New Start Expires in February and its Future Remains Uncertain
Tuesday, January 26, 2021
Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
The future of global nuclear security is uncertain. In early February, the New Start agreement will expire, and negotiations for a new treaty have not yet progressed. Although Washington shows interest in extending the agreement’s operation by five years, there is no guarantee that Moscow will accept the measure, considering the absence of a reasonable proposal by the US to improve the current conditions. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin had suggested extending the treaty by up to a year. Recently, once again, Moscow spoke in favor of the extension, but said it expected concrete proposals from the new American government in the negotiations, which has not yet happened – leaving the extension to remain uncertain.
The New Start treaty, while in force, limits the nuclear activities of the US and Russia and progressively decreases their arsenals. However, after a decade of functioning, the agreement will expire on February 5, 2021, which, at the same time, allows negotiations for a more effective agreement and increases global nuclear tension while such negotiations are not concluded. Under the agreement’s terms, there is a possibility of a five-year extension, which the White House is currently suggesting.
Russia would accept to extend the extensions immediately, but it is interested in some changes in the current terms that would improve the conditions and pave the way for a more efficient document – perhaps including France and the United Kingdom, as Washington advocates the inclusion of China. There is no apparent reason to believe that Russia will actually refuse to extend the agreement, but this possibility should be at least considered, especially when we take into account not only the absence of US proposals but also some risks generated by the aggressive foreign policy that Biden plans to implement.
The new American president has already made clear his intentions in strategic regions historically affected by American intervention, such as the Middle East: to further increase the American military presence. Biden will replace Trump’s promise to end Washington’s “global police power” with a more radical discourse in defense of global agendas, justifying interventions (including military ones) in the name of human rights, democracy, the environment, among others. Although there is no possibility that Russia be victimized by this type of foreign policy, Washington’s actions may threat Russian interests in different parts of the planet and this situation could make Moscow try to halt the extension of the agreement or the negotiation of a new treaty – not to increase its nuclear arsenal, but to generate international pressure against Washington.
New Start is currently the only agreement that unites the US and Russia, after Washington definitively broke, on August 2, 2019, the INF Treaty on medium and short-range nuclear missiles. The nuclear disarmament pact limits the arsenals of the two powers to a maximum of 700 deployed missiles and 1,550 nuclear warheads, among other restrictions. Still, it is necessary to emphasize that the current agreement comes from a controversial and troubled succession line.
The Start I treaty expired in December 2009 and was succeeded by the the failed Start II, which, although proposed, never came into force. Then, the Start III Treaty was discussed, but the negotiations were never concluded. Finally, New Start was signed in Prague in 2010, ending long discussions and tensions over a new agreement. The history of the agreement shows us that negotiating and accepting its terms is not an easy and quick to resolve issue. In addition, frequently, the terms are previously agreed, but the treaty is not implemented. That is why all possibilities for the near future must be carefully considered and analyzed.
Before Biden’s election, former President Donald Trump had proposed including China in the agreement as a condition for renewal. The American proposal only seems reasonable if it is accompanied by the Russian proposal to include France and the UK. In this way, a stronger and more effective international treaty could be created and would in fact increase global nuclear security. Otherwise, the mere Chinese insertion will only serve for Washington to have greater security with restrictions imposed on another rival country, while its allies remain excluded from such obligations.
It is certain that tensions will only increase, considering the anti-Russian rhetoric of the new American government, which insists on accusations of interferences in the American electoral process and imposes sanctions against Russia. A nuclear war is unthinkable because there is nothing strategic in destroying the whole world, but the use of nuclear diplomacy to gain advantage in areas of interest is a possible scenario. Russia may demand changes in American foreign policy to renew the agreement and Washington may use Russian resistance to accept the extension as justification for starting a new arms race and imposing more sanctions.
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