Biden will pursue five-year extension of Russia nuclear treaty

Agreement limits both sides to 1,500 long-range nuclear weapons; Senate does not need to approve extension

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a developmental test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in February 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo)
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a developmental test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in February 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Posted January 21, 2021 at 7:47pm

President Joe Biden will seek a five-year extension of the last remaining U.S.-Russia arms control accord, which is on the verge of expiring in two weeks, the White House announced on Thursday.

The 2010 New START accord with Russia limits both countries to deploying just 1,550 long-range nuclear weapons spread out over no more than 700 bombers, submarines and land-based ballistic missiles. 

“The United States intends to seek a five-year extension of New START as the treaty permits,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday. “The president has long been clear that the New START treaty is in the national security interests of the United States and this extension makes even more sense when the relationship with Russia is adversarial, as it is at this time.”

The accord, which was negotiated by the Obama administration, is generally praised for the rigorousness of its treaty verification mechanisms. That has given Moscow and Washington confidence that the other side is honoring its terms even as other aspects of the bilateral relationship have cratered over the past decade following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine and its 2016 election interference in support of former President Donald Trump.

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The Trump administration had dithered on the possible renewal of New START, while Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear that he wants a simple five-year extension, the maximum time allowed under the treaty. 

Approval of that extension by the Senate is not necessary under the terms of the treaty.

Initially, the Trump State Department’s arms control officials said their strategy was to pursue new negotiations for a replacement treaty that would include China’s nuclear arsenal. While Beijing has the world’s third-largest stockpile after Russia and the United States, and is modernizing its capabilities, the Chinese nuclear arsenal is still understood to be just one-tenth the size of Moscow’s. 

One-year extension fell through

After China repeatedly rejected the Trump administration’s entreaties to participate in three-way talks, the State Department last year pursued treaty renewal with Russia but only for one year. Talks on a one-year extension made some progress last fall, but nothing was formally agreed to before Trump’s defeat in November.

“After four years of efforts to kill arms control and chase the false security of nuclear dominance, the U.S. is coming back to its senses. President Biden’s offer signals a welcome return to serious diplomacy,” Derek Johnson, CEO of Global Zero, an international campaign that advocates abolishing all nuclear weapons, said in a statement. “Extending New START is the minimum that can be done to begin to meet U.S. and Russian obligations under international law to pursue nuclear disarmament, and it’s exactly the right place for the Biden administration to start.”

Democrats, some Republicans, European officials and independent nuclear stability advocates have urgently called for the treaty’s extension, worried that a lapse in New START’s verification and transparency mechanisms would dangerously destabilize the already teetering U.S.-Russia relationship. 

Nuclear stability between the two countries has grown more precarious after Trump withdrew from two Cold War-era treaties, one prohibiting medium-range nuclear weapons and the other permitting surveillance flights over each other’s countries. Putin eventually followed suit in withdrawing from both of those treaties, which are the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty.

Russia hawks who supported withdrawal from the nuclear treaties argued that Moscow was the first to undertake nuclear destabilizing actions after it apparently violated the INF treaty and developed and deployed new types of nuclear weapons that are not covered by New START.

“New START is the only remaining treaty constraining Russian nuclear forces and is an anchor of strategic stability between our two countries,” Psaki said.

Psaki added that Biden has directed the U.S. intelligence community to provide him with new assessments of belligerent actions by Russia, including last year’s massive Solar Winds cyber breach, any 2020 election interference, bounties offered to the Taliban for attacks on U.S. and allied soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, and last summer’s near-fatal poisoning via an illegal chemical weapon of prominent Russian dissident Alexei Navalny.