” Ford said.
David Trachtenberg, who left as deputy undersecretary of defense in July 2019, said New START’s inspection rules were not as good as those included in previous treaties. He echoed Ford’s assertions that Moscow was “selectively complying” with some treaties.
“Rather than extending New START on the pretense that it is better than nothing, perhaps it is time to consider renegotiating it in favor of an agreement that truly serves American security interests,” he said in an op-ed published in the journal Real Clear Defense. “Arms control is not an end unto itself…. New START should not be viewed in isolation from Russia’s overall arms control behavior and nuclear weapons activities.”
Trust, But Verify
Trachtenberg’s argument about a lack of trust in Russia is one of the primary reasons that the INF collapsed, experts say: the inability to fully verify, or disprove, the U.S. allegations about the Russian missile that is allegedly in violation.
As the dispute came to a head in 2017, U.S. officials provided Russian counterparts with some evidence to back up their assertions and suggested they be allowed to inspect the missile in question.
Russia initially refused to even acknowledge the existence of the missile: “How can you verify something that doesn’t exist?” as one U.S. official, who tried to explain the Russian position, told RFE/RL.
When Russia did confirm the missile’s existence, it claimed that the missile complied with the treaty, so there was no need for U.S. inspections.
The fate of another verification treaty, Open Skies, has come into question for indirectly related reasons.
The deal allows member countries to conduct flights over one another’s territories to do surveillance of things like military bases and deployed units. Some U.S. officials and several top Republicans have accused Russia of conducting illegal overflights and blocking similar flights over strategic Russian territory.
In September, the Trump administration signaled that it was preparing to withdraw from the treaty, but analysts in Washington told RFE/RL that a final decision on withdrawing had been postponed.
The annual U.S. defense policy budget ordered the administration to give lawmakers 120 days notice if it intended to withdraw from either Open Skies or New START.
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