Just over 24 hours into the new Biden administration, the Washington Post broke the news that the newly sworn in President plans to accept Russia’s proposal to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for an additional five years. Though New START alone is not sufficient for a world of new weapons and rising nuclear powers, the decision to extend New START was a critical and prudent choice. The existing treaty is an essential springboard to figuring out what should come next in strategic arms control. Its extension buys the new administration a precious strategic asset: time.
Accepting the extension is a departure from the previous administration’s threats to allow New START to expire on February 5, 2021. The threat was a bargaining tactic in an attempt to secure a new nuclear arms control treaty with both Russia and China and, later, to limit Russia’s overall nuclear stockpile. Though the Trump administration’s approach bore no fruit, the sightline of these efforts was looking in the right direction by considering new arms control constructs that depart from bilateral reductions and a narrow focus on intercontinental-range delivery vehicles and deployed warheads.
New START is currently the only strategic arms control treaty remaining in the U.S.-Russia relationship, following the United States’ withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in August 2019 after repeated non-compliance by Russia. New START features a cap of 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads for both Washington and Moscow and a robust verification and monitoring regime.
But New START is increasingly becoming a security stopgap. Previous CNA analysis concluded that the threat perceptions of the two countries are diverging, especially from the Russian point of view. New START constrains U.S. intercontinental-range nuclear systems, but it does not account for non-nuclear capabilities, such as missile defense and hypersonic boost-glide vehicles that pose concerns for Russia about the survivability of their nuclear deterrent.
From the U.S. point of view, Russia’s pursuit of various “exotic” dual-capable weapons that can carry either nuclear or conventional warheads and Russia’s non-compliance with the INF Treaty have intensified U.S. interest in greater transparency and limitations that include non-strategic or theater-range systems that could hold U.S. forward-deployed forces and regional allies at risk. In a world without New START and with increasing competition, such challenges and uncertainties likely would have led to precautionary solutions by both sides, such as increasing nuclear force levels and undoing the previous 11 years of reductions and limitations.
The extension of New START can’t halt these negative trends, but it is a step in the right direction to prevent them from becoming more severe.
The New START extension has also prepared a critical glide path to new solutions for 21st-century nuclear risks. This was emphasized by the Defense Department, which released a statement touting that the extension “allows time and space for our two nations to explore new verifiable arms control arrangements that could further reduce risks to Americans.” The Biden administration should seize this opportunity to make headway on finding these potential solutions by pursuing the following recommendations we outlined in 2019.
First, the new Biden administration should seek a renewed and reinvigorated strategic dialogue with Moscow alongside formal negotiations. Such a dual-track construct was originally pursued by the Obama administration and a similar approach was adopted by the Trump administration, as treaty negotiations are often not able to accommodate a full discussion of all concerns held by both parties.
It is important to note that pursuing a new strategic dialogue does not require a “reset” of relations. Unresolved security concerns the United States has with Russian interference in its electoral process and the SolarWinds cyberattack have not created the environment for a reset. Critics of a new strategic dialogue with Russia generally argue that it acts as a “reward” for Russia. This dangerously ignores the reality that the threat of nuclear exchange increases with competition. A lack of dialogue will only serve to keep this status quo — if not throw more fuel on the fire.
The new administration will need a more holistic approach than either of its predecessors used, one that accounts for concerns surrounding both capabilities and intent. This will require an interagency delegation that fosters intellectual engagement from mid- and senior-level officials as well as their staff on issues they may not have in their day-to-day portfolios. By breaking down stovepipes across nuclear weapons, conventional forces, space, and cyber operations and by involving knowledgeable experts even up to senior levels, the Biden administration can simultaneously raise the stakes of these dialogues while also ensuring these festering concerns don’t remain unaddressed.
Second, this strategic dialogue construct needs a clear vision to enhance transparency and strategic predictability between the two countries. The first objective should be to address potential misperceptions. Such an objective is two-fold in its requirements: first there should be an effort to explain U.S. thinking on what it sees as misperceptions by Russia that are a danger to the security of the United States and its allies, second is an effort by the U.S. to gain a better understanding of Russian strategy and intent.
The next objective should be to begin discussions about the various weapons systems that both sides view as a threat due to their potential to undermine its secure second-strike capabilities. However this discussion should not be an unstructured one, in which all topics are on the table. This objective would be best served by cooperative planning and deliberate agenda setting at the expert level that is determined beforehand to ensure that such a dialogue doesn’t ring hollow.
By pursuing a broader dialogue that seeks to improve understanding and transparency of force structures and strategic thinking, the U.S. can build upon the New START extension. An opportunity awaits to avoid an opaque relationship in which flawed assessments of each other’s capabilities, strategy and intent risk arms competition or even potential nuclear escalation. A renewed dialogue with a clear vision of objectives, mid- to senior-level engagement, and a delegation with cross-cutting knowledge of the strategic landscape is a first step toward realizing this important goal.