What Will “Higher Admission Fee” Look Like? US Threatens to Toughen Conditions of New START Extension

PIR Center Internship Program graduate
October 19, 2020

“I want to emphasize the importance of a continuing dialogue with a country that together with us possesses 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons on the measures to deal with these weapons. Without such a dialogue, the world would be rudderless in front of its greatest dangers.”

Henry Kissinger expresses approval of signing the New START Treaty in 2010

As of 2020 the two major nuclear powers hold 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads, the SIPRI Yearbook 2020 report says, with China building up its arsenals to cross the 500-600 warheads line in the near future. If we compare bare figures, the world today with 13400 nuclear warheads possessed by all the 9 nuclear states looks more stable and secure than some 40 years ago, when over 60000 warheads were at their disposal. The deployed 1500-1700 warheads, that both the US and Russia have in their arsenals today, is still enough for mutually assured destruction. During the Cold War MAD strategy was a pillar of strategic stability and promoted the establishment of a legal framework to curb potential nuclear build-up. The only treaty still in force meant to safeguard strategic stability is the New START, which is set to expire February 5, 2021, leaving the world without any Russian-US arms control agreement.

Aware of potential dangers of such an outcome, the two countries held 2 rounds of talks in Vienna on extending the New START, which resulted in no apparent breakthroughs. Constrained by tough time frames (with only 4 months left to renegotiate a treaty or to secure its extension and 1 month before the US presidential elections), the USA put forward a set of preconditions, which look more like an ultimatum to Russia. In an interview to a Russian newspaper Komersant Marshall Billingslea, the US envoy for arms control, laid out the US stance.

Washington expects Moscow to sign before the US elections a joint presidential agreement of politically binding rather than legally binding nature, that would secure China’s obligatory participation in the next trilateral or multilateral treaty. It is still unclear why the US wants to hold Russia responsible for China’s understandable reluctance to join the treaty. The whole idea of involving China seems rather detached from reality, because nuclear deterrence should have a target country. That is why, bilateral treaties were signed between the USSR (Russia) and the US, that were strategic rivals during the Cold War and still maintain adversaries. China’s main deterrence target, India, has not yet been invited to the table of negotiations, which weakens China’s interest in participation.

The second precondition Russia has to meet in order to get US consent to extend the New START, is setting limits on non-strategic warheads. And the third point is strengthening verification regimes, turning a rather “soft” arms control agreement into a “hard” one.

If Russia fails to agree to the three US requirements, Washington threatens to charge “a higher admission fee” (which probably means toughening US conditions after the elections). The whole situation looks like the USA is trying to abandon this last bilateral arms control pillar, just the way they withdrew from a range of agreements (Open Skies Treaty, INF, JCPOA). This time the US is playing a blame-game, trying to shift the burden of guilt in the New START collapse to Russia, because it won’t and can’t accept some US conditions. And in case the New START is no longer in force, the US also threatens to convert SSBN missile tubes and denuclearized bombers back to nuclear capability and to modernize its nuclear forces.

So what tightened conditions should Russia expect?

First of all, the USA has been long concerned with the alleged nuclear storage site in Kulikovo, Kaliningrad, just next to its European allies’ borders. Russian dual-capable non-strategic weapon systems are thought to be deployed in the region, so the USA might have some reasons for concerns. As a result, Washington may require on-site inspections in the region, just as well as renewed inspections on the largest missile plant in Votkinsk. Votkinsk inspections were aimed to ensure first INF and then START I compliance and met with Russian fierce disapproval of the US permanent intrusive mission on the site.

Russia also emphasized concerns over US non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW) and its unwillingness to withdraw tactical nuclear weapons from Europe and to dismantle their storage infrastructure to rule out possible redeployment. What is new about the Russian position is the fact that Sergei Ryabkov, deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, literally offered the US partners to talk on mutual reduction of NSNW, while previously Russia would adamantly refuse to talk unless the US withdrew its tactical forces from Europe prior to the talks. Steven Pifer, former US diplomat, reminds in his tweet that under Obama US officials claimed that NSNW withdrawal from Europe is possible as an outcome of all-encompassing US-Russian nuclear weapons treaty rather than its precondition. But even Russia’s withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Kaliningrad in exchange for US NSNW withdrawal from Europe would seem unfair, since Kaliningrad is still a part of Russia.

Secondly, taking into consideration the US hysteria over Russian advanced hypersonic glide vehicle “Avangard”, recently put on full military duty, and Russian leadership in the hypersonic weapons race in general, the USA is highly likely to insist on hypersonic weapons strict regulations under the renewed treaty.

“Avangard” which now has a status of deployed weapon, was one of the 6 advanced strategic weapons of the new generation, revealed by Vladimir Putin in his state-of-the-nation address on March 1, 2018. The other 5 (nuclear-armed cruise-missile of allegedly unlimited range Burevestnik, nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed unmanned underwater vehicle Poseidon, hypersonic ALBM Kinzhal, heavy ICBM Sarmat and laser weapon Peresvet)have been raising US concerns ever since their revelation. Thus, American negotiators may require the US control over these weapons with the endgame of dismantling the deployed ones.

In this case Russia should propose mirror conditions. We may insist on Boeing X-37 inclusion into the new treaty regulation system, but other than that it is hard for Moscow to come up with equivalent requirements.

Thirdly, taking into account Viena talks of the third working group, which dealt with space militarisation, the USA is likely to bring up the issue. The US 2020 Defence Space Strategy labels Russia and China as main threats to US satellites. Earlier in September the US made allegations that Russia had conducted a new ASAT (anti-satellite missile) test, with a Russian satellite, Cosmos 2543, reaching a dangerous proximity to a US governmental satellite. The above-mentioned facts allow us to infer that the US may insist on downgrading Russia’s anti-satellite systems (missiles and inspector satellites).

Finally, in terms of the treaty structure, the US will probably want it to look more like the START I, which contained harsher regulations (the amount of nuclear warheads permitted on each type of launchers was fixed). Not only is the verification regime of the new treaty likely to resemble the START I system of 12 types of inspections, but also the main provisions regarding how launchers and warheads will be limited may be a return to previous treaties.

To recap it all, the US has trapped Russia by setting inappropriate conditions in the tone of an  ultimatum, making it almost impossible to reach an agreement before the presidential elections. Whether Trump administration would soften their position (just as they slightly did with China issue) and whether Biden administration would eagerly cooperate just as he claims to, is not clear yet. Anyway, the international community hopes that the new US administration will stick to a responsible approach to strategic stability maintenance.