Geopolitical Magnitude of the New Start Treaty in the Wake of the World Order Turbulence

Recently, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for disarmament and urged States with nuclear arsenals for action that include dialogue and accountability. The meeting on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation was convened by Japan in March. Antonio Guterres said that “it was being held at a time when geopolitical tensions and mistrust have escalated the risk of nuclear warfare to its highest point in decades”.

What is cornerstone of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation in the view of the UN chief? The answer is well-known since 2011 – the New START treaty. “Russia’s nuclear threats, let alone any use of nuclear weapons in the context of the situation in Ukraine, are absolutely unacceptable,” he said, while urging the country to return to the full implementation of the New START treaty. He urged the United States and Russia – the world’s largest nuclear weapons holders – to take the lead and also find a way back to negotiations towards the full implementation of the New START Treaty and agree on its successor.

A recent Guterres’ call for nuclear dialogue actually is an echo of Vice President Biden’s statements expressed in article  published in August 2016, three months before the presidential elections, in Foreign Affairs entitled “Building on Success: Opportunities for the Next Administration.” At that time, Vice President Biden addressed his message to the US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and addressed an advise on foreign policy, where the US faced the growing challenges. Did Vice-President Biden mention The New START treaty too?

Yes, he did. Vice President Biden proposed to remain open to further dialogue despite on the Russia annexing Crimea and hybrid aggression of the Eastern Ukraine:

“Investing in the core institutions of the West does not require reverting back to simplistic Cold War thinking, however. The United States should remain open to cooperation with Russia where our interests overlap, as we demonstrated with the Iran nuclear deal, as well as with the New START agreement on nuclear weapons…We will need functional and stable channels with Russia to clearly communicate our intentions and maintain strategic stability”.

Why is the New START important? The 2019 collapse of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty left the New START as the only major surviving US-Russia arms control agreement. The New START, in 2010 strongly supported by prominent experts in geopolitics and security issues – Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger, James Schlesinger, William Perry, Richard Legar, has brought verifiable and transparent reductions in nuclear arms. It is worth of reminding a well-known statement by Former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Senator Sam Nunn on START Follow-On Treaty in 2010. By 2018, the total number of warheads had been reduced by one-third and the number of delivery vehicles—the missiles and bombers that carry warheads to their targets—by more than half. The treaty permits each side to hold up to 700 delivery vehicles and 1,550 warheads. It thus maintains the strategic balance: neither side has more weapons with which it can directly threaten the other’s national territory. And it achieves this goal without undermining either side’s ability to maintain nuclear deterrence in the future.

In early 2021, with the New START due to expire in February and the two sides deadlocked over the conditions for extending it, it looked as if the last remaining restrictions on the world’s two main nuclear powers were about to lapse. If New START was not extended, 2021 would mark the start of a period of unpredictability. Most consequential, each side’s understanding of the other’s strategic nuclear arsenals will diminish, and a trust deficit would quickly grow. “Right now, the most important thing to do is extend New START,” wrote that time Madeleine K. Albright, respected Secretary of State.

Following a last-minute deal by newly elected US President, Joe Biden, the two parties extended the new START until 2026, thereby giving each other welcome breathing space to negotiate a replacement treaty. 

“We cannot afford to lose New START’s intrusive inspection and notification tools,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a Jan. 21, 2021 statement after news first emerged that the Biden administration would pursue a five-year extension. “Failing to swiftly extend New START would weaken America’s understanding of Russia’s long-range nuclear forces.”

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Jan. 29, 2021 that the treaty’s extension “is the beginning of the story on what is going to have to be serious, sustained negotiations around a whole set of nuclear challenges and threats that fall outside of the New START agreement, as well as other emerging security challenges.”

In a Feb. 3, 2021 statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that President Joe Biden “made clear” that the New START extension “is only the beginning of our efforts to address 21st century security challenges. The United States will use the time provided…to pursue with the Russian Federation, in consultation with Congress and U.S. allies and partners, arms control that addresses all of its nuclear weapons.”

So, the new Treaty as a mechanism of the nuclear weapon control with Russia advised by Vice President Biden in 2016 for the upcoming president, was executed by President Biden as a foreign policy priority just after his inauguration in 2021. Will President Biden stop on a half way and change his opinion about the pressing role of New START?

With reference to the statements by Jake Sullivan in 2023, no – a course toward the New START is firm. National Security Advisor Sullivan’s statements in 2023 are to some extent in line with Vice President Biden’s advice in 2016. In particular, in 2023, Jake Sullivan made it clear that nuclear arms control, including the dialogue on the extension of the New Start Treaty, which expires in February 2026, is extremely important for the United States.

So, Antonio Guterres called the US and Russia to get to the negotiation room and supported Jake Sullivan. Is there a progress achieved by the US and Russia to approach to this room to negotiate?

It seems that 2023 was a year of public declarations by both parties. Below is a brief reminder. In February 2023, President of Russia Vladimir Putin made a decision to suspend the New START that will expire after February 4, 2026, 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. 

“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. 

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 and 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 September 2023 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. In two months 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.

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.”

It seems the New START as a mechanism to control strategic nuclear weapon still fundamental for search any modus vivendi between Washington and Moscow in the context of other geopolitical issues including the war in Ukraine. Furthermore, both parties – Washinton and Moscow, search for getting this nuclear weapon dialogue started trying to sort the other geopolitical issues, including the war in Ukraine, out. Obviously, it is not easy to do. Let us remind geopolitical intellectuals Henry Kissinger and George Kennan.

According to Kissinger, the second decade of the 2000s, during the Obama administration, was a continuous challenge to the world order. In 2015, Kissinger said: “The United States has not faced a more diverse and complex array of crises since the end of the Second World War.” Recently the United States faced even more diverse and complex challenges since the end of the Second World War and the New START geopolitical magnitude gives a hope to get these challenges resolved. What should we expect next?

In 1947 George Kennan, a prominent expert in Russian geopolitics, in his monumental paper “The source of Soviet conduct” published in Foreign Affairs noted that Russian diplomacy had been characterized by tremendous flexibility in which room was always preserved for retreat and regrouping”. What does it mean now, in the era of nuclear weapon? Let us refer to Kennan again: “They know using atomic bombs would defeat their aims and that no one wins in an atomic war”. In this context possessing a nuclear weapon is considered by Russia as a room for the dialogue with the United States, where the New START and its treaty successor generate a magnitude to negotiate on various geopolitical issues. From the point of view of the world security it is preferably to see this geopolitical, nuclear room attended by the negotiators timely and productively.

[Photo of Philippfrank777, via Wikimedia Commons]

Dr. Alexander Kostyuk serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the Corporate Ownership and Control journal. He is also the Director of Virtus Interpress, based in Ukraine. In addition to his editorial roles, Dr. Kostyuk has held professorial positions at several esteemed institutions, including the Ukrainian Academy of Banking from 2009 to 2018, the Hanken School of Economics in 2011-2012, and the University of Nuremberg in 2013. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. 

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