Nuclear Tensions On The Rise As Diplomacy Falls Short

Published on October 2, 2020

The last nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, New START, will expire Feb. 5, 2021. As tensions between the two nuclear powers have grown in the past two decades and many treaties have been terminated, Russia remains eager to extend this treaty. However, the United States is persistent in conditioning that China is brought into New START before they’re willing to extend the deal up to another five years.

Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. special presidential envoy for arms control, recently reinforced Washington’s stance on the potential extension of New START. Billingslea stated that Washington will offer to extend for less than five years, offering a memorandum of intent, rather than a binding treaty. Washington is also insistent that Beijing be brought into the treaty but opposes Moscow’s push for London and Paris to join as well. Billingslea declared that Moscow must accept the treaty extension before the U.S. presidential election in November – or face an increased “entrance fee”.

A further sticking point is that Washington is unwilling to respond to Moscow’s push for reduced nuclear armaments stationed throughout NATO’s European allies’ borders. The Kremlin views NATO buildup alongside its borders as a direct threat to its national security.

History of new START

New START is the continuation of the START 1 treaty signed in Moscow in 1991 by President George H. W. Bush and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. On April 8th, 2010, Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed the New START treaty in Prague. The treaty became effective in February 2011.

The objectives of the treaty are to cut in half the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers and to establish a new inspection and verification protocol. New START limits each country’s deployed long-range nuclear warheads to 1,550; restricts each side to 700 deployed long-range nuclear delivery vehicles and allows for 800 deployed and non-deployed launchers and delivery vehicles. It allows for up to 18 “short notice” and on-site inspections of the other’s nuclear bases and facilities annually to ensure neither party violates the treaty. Over 300 on-site inspections have taken place since the treaty took effect.

Diplomatic Folly?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear, “Russia is willing to immediately, as soon as possible, before the year is out, renew this treaty without any preconditions.”

Repeated comments from President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have acknowledged they have no intention of extending New START unless China agrees to a tripartite agreement. Given the growing threat the United States perceives from China, American officials are unwavering in their calls for China to engage in a nuclear arms control treaty – even at the cost of increased tension to US-Russian relations.

Russia and the U.S. each has about 20 times more nuclear weapons than China, which has stated it will not join talks between the nuclear powers unless the U.S. cuts its arsenal to the size of Beijing’s. Beijing is well aware that Washington will never agree to this. Unfortunately, this diplomatic folly on behalf of the U.S. puts all peoples at risk of a nuclear catastrophe.

US – Russia Nuclear Relations

“Diplomacy is the art of small bites, not huge bites, ” observed Lawrence Wilkerson, professor of Government and Public Policy at William and Mary and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Wilkerson stressed the importance, first and foremost, of solidifying an extension to New START between the two nuclear superpowers. “Eventually, my goal would be to have a multilateral arms control regime that would include all the nuclear powers,” he said.

U.S. – Russian nuclear relations have been tense since President George W. Bush’s unilateral decision to leave the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002. Under President Trump, the U.S. has withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019 and the Open Skies Treaty earlier this year.

The Trump administration has cited Russian violations as the main cause for leaving these treaties. Many European allies and Russia itself have pushed back against these unilateral actions by the U.S., claiming it undermines the security of everyone. President Putin has expressed his view by saying, “Instead of engaging in a meaningful discussion on international security matters, the United States opted for simply undercutting many years of efforts to reduce the probability of a large-scale armed conflict.”

President Trump also withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA (better known as the Iran Nuclear Deal) in 2018. Unilateral actions like these by the U.S. have created tense situations globally and serious instability. Additionally, actions like these undermine the global trust of the U.S. and pose grave threats for nuclear proliferation.

Growing Diplomatic Tensions

The past 20 years have increasingly exacerbated conflict between the US/NATO and Russia. Originating in 2008, Washington pushed for Georgia and Ukraine, which both border Russia, to join NATO. These miscalculated actions by the West caused a brief war, with lasting impacts, between American-backed Georgia and Russia over disputed republics. In 2014, the Ukrainian Coup and the opening of the door to NATO and the EU sparked serious international concerns in the region. The civil war in the Ukrainian Donbass region and the subsequent annexation of the Crimea have escalated the situation further.

The U.S. must understand that maintaining an international nuclear arms control regime is paramount for the security of human society. Equally as important is understanding and respecting the specific national security concerns of Russia – which borders 14 countries in multiple tense regions of the world.

A Preserved and Peaceful Future

Russia and the U.S., as the two leading superpowers with a collective force of more than 10,000 nuclear warheads, must lead the rest of the world by example. This includes not acting unilaterally in the dissolution of treaties, and strict compliance with the terms and conditions of treaties. While the perceived threat of a nuclear war has subsided in recent decades, the catastrophic potential has only increased.

With nine nations now armed with nuclear weapons, international action is paramount in ensuring a preserved and peaceful future. Let us hope that for all of our sakes, level-heads will prevail.


Artin is a Champlain College graduate with a degree in Management and Innovation. He is focused on examining and writing on smart cities, sociocultural, political, and economic topics.

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