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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Shannon Bugos

No Deal Yet as New START Expiration Nears


January/February 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

With the sole agreement limiting U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals set to expire in early February, Russia has repeated its offer to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). President Joe Biden has said that he will seek to extend the agreement, but the incoming administration has yet to decide on the length of an extension to seek.

Toward the end of 2020, Russian officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, reaffirmed Russia's willingness to extend New START, but raised the prospect that there was insufficient time to do so. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)“Russia is in favor of extending this treaty for five years without additional conditions,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Nov. 30. In his annual end-of-year news conference on Dec. 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for an extension of the treaty for at least one year. New START allows for an extension of up to five years so long as the U.S. and Russian presidents mutually agree to it.

Biden’s advisers continue to consider the length of extension the incoming administration should pursue, with Biden's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan saying Jan. 3 that "right out of the gate in the early days and weeks of the administration...we will have to look at extending that treaty in the interests of the United States." Nearly 30 U.S. arms control experts in a Nov. 30 letter urged Biden to agree to a full five-year extension without conditions as one of his first priorities.

After the U.S. presidential election, the Trump administration and Russia signaled a willingness to reach a deal on extension based on proposals exchanged in October. (See ACT, December 2020.) Washington proposed a politically binding one-year extension of New START and a one-year freeze on the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads of any type at current levels, as well as some type of verification plan for the freeze. Russia, which had called for a five-year extension of New START for much of 2020, countered with a one-year extension and a one-year warhead freeze so long as Washington put forward no other conditions, such as on verification.

Putin said on Dec. 17 that Russia remains open to dialogue regarding the treaty and awaits a response from Washington.

Marshall Billingslea, U.S. special envoy for arms control, replied on Twitter that the Trump administration has responded five times “to meet to finalize the freeze/extension deal to which Putin agreed” but that the Russian Foreign Ministry rejected all the meetings.

Ryabkov responded to Billingslea that Russia “offered [the United States] to agree on proposal by President Putin 25 times.... Instead of accepting this simple scheme they’re making unacceptable demands.”

The fate of the treaty now rests on the incoming Biden administration and Russia. The two sides will have just 16 days to seal an extension before the treaty expires on Feb. 5, 2021.

Billingslea insisted in remarks given on Nov. 17, published on Dec. 8, that the Trump administration’s proposal “is now the de minimis threshold for all future nuclear arms control deals with Russia.”

“Any future deal which fails to cap all warheads should be regarded as an abject failure,” he continued. “Any simple extension of New START without capitalizing on Putin’s acquiescence to an overall warhead limit would demonstrate a profound lack of negotiating acumen.”

Billingslea said that the two countries “are at the brink” of agreement and that there “is still time to hammer out” the details.

Trump administration critics have argued that such a freeze has never been done previously and that there is not enough time to reach agreement on key details. They claim that the incoming administration should not feel bound to a deal that might break new ground with respect to a warhead freeze but has not been officially agreed to and would only last a year in any event.

The details yet to be finalized include the definition of “warhead,” stockpile declarations, data exchanges, and a plan for verification of the freeze. (See ACT, October 2020.) “All we need to do is define what we are freezing [and] the cap level and start verification talks,” Billingslea tweeted on Dec. 17.

U.S. and Russian officials have said that the Trump administration sought a verification approach outside warhead production and disassembly sites known as portal monitoring. Russia has adamantly objected to this approach.

Meanwhile, in the event an agreement on extension is reached between the Biden administration and Moscow, it remains to be seen how Russia will seek to initially implement an extension given that Russian law requires approval by the Russian parliament.

Ryabkov said on Dec. 7 that, “for Russia to extend [New START] would mean to go through numerous steps…that equals to the formal ratification of a treaty.”

“We are prepared to…do our utmost to be there in time,” he said, but “the situation is challenging, it’s quite a demanding one.”

New START caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each.a

The fate of the only treaty limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons remains in question as the Trump administration closes.

U.S. Defense Bill Drops Nuclear Testing


January/February 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

U.S. lawmakers agreed in December to drop dueling House and Senate defense bill provisions on nuclear test explosions prompted by reports last spring that the Trump administration had discussed a resumption of such testing.

Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) praised Congress for refusing to authorize or appropriate funds for renewed U.S. nuclear testing. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)The Democratic-led House in July adopted in its version of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) an amendment offered by Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) to prohibit any fiscal year 2021 or prior-year funding “to conduct or make preparations for any explosive nuclear weapons test that produces any yield.” (See ACT, September 2020.)

The House version of the defense and energy and water appropriations bills included a similar prohibition.

The Republican-led Senate version of the authorization bill, however, included an amendment introduced by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to make $10 million available for the United States to conduct a nuclear test. (See ACT, June 2020.)

The final version of the authorization and appropriations bills ultimately eliminated all of the provisions.

McAdams said the final outcome would make the resumption of nuclear testing less likely.

“Our success in this fight means that our citizens won’t have to face the prospect of more dangerous and unnecessary explosive nuclear weapons testing in our backyard,” said McAdams in a Dec. 4 statement. “The United States maintains the most effective and capable nuclear deterrent in the world. We have done so while observing a moratorium on explosive nuclear testing for the past three decades.”

Then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden criticized the Trump administration last May for debating a return to nuclear testing, calling the possibility “as reckless as it is dangerous.”

Congress initially passed the final defense authorization bill in December by overwhelming veto-proof majorities, but Trump vetoed the bill Dec. 23. The Senate and House overrode the veto on Dec. 28 and Jan. 1, respectively.

Trump signed omnibus appropriations legislation on Dec. 27, and overall, Congress provided $741 billion for national defense programs, the same as the budget request.

In other areas, the sprawling appropriations law approved the vast majority of the Trump administration’s proposed $44.5 billion budget request for programs to maintain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear triad and its associated warheads and supporting infrastructure, but not without controversy.

The law provided $4.4 billion for building a fleet of 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, a slight increase of about $100 million above the budget request. The bill noted that “challenges have occurred in certain design, prototyping, and advance construction efforts of the program” and that “the supplier industrial base presents the most significant risk to the program.”

The law approved $2.8 billion to continue development of the Air Force’s B-21 Raider strategic bomber, the same as the budget request; $1.5 billion for the program to build the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which was a decrease of $75 million from the budget request; and $385 million for the Long-Range Standoff Weapon program to replace the existing air-launched cruise missile, $89 million less than the budget request.

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile interceptor launches from Kwajalein Atoll in a 2019 test. The defense appropriations bill funded the Missile Defense Agency with 12 percent more than the Trump administration requested. (Photo: Missile Defense Agency) The Air Force in September awarded a $13.3 billion development contract to Northrop Grumman to build the new ICBM system. (See ACT, October 2020.)

The funding reduction for the new cruise missile appears to reflect the Air Force’s decision last spring to continue development with Raytheon as the sole contractor. (See ACT, May 2020.) The service is planning to award the main development contract for the missile in May, about nine months earlier than planned, according to a Nov. 18 Inside Defense report.

The initial House and Senate versions of the appropriations and authorization bills largely aligned on funding to modernize the nuclear triad, but the budget request for and oversight of the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was far more contentious.

The Trump administration last February requested $15.6 billion for the agency’s nuclear weapons activities account, an increase of $3.1 billion, or 25 percent, from the fiscal year 2020 appropriations and $2.8 billion above the projection for 2021 in the fiscal year 2020 budget request.

In the wake of an internal Trump administration dispute about the appropriate size of the NNSA weapons budget request, the Senate version of the defense authorization bill included provisions that would give the Pentagon’s Nuclear Weapons Council, a body that coordinates the Defense and Energy departments’ nuclear weapons stockpile responsibilities, a much greater say in the annual formulation of the NNSA budget. (See ACT, March 2020.)

In addition to proving controversial in the Senate, the language prompted strong pushback from the House. The lower chamber’s authorization bill included a provision that would make the energy secretary a member of the council, and its appropriations legislation sought to bar the council from expanding its budget role.

The final version of the authorization bill, however, retained much of the Senate language, and the House provisions were dropped from the final appropriations bills.

Meanwhile, the law provided $15.4 billion for the NNSA’s nuclear weapons activities, a decrease of $257 million from the budget request but an increase of $2.9 billion from last year’s appropriation. The law fully funds the $53 million NNSA request to begin early work on a new-design submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead dubbed the W93 and the $1.5 billion NNSA request to increase the rate of production of plutonium pits for nuclear warheads to at least 80 per year.

In contrast, the House had proposed $13.7 billion for weapons activities, including no funding for the W93, and a cut of several hundred million dollars for pit production.

Lawmakers poured cold water on the Pentagon’s proposal to supplement existing U.S. homeland missile defenses by modifying existing systems.

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) requested $274 million in fiscal year 2021 to adapt the Aegis missile defense system and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, designed to defeat short- and intermediate-range missiles, to provide an additional layer of defense against limited ICBMs threats.

In the end, the law provided $49 million only for limited concept studies, a decrease of $225 million from the budget request.

The final authorization bill authorized a similar funding reduction and conditioned 50 percent of the remaining funds on the receipt of a report from the defense secretary and the MDA director detailing a description of the requirements for the layered missile defense proposal; a site-specific fielding plan that includes possible locations, the number and type of interceptors, and radars in each location; and a life-cycle cost estimate of different deployment options.

The law also required an assessment from the Defense Intelligence Agency of how using the Aegis and THAAD systems “to conduct longer-range missile defense missions would be perceived by near-peer foreign countries and rogue nations” and how they “would likely respond to such deployments.”

The skepticism from Congress comes on the heels of a successful first intercept test of the Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA missile of an ICBM target on Nov. 17. (See ACT, December 2020.)

Critics have warned that an increase in the number of U.S. interceptors capable of intercepting ICBMs could exacerbate Russian and Chinese concerns about the threat the defenses pose to their nuclear deterrents and prompt them to take steps to counter new U.S. missile defenses.

The law provided $10.5 billion for the MDA, an increase of $1.3 billion from the budget request.

The appropriations include increases of $220 million to sustain the existing Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system based in Alaska and California, $194 million to develop a new next-generation homeland defense interceptor in the wake of the demise of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle program, and $76 million to buy an eighth THAAD battery.

Despite providing a funding boost for the GMD system, Congress raised concerns about the next-generation interceptor, which is not slated to be fielded until 2028 at the earliest. The authorization law requires an independent cost estimate and at least two successful flight intercept tests prior to beginning production of the new interceptor.

The bill also directed the MDA to develop, subject to the availability of appropriations, 20 interim homeland missile defense interceptors by 2026 that, “at minimum, meet the proposed capabilities of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle program” and “leverage existing kill vehicle and booster technology.”

The appropriations law, however, did not provide any funding for such an interim interceptor. Moreover, the authorization bill allows the Pentagon to waive the requirement for the interceptor if development is not technically feasible, the interim capability is not in the national security interest of the United States, and the capability cannot be fielded at least two years before the next-generation interceptor.

Elsewhere in the appropriations bill, Congress provided no funding for the Marine Corps to assess the feasibility and utility of firing the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile from a ground launcher.

The Marine Corps had requested $125 million to purchase 48 Tomahawk missiles for this purpose. (See ACT, June 2020.) With an estimated range of between 1,250 and 2,500 kilometers, a ground-launched variant of the Tomahawk would have violated the now-defunct 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the treaty in August 2019.

But the bill provided $88 million in initially unrequested Army funding to pursue development of a ground-launched midrange missile capability. (See ACT, October 2020.) The service last fall selected variants of the Tomahawk and the Navy’s Standard Missile-6 missiles to be part of an initial prototype scheduled to be fielded in 2023.

The appropriations law also increased funding for the Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which seeks to counter weapons of mass destruction and related threats.

The Pentagon requested $239 million for the program in fiscal year 2021, a decrease of $135 million, or 36 percent, from the fiscal year 2020 appropriation, prompting alarm from members of Congress, former government officials, and nuclear security experts. (See ACT, April 2020.)

The appropriations bill provided $122 million in additional funding for the program, including an increase of $98 million for the program’s efforts to reduce the proliferation of biological weapons and facilitate detection and reporting of diseases caused by especially dangerous pathogens.

The authorization law also requires a report from the National Academy of Sciences on improving U.S. strategies “for preventing, countering, and responding to nuclear, biological, and chemical terrorism.”

The sprawling National Defense Authorization Act does not permit nuclear testing, but does strongly support expanded U.S. nuclear capabilities.

U.S. Selects Missiles for INF-Range Capability


January/February 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The U.S. Army announced on Nov. 6 its selection of two missiles to serve as the basis for initial development of a conventional, ground-launched, midrange missile capability. Both missiles would have been prohibited under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, from which the United States withdrew in August 2019. (See ACT, September 2020.)

Sailors aboard the USS Barry prepare to fire a Tomahawk Land Attack Missile during a September 2020 exercise. The U.S. Army is considering using a variant of the missile as a land-based weapon that would have been banned by the INF Treaty.  (Photo: Samuel Hardgrove/U.S. Navy)Lockheed Martin won a sole source contract worth $339 million to design, develop, and deliver the Mid-Range Capability (MRC) prototype to be fielded in fiscal year 2023.

“Following a broad review of joint service technologies potentially applicable to MRC, the Army has selected variants of the Navy [Standard Missile-6 (SM-6)] and Tomahawk missiles to be part of the initial prototype,” said the statement from the U.S. Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office.

The SM-6 was developed as a missile defense interceptor and first deployed in 2013. The Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missile has been in service since the 1980s, although some variants, such as those carrying a nuclear payload, have been retired.

“The MRC supports one of the Army’s chief roles in multi-domain operations: to use strategic fires to penetrate and disintegrate enemy layered defense systems, creating windows of opportunity for exploitation by the joint force,” the office said.

The Army told Breaking Defense that it does not plan to modify either of the Navy missiles. By selecting variants of the two missiles, the Army would be able to purchase the latest models: the SM-6 Block IB, estimated to complete development in 2024, and the Tomahawk Block Va, known as the Maritime Strike Tomahawk (MST), which began production in 2020.

Since the demise of the INF Treaty last year, the Trump administration has been vocal about quickly developing and deploying a ground-launched, intermediate-range missile capability to counter Russia and China in particular. (See ACT, October 2020.) But where such missiles might be based remains unclear, as countries, including Australia, Japan, and South Korea, have downplayed the possibility of hosting them. (See ACT, September 2020.)

Signed in 1987, the now defunct INF Treaty led to the elimination of 2,692 U.S. and Soviet nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

The U.S. Army has identified two Navy missiles to serve as the basis for a new land-based system that would have violated the INF Treaty.

Fate of New START Hinges on Biden

Fate of New START Hinges on Biden With less than two months remaining until the last agreement limiting the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals expires, Russia has reiterated its offer to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ). Though President-elect Joe Biden has said that he will seek to extend the agreement, the incoming administration has yet to decide on the length of an extension to seek. “Russia is in favor of extending this treaty for five years without additional conditions,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov Nov. 30. In his annual...

U.S. Completes Open Skies Treaty Withdrawal


December 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States formally withdrew from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty on Nov. 22 despite domestic and international pressure to remain party to the accord, including from President-elect Joe Biden and numerous U.S. allies.

The United States has used OC-135 aircraft to conduct overflights as part of the Open Skies Treaty. The U.S. withdrawal from the treaty may trigger plans to dispose of the aircraft. (Photo: Perry Aston/U.S. Air Force)“Today, pursuant to earlier notice provided, the United States withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies is now effective,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a tweet. “America is more secure because of it, as Russia remains in noncompliance with its obligations.”

In May, Pompeo issued the six-month notice of withdrawal as required by the treaty, citing concerns over Russian compliance with and implementation of the treaty as grounds for the U.S. withdrawal. (See ACT, June 2020.)

Russia has repeatedly denied accusations that it has violated the treaty and said in a Nov. 22 statement that all options remain on the table regarding its continued participation. The statement followed Nov. 12 remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in which he outlined in stark terms the circumstances in which Moscow might remain party to the treaty.

“If they [the remaining states-parties] want to keep the treaty in force, and if we choose to remain part of it, we will require our partners to legally confirm in writing that, first, they will not prohibit flights over any part of their territory regardless of whether U.S. bases are located there or not,” he said.

He added that the parties must also “strongly commit not to transmit data on flights over Russia to the United States.”

Under the treaty, all imagery collected from overflights is made available to any of the states-parties. During the treaty’s fourth review conference in October, Russia prioritized the provisions of the pact that restrict the distribution of treaty data to states-parties only. (See ACT, November 2020.)

A senior U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal that the United States is already moving to dispose of the two Boeing OC-135B aircraft used for treaty overflight missions.

“We’ve started liquidating the equipment,” the official said. The planes “are really old and cost-prohibitive for us to maintain. We don’t have a use for them anymore.”

An Air Force official told Defense News on Nov. 24 that a final decision on the disposition of the aircraft has not yet been made.

Congress appropriated $41.5 million in fiscal year 2020 to continue modernizing the aircraft, and the Air Force was planning to seek $76 million in fiscal year 2021 to replace the planes. But the Defense Department halted the funding earlier this year. (See ACT, April 2020.)

Following the U.S. withdrawal, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. William Keating (D-Mass.) issued a Nov. 23 statement maintaining that the Trump administration broke the law when it neglected to notify Congress 120 days before issuing an intent to withdraw from the treaty as required by the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

“President Trump is attempting to burn down our critical institutions on his way out the door,” they wrote. “In doing so, he not only jeopardized U.S. national security, but he blatantly ignored and deliberately broke the law.”

In a Dec. 20, 2019 statement issued alongside his signature of the fiscal year 2020 authorization bill, Trump argued that the NDAA provision on the treaty raised constitutional concerns.

“I reiterate the longstanding understanding of the executive branch that these types of provisions encompass only actions for which such advance certification or notification is feasible and consistent with the president’s exclusive constitutional authorities as commander in chief and as the sole representative of the nation in foreign affairs,” the president said.

President-elect Joe Biden has expressed support for the treaty and condemned the administration’s decision to withdraw. But he has stopped short of committing to try to reenter the agreement when he takes office in January or arguing the United States still remains a state-party because the withdrawal was done in violation of the law.

If Biden did want to resume U.S. participation in the treaty, it is unclear whether and how he could do so.

In a statement to Arms Control Today, Monica Matoush, a Democratic spokesperson for the House Armed Services Committee, did not address whether Biden should attempt to rejoin the agreement.

“The importance of alliances and confidence-building measures to support strategic stability in Europe in the face of Russian aggression must be a priority for the next administration, despite efforts over the past four years to undermine these relationships and dismantle agreements that uphold transatlantic stability,” she said.

Peter Jones, a former Canadian representative to the Open Skies Treaty negotiations, proposed on Nov. 12 that the remaining states-parties pause the treaty at one minute to midnight on Nov. 21 in order to prevent the Trump administration from withdrawing from the treaty and buy time for a new Biden administration to rescind the withdrawal.

“In effect, they would be ignoring the Trump deadline until the Biden administration was sworn in and could rescind the withdrawal,” he wrote. Although the proposal was reportedly discussed in Vienna, it did not come to fruition.

Signed in 1992 and entering into force in 2002, the treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.

The U.S. withdrawal raises questions about the treaty’s future.

NATO Completes Annual Nuclear Exercise


December 2020

The Netherlands hosted NATO’s annual nuclear exercise in October, which included the German Air Force practicing delivery of U.S. nuclear bombs believed to be stored at Büchel Air Base, according to reports.

A German Eurofighter taxis at Nörvenich Air Base in 2013. The base was used as a site for this year's NATO exercise Steadfast Noon. (Photo: Neuwieser/Flickr)“Today’s exercise shows that allies are determined to ensure that NATO’s nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg while visiting Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands for the exercise on Oct. 16. “The purpose of NATO’s nuclear deterrent is not to provoke a conflict but to preserve peace, deter aggression, and prevent coercion.”

This year, the training flights took place over parts of western Europe and the North Sea.

The annual exercise, known as Steadfast Noon, is designed to practice and assess NATO’s nuclear capabilities deployed in Europe. It is planned far in advance and involves more than 50 aircraft from several allied air forces. The aircraft do not carry live bombs during the exercise flights.

The United States deploys an estimated 20 B61 tactical bombs each at Büchel and Volkel air bases, according to the Federation of American Scientists. About 100 U.S. tactical bombs are believed to be deployed at bases in Belgium, Italy, and Turkey.

German reports said that this year’s nuclear exercise involved the Nörvenich Air Base, which is an alternative site for the nuclear bombs stored at Büchel.

The Russian Defense Ministry released a statement on Oct. 23 criticizing the exercise. “Such actions lead to a lowering of the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, provoke a further increase in tension along the Russia-NATO contact line, and negatively affect the level of trust in Europe,” said the ministry.—SHANNON BUGOS

NATO Completes Annual Nuclear Exercise

New START in Limbo Ahead of U.S. Election


November 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States and Russia each dismissed last-minute proposals involving a short-term extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), leaving the fate of the sole remaining U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agreement undetermined on the eve of the U.S. presidential election.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greets reporters at the State Department on Oct. 19. Two days later he reaffirmed the U.S. position that New START "is not a good deal for the United States." (Photo: Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images)The down-to-the-wire diplomacy appeared to narrow the large gap between the two sides on prolonging the treaty, but no resolution was found, and the failure to close a deal raised questions about whether Russia ever intended to strike a deal with the Trump administration so close to the election or whether the Trump administration ever intended to extend New START. Administration officials have repeatedly criticized the treaty and waited more than three years to begin serious arms control talks with Russia.

It remains to be seen if the Trump administration and Russia will seek to continue negotiations later this year regardless of the election result. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has said that if he is elected president in November, he will pursue the treaty’s extension without conditions.

New START, which is slated to expire on Feb. 5, 2021, permits an extension of up to five years so long as the U.S. and Russian presidents agree.

After several months of talks, Washington and Moscow in mid-October exchanged dueling offers pairing a one-year extension of New START with an undefined one-year freeze on the numbers of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in an Oct. 20 statement that Russia offers to extend New START for one year and “undertake a political commitment to ‘freeze’ for the above-mentioned period the number of nuclear warheads that each side possesses.”

But the statement said that the offer “may be implemented only and exclusively on the premise that ‘freezing’ of warheads will not be accompanied by any additional demands on the part of the United States.”

The foreign ministry added that the “time gained” by the New START extension “could be used to conduct comprehensive bilateral negotiations on the future nuclear and missile arms control that must address all factors affecting strategic stability.”

Russia had previously called for extending New START by five years without conditions and balked at a warhead-level freeze.

The foreign ministry statement followed direction from Russian President Vladimir Putin on Oct. 16 to seek to extend New START “unconditionally for at least a year.” Putin made no specific mention of a freeze on all warhead levels.

U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien responded to Putin’s proposal on Twitter later that day, describing it as a “non-starter.” He claimed that Russia had appeared willing to accept a U.S. offer to extend New START and freeze all warhead levels in tandem after he met with Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev in Geneva on Oct. 2.

It is not clear whether Russia had agreed in principle to such a two-part deal or whether Russia further amended its position between Putin’s Oct. 16 comments and the Oct. 20 foreign ministry statement.

Regardless, the Trump administration praised Russia’s willingness to agree to a short-term extension of New START and a freeze and said that although a deal was close, more work needed to be done to seal it.

“President [Donald] Trump has made clear that the New START Treaty by itself is not a good deal for the United States or our friends or allies,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Oct. 21. He criticized the treaty for failing to capture Russia’s large and, according to the Defense Department, growing arsenal of up to 2,000 nonstrategic nuclear warheads.

“What we’ve proposed to extend that agreement would be historic,” Pompeo said. “But we need to make sure that U.S. and Russian negotiators get together just as soon as possible to continue to make progress to finalize a verifiable agreement.”

O'Brien expressed optimism at an Oct. 28 Hudson Institute event that “if we can get through the verification issues, I think we're going to be able to get to a deal.” “We'll see how that plays out over the next couple of days and weeks,” he said.

If a deal is secured, the administration said it plans to use the ensuing year to translate it into a formal treaty that would also include China.

But Russia rejected the U.S. demand for verification of a freeze and said that such details should be deferred for future negotiations.

“We have the feeling that they [the United States] need verification for the verification's sake,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Russian news outlet Interfax on Oct. 22.

“It may be considered that we’ve made two concessions,” Ryabkov said, referring to Russia’s willingness to agree to a one-year extension of New START and a one-year warhead-level freeze. “Let them make concessions to meet us halfway: let them drop their monitoring demand.”

In a separate interview with Kommersant, Ryabkov said “that the degree of our differences is rather significant” and that he did not see “reasons for strong optimism” that New START would be extended.

He warned that “[r]ejecting this condition will immediately destroy the possibility of reaching the agreement” and that Russia would be willing to allow New START to expire if the United States continued to make unrealistic demands.

The warning appeared to be a response to repeated suggestions by Marshall Billingslea, U.S. special envoy for arms control, that Russia is desperate to extend New START and that Washington would raise the price to extend the treaty if Russia failed to meet U.S. demands.

Ryabkov told reporters on Oct. 27 that Washington and Moscow still “are exchanging documents behind closed doors” and that “Russia is open to continuing the dialogue."

The Trump administration’s October offer of a short-term extension of New START and a freeze marked another shift in the U.S. negotiating position in arms control talks with Russia.

In August, the administration conditioned U.S. consideration of a short-term extension of New START on Russia agreeing to a politically binding framework deal that would verifiably cover all nuclear warheads, make changes to the New START verification regime, and be structured to include China in the future. (See ACT, September 2020.) The administration had earlier insisted that China immediately participate in trilateral arms control talks with the United States and Russia, which Beijing rejected. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

Key details about the U.S. freeze proposal have yet to be clarified by the Trump administration.

According to an Oct. 20 report in The Wall Street Journal, a senior administration official said the United States wants both sides to declare the total number of warheads deployed on delivery systems of all ranges and kept in storage.

To verify that neither side was exceeding the declared number of warheads, the official said Washington wanted monitors to be stationed outside U.S. and Russian warhead production facilities. The official added that such a portal monitoring system, which has featured in past arms control agreements, did not need to be in place immediately but that Russia needed to agree to technical talks on how to eventually implement such an approach.

But Russian officials have called the adoption of such a system a nonstarter, at least in the near term.

In the past, the United States and Russia agreed to politically binding arms control and risk reduction measures without stringent verification protocols.

If Trump is not reelected and does not make a deal with Russia before Inauguration Day, a President Joe Biden would have 16 days before the treaty expires in which to pursue an extension. It is not clear whether he would continue to push for a freeze on all U.S. and Russian warheads.

Billingslea said in an Oct. 20 interview that a potential Biden administration would have to “rethink” its support for an unconditional extension of New START.

According to Billingslea, Trump, “by signaling his intention to pursue this historic approach and with the Russians now agreeing in principle, that now sets the floor for future arms control discussions.”

New START caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each.

 

Despite pre-U.S. election maneuvering, prospects for extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty remain slim.

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