A nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms New Start, signed on 8 April 2010 in Prague and entered into force on 5 February 2011, was a natural path of President Obama within the context of a foreign policy related to Russia and called "Reset". Despite disputes between the US and Russia prior to signing the New Start; for example, placement of anti-missile systems Patriot in the Eastern Europe, dialogue between two countries allowed them to have large room for maneuver. Finally, the New START was approved, which replaced the Treaty of Moscow (SORT) that was to expire in December 2012. Therefore, the negotiations between the US and Russia on the New START began three years before 2012 to give enough time for a dialogue and further approval.
New Start will expire after February 4, 2026. In February 2023, President of Russia Vladimir Putin made a decision to suspend the New START and made a loud, public reminder to the United States that there are three years left until the expiration of New START, and time to start negotiations on a new treaty to succeed it. The fact that this was a public appeal to the United States to start negotiations, but in the form of a hint, is evidenced by subsequent statements by responsible Russian officials in which attention was focused on the fact that, despite withdrawal from the treaty, Russia would comply with almost all of its terms (with the exception of inspections). The inspections regime prescribed by New START has been interrupted for at least a year amid high tensions over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The treaty, the last remaining nuclear arms accord between the US and Russia, restricts them to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers.
“It is no longer possible to maintain business as usual with the United States and the West in general—both as a matter of principle and regarding arms control, which is inseparable from the geopolitical, military, and strategic reality,” stated the Russian Foreign Ministry on February 21. So, Russia declared in public that nuclear arms control is considered by them within a broader context – geopolitical, military and strategic. The Kremlin declared that they want to make changes to the rapid chess match and introduced a new chess figure – the war in Ukraine. For example, Arms Control Association underlines that Russia argued that the “anti-Russian” sanctions and restrictions imposed by the US and its allies and partners over the war in Ukraine obstructed Russian inspectors from securing the necessary visas and travel arrangements to visit U.S. nuclear weapons facilities subject to the treaty, thus giving Washington “obvious unilateral advantages.”
At the same time, according to Reuters, Russian General Yevgeny Ilyin repeated that Russia would stay under the agreed restrictions on nuclear delivery systems contained in New START. He declared that Moscow would notify Washington of nuclear deployments "to prevent false alarms."
Russia's Foreign Ministry announced Russia’s intention, despite the suspension, to stay under upper limits on nuclear deployments and other aspects of the treaty until its scheduled expiration in February 2026. Furthermore, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that, "I do not believe that the decision to suspend the New START Treaty brings us closer to nuclear war."
That is, exactly three years before the end of New START, Russia invited the United States to the chessboard, offering quick chess match and including a game callback with a completion date no later than February 4, 2026.
Will the US ignore this offer, made in a veiled form by Russia? If the United States has clearly defined alternatives to controlling the nuclear weapons of its main geopolitical opponent, Russia, other than the treaties signed with Russia in recent decades, then such a proposal may go unanswered. Are there any such alternatives now?
Some nuclear deterrence experts have doubts. Kier Lieber, nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense program and professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, says that “Today the United States seeks to avoid nuclear escalation, not make it more likely. Yet, as seen in Ukraine and in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s credible threats to escalate with nuclear weapons, most of the policy and analytic community is falling back on Cold War ideas about deterrence. Many seem to have little grasp of the reasons why an adversary losing a conventional war will seek to escalate and what should be done about it. That’s where new theories are needed to understand and prepare for nuclear escalation in the conventional conflicts of today and tomorrow. US leaders and the US analytical community need to better understand the new risks, dangers, and challenges of nuclear deterrence today. That’s why I see it as a theoretical challenge as much as anything else”.
Now, there is probably an understanding that such alternatives would be desirable for the United States, because otherwise it significantly reduces the room for maneuver for the United States in the big geopolitical game, i.e., the chessboard that Russia invited the United States to play in February 2023. Such alternatives would be desirable but they do not yet exist.
Kevin Chilton, distinguished fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense program and former commander of US Strategic Command, suggests to consider the issue of nuclear deterrence in the wider context of the geopolitical benefits for all involved parties. It could make nuclear deterrence more effective: “Perhaps assurance and escalation control are more closely linked than we thought of in the past. When thinking about what to field and how to posture forces, perhaps the associated considerations should not just be about escalation control but also about the benefits to assurance. One may enhance assurance or one may not, depending on how you think through both of these elements”.
From the point of view of rationality of actors, Hans Bennendijk, distinguished fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Transatlantic Security Initiative and former National Security Council official, stated that “But there is a distinction between deterring a rational actor and deterring a decisionmaker who is more emotionally engaged. During the Cold War, the United States was dealing with a Kremlin that, despite everything else, was comprised of actors that were still rational. I’m not sure Putin today is a rational actor. I’m not sure the United States is dealing with a rational actor in North Korea. And so as the United States thinks about deterrence theory, it might want to shape that theory with those two kinds of decision makers in mind: a rational actor and an emotional actor—someone deciding based on his or her own personal survival, on history, on culture, and all the things seen coming out of Putin’s mind”.
All of these issues, which still require considerable time to find resolution, significantly reduce the US's room for maneuver. So, how did the United States react to Russia's hidden offer?
In February 2023, during a meeting in Warsaw of the leaders of NATO Eastern European countries, President Joe Biden called Russia's suspension of the New START adherence a "big mistake.” It seems that President Joe Biden has accepted a Russian call for further nuclear talks.
On June 2, 2023, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan delivered remarks for the Arms Control Association (ACA) Annual Forum: “That’s the core of our approach to strategic stability—one that can be boiled down to two main lines of effort. First, update our deterrence capabilities and plans. And second, advance new arms control and risk reduction measures. These are two sides of the same proverbial nuclear coin.” He also confirmed an importance of the role of arms control: “The President Biden administration was ready to talk to Russia without conditions about a future nuclear arms control framework even while taking countermeasures in response to the Kremlin’s decision to suspend The New START.”
Just three days later, on June 5, The Kremlin said that a statement by U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan calling for bilateral arms control discussions was "positive" and that Russia remained open for dialogue.
On July 8, David Ignatus tried to link two issues on the geopolitical chessboard – nuclear deterrence in the context of new nuclear deal (a Post-New START deal) and the war in Ukraine. His opinion was published in the Washington Post:
“Sullivan said Biden tries to steer U.S. policy between what he called “two caricatures” about the Russian nuclear threat. The first is “that the Biden administration is paralyzed by the nuclear threat and therefore won’t support Ukraine sufficiently,” Sullivan said. “I think that is nonsense”… Sullivan sharply rejected the idea, voiced increasingly by some Washington strategists, that Biden is overplaying the Russian nuclear threat and deterring NATO from all-in support for Kyiv. The hawks, he said, argue: “This nuclear threat is complete nonsense. Don’t worry about it at all. It’s to be completely discounted.” Sullivan rebuffed the no-worry approach: “It is a threat. It is a real threat. It’s one we need to take seriously. And it’s one that does evolve with changing conditions on the ground.” As the philosophers say, this issue of nuclear risk is “contingent.” It’s neither inevitable nor impossible”.
In September 2023, The Wall Street Journal reported on Nov. 1 that the US sent Russia a proposal according and, the United States awaited a response but hoped to initiate “a conversation on what a framework after New START could look like,” referring to the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expiring in 2026. The proposal reflected U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s speech in June at the Arms Control Association annual meeting and “added additional details,” Pranay Vaddi, senior director for arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation at the U.S. National Security Council said. Vaddi added that “Russia has not responded to it, but Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russian authorities are working on a response.”
Almost immediately, on November 8, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov expressed skepticism that Russian-U.S. nuclear arms control talks would occur. “Dialogue is unequivocally necessary. But so far, the actual situation has not changed in any way.” Moscow repeatedly has stated that, as a precursor to any nuclear arms control talks, Washington must first withdraw support from Ukraine.
At the very beginning of this chess game, as mentioned by Arms Control Association, Heather Williams of the Center for International and Strategic Studies summed up the situation in a Feb. 21 tweet: “The fate of New START is really about Ukraine. Russia likely (unsuccessfully) attempted to use New START as leverage against the [United States] to cease its support for Ukraine.”
At the end of 2023, the US faced a debate in Congress about providing the further support for Ukraine and the statement by Heather Williams mentioned above can be questioned. These debates outlined an obstacle on the way to the US support for Ukraine – a request of lawmakers representing the Republican Party to change the immigration policy that is a hardly possible compromise as the President Biden said. Will this influence geopolitical chess and in what way? Does it increase the room for maneuver for President Biden in the nuclear talks with Russia as “Moscow repeatedly has stated that, as a precursor to any nuclear arms control talks, Washington must first withdraw support from Ukraine?” What will be the next chess move by the President Biden in this rapid chess in the limited time and geopolitical space for manuevre? It seems that recently the nuclear deterrence, nuclear arms reduction and control go through the unprecedent challenges calling for more advanced theory and practice.
Dr. Alexander Kostyuk is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Corporate Ownership and Control journal.