The last major treaty limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear might hangs in the balance as the Trump administration pushes to replace it with a long-shot arms-control pact that also includes China five months before the U.S. presidential election.
Russia has said it is willing to extend New START unconditionally. But the Trump administration has balked, saying the treaty signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 is outdated, insufficient and overly advantageous for Moscow.
In addition to wanting a broader pact that covers China, the Trump administration is seeking better verification mechanisms and limits on all Russian nuclear weapons, many of which are particularly risky and fall outside the parameters of New START.
“New START is going to expire in February. There is the ability to extend it. But again, it’s the wrong framework for the future,” Marshall Billingslea, Trump’s new special envoy for arms control, said in an interview in May, declining to say whether the United States would extend the treaty. “The right framework for the future is a trilateral approach that has at its heart effective verification.”
On Monday, Billingslea said in a tweet he had agreed on a time and date this month to meet with Russia’s main arms-control negotiator. On Tuesday, he said China declined to take part in the negotiations, and accused Beijing in a tweet of maintaining a “Great Wall of Secrecy on its nuclear buildup.”
The talks come as Trump holds increasingly frequent phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin, most recently June 1, leading some to suggest that his administration is pursuing a rapprochement with Moscow and looking at arms control as a key area of mutual interest. Trump has wanted to negotiate with Moscow on nuclear weapons dating back to the 1980s, when he expressed an interest in brokering a deal with the Soviets on behalf of the Reagan administration. Skeptics, however, see the lofty aspiration for a deal with Russia and China as a possible pretense to dismantle another treaty negotiated by Obama.
Asked in the interview about a proposal to extend New START so long as Russia progresses toward a new deal that regulates all of its nuclear weapons, Billingslea said: “There is some very strong thinking in there.”
The proposal, by two former top Republican defense officials, would see Russia agree to begin negotiations on a new treaty that captures all Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons in exchange for the extension of New START, and the Trump administration would reserve the right each year to end the agreement if progress isn’t being made.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has said Russia is prepared to discuss limits on its weapons under development — which include nuclear-powered cruise missiles and torpedoes that Putin has trumpeted — but only if the United States agrees to discuss Moscow’s concerns about U.S. missile defenses, space weapons and conventional weapons under development that could strike anywhere on Earth in as little as an hour.
“If they want to negotiate, the path is open,” Ryabkov said in an interview last month with the Russian newspaper Kommersant. “The condition of our willingness to discuss future types [of weapons] is the U.S. agreeing to a substantive discussion of our concerns.”
Billingslea has said the White House isn’t willing to limit U.S. missile defenses. In a May 21 appearance at the Hudson Institute, he said that “the Russians would have to make some incredibly impressive offer — I can’t even fathom what it might be — for the president to change that position.”
The result is a Hail Mary game of nuclear brinkmanship in the waning days of the Trump administration’s first term that is unlikely to be resolved before the election.
Russia may wait to see whether the Democrats take the White House and opt to extend the New START accord as is. China has rejected nuclear talks outright, leaving the Trump administration looking for ways to bring Beijing to the table.
In recent months, Russian officials have expressed concern that the Trump administration’s delay on extending New START is more than just a bluff to extract better conditions.
Ryabkov, speaking May 14 during an online conference in Russia, said that new weapons technologies require new arms-
control agreements but that there is “no trust at all” between Russia and the United States — and also little time. Ryabkov said the United States and Russia should extend New START for a year without any preliminary conditions “so that we could try to come up with something new.”
Asked about whether the United States is actually willing to not extend New START, a senior Trump administration official said: “We are absolutely willing to walk away. But I would temper that by saying that in fact all options are on the table.”
Most U.S. arms-control advocates agree with the Trump administration’s stated goals: that China should be brought into arms control for the first time, the array of Russian nuclear weapons outside New START’s limits must be regulated, and verification mechanisms for arms-control treaties with Moscow could be improved. But they say jeopardizing a good agreement such as New START to pursue a theoretical deal is foolish when it comes to nuclear weapons.
“There’s no reason to give away a perfectly good arms-control treaty today,” said Laura Grego, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group. “You don’t need to get rid of that in order to have something better tomorrow.”
The Trump administration’s renewed push for a trilateral deal comes as the White House continues to withdraw from major arms-control treaties.
Last month, Trump announced that the United States would leave the Treaty on Open Skies, a multilateral agreement that regulates military overflights. Last year, Trump pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty, a bilateral pact with Moscow that banned the production, testing or deployment of ground-launch midrange missiles. In both cases, the Trump administration cited violations by Russia as the reason for U.S. withdrawal.
Allies of the president have also pushed the administration to “unsign” the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, or CTBT, an agreement banning all nuclear explosions that President Bill Clinton signed in 1996 but the Senate refused to ratify. It has not come into force.
The Washington Post recently reported that the Trump administration has discussed the resumption of U.S. nuclear testing after accusing Russia and China of conducting low-yield nuclear tests — an allegation both nations have denied.
The actions have led arms-
control advocates and critics of the president to question whether Trump and his administration are capable of negotiating a complicated deal with Moscow and Beijing. In more than three years, Trump’s critics point out, the administration has only withdrawn from arms-control agreements and hasn’t gained traction on brokering new ones.
“During the 50 years of strategic arms control, which started in 1969, we have never had such a long interval in the dialogue on this subject, and now we’re paying for it,” said Alexei Arbatov, head of the Center for International Security at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.
“We’re paying for it because the changing world order and technologies are overwhelming our efforts to control them,” Arbatov said. “And because there is a lack of understanding and interest in nuclear arms control, which is now very much pronounced on the part of the Trump administration.”
The difficulty of securing an expanded deal with Russia that covers all the country’s nuclear weapons is significant. Obama proposed as much in a 2013 speech in Berlin and was rebuffed by Moscow. The challenges of doing that while also bringing China into an arms-control agreement for the first time could be insurmountable.
China has an estimated 320 nuclear warheads, whereas the United States and Russia possess an estimated 5,800 and 6,370, respectively, according to the Federation of American Scientists. Beijing has long suggested it has no reason to enter an agreement limiting its nuclear force until its arsenal approaches the size of Washington’s and Moscow’s.
Billingslea, in the interview, rejected that argument. “What I don’t agree with, and what I think is a very dangerous Cold War mind-set, is to argue that the Chinese have to be allowed to reach strategic nuclear parity with the United States and Russia before we can undertake meaningful arms control,” he said. “That would mean that we are in fact in the midst of a three-way arms race.”
It is unclear how the Trump administration plans to get the Chinese to agree to start negotiations. Billingslea said he is relying in part on the Russians to get Beijing to engage, as Russia for years has advocated for multilateral arms-control treaties and touted closer ties with China.
The Trump administration’s allegation that China has conducted low-yield nuclear tests may be the beginning of a pressure campaign to induce Beijing into negotiations.
“Eventually they are going to decide that they don’t like having all of this aired in public, the details of what they are doing on the secretive buildup,” said the senior Trump administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid about the U.S. approach. The administration would “mobilize world opinion against them if they don’t negotiate with us” and is considering “plenty of other options to incentivize participation,” the official said.
Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. diplomat in Russia and Ukraine, said the United States so far isn’t putting anything on the table that would entice the Chinese.
Pifer said it would make more sense to ink a bilateral deal between the United States and Russia and then secure commitments from the British, French and Chinese to limit their nuclear arsenals in some way together. He said so far he hasn’t seen any proposals from the Trump administration of what a trilateral arms-control deal would look like.
Pifer asked: “How do you put out a proposal saying neither the U.S. nor Russia is prepared to go down to China’s level, and no one is prepared to let China come up?”