The Topol-M (SS-27 Sickle B) intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile (Via Shutterstock)
Q&A: The Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Lynn Rusten on the danger of not renewing New START

Less than a year from now, the landmark New START Treaty is set to expire. The nuclear arms control agreement, signed by U.S. president Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev a decade ago, places a ceiling on the number of strategic nuclear missiles that can be deployed by both countries. Long recognized by arms control experts as an important impediment to a new nuclear arms race, President Trump has signaled, from his earliest days in office, his disinterest in renewing the treaty. I recently spoke with former Obama administration official and arms control expert Lynn Rusten about the implications of scrapping the treaty and how that decision would effect both U.S.-Russian relations and relations with our allies.

JAMES CARDEN: Thanks for taking the time to talk. Let’s start with the basics for readers who might be unfamiliar with the New START Treaty. What is it and when was it adopted.

LYNN RUSTEN: The New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (New START) was signed by President Obama and Russian President Medvedev on April 8, 2010 and entered into force on February 5, 2011. The Treaty has a duration of 10 years, however, it may be extended by executive agreement for up to five additional years (until February 4, 2026). Russia has indicated its readiness to extend the Treaty; the United States has not yet stated its position on extension.

The Treaty limits the number of U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads (to 1,550) and their delivery systems, and provides robust, intrusive verification mechanisms to confirm each side is complying with its terms. If the treaty were to lapse on February 4, 2021, it would be the first time in nearly 50 years that there is no legally binding agreement limiting the nuclear forces of the United States and Russia (or the former Soviet Union).  

JC: What was the impetus for the Obama administration to pursue New START? Can you tell us about what it was like negotiating it with the Russian Federation and why the U.S. saw it as in our security interests to pursue?

LR: The United States and Russia possess over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Since the early 1970s, Republican and Democratic presidents alike have judged that it was in the security interest of the American people and indeed the world for the United States and Russia to enter into legally binding arms control agreements to limit their competition in nuclear arms and to gain predictability and confidence that come from verification and transparency measures. With the START Treaty of 1991 set to expire in December 2009, the Obama administration focused from day one on negotiating a successor agreement to maintain limits on Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons, prevent an arms race and enhance U.S. national security.

While I had been a member of the U.S. negotiating delegation for the START I Treaty early in my career, for New START, my role was in Washington where I led the interagency “backstopping” committee that developed the U.S. negotiating positions and provided the U.S. delegation guidance continually throughout the negotiating process. I also led the interagency effort that provided answers to the 1,000 questions for the record asked by U.S. Senators during the ratification process. So you can ask me just about anything about this Treaty and I’ll have at least 1,000 answers! I have to admit there were some days where I thought it might actually be easier to negotiate with the Russians than to adjudicate the different perspectives of the Departments of State, Defense, Intelligence, and Energy, not to mention the U.S. Congress.  But, in all seriousness, I firmly believe in the importance of a thorough interagency process in which all views are considered and adjudicated in a fair and balanced manner. This leads to the best policy outcomes.

JC: One of the things that security experts point to when they talk about the value of New START to is that it mandates verification via inspection trips that both sides undertake. Can you talk about the inspection mechanism, its importance and what would be lost in terms of transparency should Trump now renew the treaty?

LR: I’m glad you asked, because this is greatly under appreciated. Most Americans – maybe even some in Congress — don’t realize that the Treaty gives the United States and Russia the right to conduct 18 on-site inspections each year to confirm that the data each side provides the other about its strategic nuclear forces is accurate, and that each side is complying with the Treaty. Stop and think about that: 18 times a year U.S. inspectors get to visit Russian nuclear bases. Moreover, New START has an important innovation which no prior treaty had, which is that it permits each side to observe and count the actual number of warheads on an individual randomly selected missile during certain on-site inspections. This is an unprecedented level of intrusiveness that provides high confidence that the other side isn’t cheating.

If the Treaty lapses, we will lose that insight, and it cannot be compensated for solely by “national technical means” such as overhead satellites. Not only do these verification measures allow us to confirm that Russia is not cheating (and vice versa), but they also contribute to longer term understanding and predictability about each side’s strategic forces that help us avoid the tendency toward “worst case” planning that can lead to higher defense spending and an arms race.

JC: The administration claims that it is simply holding out in order to get China on board, a kind of Trumpian promise of bigger, better treaty. What do you make of the idea of bringing China on? It is realistic or is this, as I suspect, a red-herring to wrong-foot Trump’s critics?

LR: First, anything we would want to achieve along those lines cannot realistically be negotiated and ratified before New START lapses in eleven months. So the first order of business should be to extend New START to make sure we continue to reap its security benefits, and use that as a foundation on which to build.

Second, because the United States and Russia have nuclear stockpiles that are so much larger than China’s, it’s unrealistic to think they could be brought into an agreement that limits U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons at the level of 1,550 warheads, as New START does. China has a few hundred nuclear warheads – we certainly don’t want to them to build up to our levels, nor are the United States and Russia likely to come down to China’s level in the next agreement. More realistic would be to seek a new agreement with Russia to further reduce the number of weapons and address additional categories such as non-strategic nuclear warheads and intermediate-range delivery vehicles, given that INF Treaty that banned them is now dead.

In parallel, we should be pursing dialogue with China on strategic stability and risk reduction measures, as a first step toward identifying where there might be overlapping interests that could be addressed, for instance, though arms control or confidence building measures that are regionally based. This is likely to be a long, challenging process.

As a first step, the United States, Russia, and China could make a joint statement, perhaps joined by other nuclear powers, as Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev did during the Cold War, that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Such a foundational statement could set the stage for practical steps on nuclear risk reduction and arms control.

All of these steps — New START extension, a declaratory statement against nuclear war, initiation of follow-on negotiations with Russia and separate talks with China — would be welcomed in the run up to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference that will take place at the United Nations in New York this spring and will mark the 50th anniversary of the NPT.

JC: If the administration goes ahead with scrapping the treaty, what can we expect in terms of an arms race, relations with Russia, and the message this would send to American allies?

LR: This would be a self-inflicted wound. It would lead to the complete absence of mutual restraint on U.S. and Russian nuclear forces for the first time in 50 years. This would diminish the safety and security of the American people, unnerve our allies, and lead to a period of greater tension and strategic instability with Russia. It will likely make it harder, not easier, to negotiate a new agreement with Russia, and it precludes the possibility of negotiating a new agreement that could run in parallel with New START’s verification provisions still in force. It could lead to fears of or an actual acceleration of the arms race, calls for greater defense spending, and growing uncertainties about Russian plans and intentions in the absence of verification and transparency measures. And it will exacerbate the political divisions in our country over matters that used to be the subject of broad bipartisan consensus: support for both common sense arms control that improves our security and for prudent defense spending and modernization.