Nuclear fears: last US-Russia arms pact could ‘simply die’

  • Treaty that limits number of nuclear weapons will expire in 2021 unless Trump and Putin agree to extend it
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2018, 11:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2018, 1:05pm

This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Bryan Bender on on October 23, 2018.

US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from a landmark arms control treaty with Russia could imperil decades of diplomatic efforts to prevent a nuclear arms race between Washington and Moscow.

A pull-out from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty would represent only the second time the US has unilaterally abandoned a cold war arms control pact.

It would leave only one other major treaty in force that limits how many atomic weapons the US and Russia can have at the ready – and that pact, known as New START, is set to expire in 2021 unless Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agree to extend it.

Now the odds of New START disappearing too are rising, say former US and Soviet negotiators stretching back to the era of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

“I think it is very likely that the administration will step out or allow New START to simply die,” former ambassador Richard Burt, who served in Reagan's State Department, said in an interview.

Burt was also Reagan’s ambassador to West Germany before negotiating a similar nuclear agreement with Russia on behalf of President George H.W. Bush.

“Even with the decision on INF, the Russians probably would be prepared to extend the treaty for another five years,” added Burt, who is now a partner at McLarty Associates, a Washington consulting firm.

“I think the real question is the Trump administration. It is not clear to me that they want to extend the life of the treaty.”

Nikolai Sokov, a former official in the Soviet and Russian foreign ministries who helped negotiate several arms control pacts, said the Trump administration's failure to try to work out its disagreements with Moscow over the INF Treaty does not bode well for future negotiations.

“I think that New START is in peril,” Sokov said in an interview from Moscow.

“The problem is more about the psychological atmosphere and political atmosphere. Generally the attitude of the Trump administration is it really doesn't like treaties.”

Gorbachev, in a rare public rebuke over the weekend, asked: “Do they really not understand in Washington what this can lead to?”

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“All agreements aimed at nuclear disarmament and limiting nuclear weapons must be preserved, for the sake of preserving life on Earth,” the last Soviet leader added in an interview with the Interfax News Agency.

The announcement that Trump plans to bow out of the INF treaty, which Gorbachev negotiated with Reagan in 1987, follows accusations that Moscow has been violating the pact with a new a missile that can reach between 500 and 5,500km.

Moscow denies the allegations and has publicly asserted it wants to maintain the INF Treaty. Over the summer, Putin appealed to Trump to begin negotiations on a host of arms control issues.

The only other US president to scrap a cold war arms agreement with Moscow was George W. Bush, who in 2002 pulled out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

That decision allowed the US to deploy missile defence systems in Europe, rankling Russians who allege that the batteries could also launch missiles barred by the INF Treaty.

The Russians “have their own complaints about our compliance and that has not gotten much attention,” Burt said.

“Their complaints are fairly serious ones.”

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US National Security Adviser John Bolton, who was undersecretary of state for arms control when Bush pulled out of the ABM Treaty, has also pushed for scrapping the INF agreement for several years. He travelled to Moscow this week to relay Trump's decision, expressing confidence that the two countries can still work through their differences without the treaty.

“I think we have had very professional, very work-like conversations and we look forward to continuing that,” Bolton told reporters Tuesday.

He also insisted that changing global threats require a new approach.

“Technology has changed, your strategic reality has changed, and we both have to deal with it,” he said in an appearance with Putin.

Bolton's remarks came a day after Trump warned that the US will increase its nuclear arsenal if Russia, China and other countries do not change their behaviour.

“Until people come to their senses, we will build it up,” he told reporters.

The comments only fuelled consternation over the fate of New START, which arms control specialists see as the biggest impediment to the type of atomic arms race that defined much of the cold war.

That treaty limits the US and Russia to 1,550 nuclear warheads apiece on intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines or bomber planes.

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It also limits each country to a total of 700 such missiles (some missiles can carry more than one warhead), while allowing each side to keep 800 more “non-deployed” nuclear-capable launchers or bombers.

The pact mandates a rigorous schedule of reporting and reciprocal inspections of US and Russian nuclear forces – the bedrock of Reagan's “trust but verify” mantra. New START expires in 2021 but allows for a five-year extension.

Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has warned that the withdrawal from the INF treaty before an aggressive effort to bring the Russians back into compliance could cause broader damage.

“I hope we’re not moving down the path to undo much of the nuclear arms control treaties that we have put in place,” he said earlier this week.

“I think that would be a huge mistake.”

Even some who opposed the New START Treaty negotiated in 2010 now support extending it.

Eric Edelman, a former defence undersecretary under George W. Bush who testified against New START on grounds it was too one-sided, now fears that unless it's extended the Russians could outpace the US in developing new and more advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles.

He noted that the US programme to build a new ICBM remains in its infancy, “essentially a bunch of view graphs”.

“I happen to be in favour of extending it for five years now, mostly because the Russians are producing a new road-mobile ICBM, they are producing a new heavy ICBM, they have tested a rail-mobile ICBM,” Edelman sad in an interview.

But arms control expert John Holdren worries that after Trump's recent action, the entire system of cold war arms control agreements is at risk.

“I fear the arms control regime, which has brought stability over many decades, is falling apart,” said Holdren, who served for two decades as chairman of the Committee on International Security and Arms Control at the National Academy of Sciences and was former President Barack Obama’s White House science adviser.

Others expressed concern that the Trump administration might follow a middle road that wouldn't be much better.

Bolton has previously said that the options for New START could be to extend it, renegotiate it or follow a different model in which each side would agree to limits but not require inspections.

Many on both sides still believe the Russians would be willing to negotiate, despite the worsening friction with Washington.

“I think the Russian leadership puts arms control in a special category,” Burt said.

“I think it reinforces the idea that Russia is still a superpower – that it is able to work directly with the United States and that confers on the Russians a special status internationally.”

If Moscow is permitted to build up its arsenal unchecked, he added, “Nato is going to have to figure out how it is going to respond. That is going to be a very painful process.”

Lynn Rusten, who was the senior director for arms control and non-proliferation on Obama's National Security Council, said a world without any limits on the two largest nuclear arsenals could spell disaster.

“You can't race or spend yourself to advantage,” said Rusten, now a senior adviser at the disarmament group Nuclear Threat Initiative.

“It is illusory. Given the danger of these weapons, mutual restraint is the only rational way forward.”