The coming year is poised to be pivotal for U.S.-Russia arms control talks.
New START, the last major treaty constraining the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, is set to expire in early 2021.
That means President Trump has to get serious in 2020 about engaging in arms control talks with Russia, supporters of renewing the treaty say.
Trump has said he wants a broader deal that also folds in China, a much heavier feat than just extending the existing treaty. But in 2020, Trump will also be focused on his reelection campaign. And his always-controversial relationship with Russia is a wildcard.
“I think next year’s critical,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The administration “needs to be engaged in what is necessary to start the process for a renewal, but I’m not even sure if they believe in a renewal.”
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which was negotiated by the Obama administration, caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads the United States and Russia can have at 1,550 apiece, among other provisions.
The treaty is set to expire on Feb. 5, 2021, but the deal includes the option to extend it for another five years after that.
Following the collapse of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which Trump withdrew from this year after years of alleged Russian violations, New START is the lone arms control agreement between Washington and Moscow. If New START dies, it would be the first time in five decades there is no treaty limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he is ready to immediately extend New START with no added conditions.
“We put forward our proposals, as I have already said, and will repeat: We stand ready until the end of the year to extend the existing New START as is,” Putin said at his annual news conference last week.
“So far we have not received a reply to any of our proposals. Without the New START there will be nothing left in the world to contain the arms race,” he continued, adding there would be “nothing good” about an arms race.
Earlier this month, Trump was upbeat about the prospect of extending the agreement.
“With respect to nuclear weapons, I’ve spoken to President Putin and I’ve communicated with him,” Trump told reporters during a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in London. “He very much wants to, and so do we, work out a treaty of some kind on nuclear weapons that will probably then include China at some point, and [France], by the way. But it will include China and some other countries.”
“I spoke to China about it,” Trump added. “During one of our trade negotiations, they were extremely excited about getting involved in that. So, some very good things can happen with respect to that.”
China, though, has repeatedly rejected the idea of joining the treaty talks.
Critics have accused the Trump administration of using China as a poison pill to kill the treaty.
“This insistence on bringing China into the negotiations is a red herring,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told The Hill. “It’s an excuse not to do the deal. China doesn’t need to be part of this agreement. They still have a minuscule number of warheads compared to the United States and Russia.”
Murphy also questioned “how on earth” Trump is “going to run a reelection campaign and negotiate with Russia at the same time.”
“It’s really disturbing to think that we’re on a glide path to the expiration of the deal and a new arms race,” he said.
Underscoring Congress’s concerns about the future of New START, there have been several recent moves on the issue.
This year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which Trump signed into law on Friday, requires the administration to notify Congress 120 days ahead of time if it plans to withdraw from New START.
In a letter Dec. 16, Menendez and Sens. Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) requested that acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire evaluate how Russia and China will respond if New START expires.
“If New START is allowed to dissolve and no replacement agreement arises, the United States will find itself in an environment in which Russia’s nuclear arsenal is entirely unconstrained,” they wrote. “We believe the negative consequences for the United States of abandoning New START, when Russia is in compliance with the treaty and is seeking to extend it, would be grave in the short-term and long-term.”
Young and Van Hollen have also introduced a bill that would urge the extension of the treaty and require the Director of National Intelligence to report on the implications of allowing the agreement to expire without a replacement.
Young said he sees 2020 as “do or die” for New START, adding the administration needs to “get this done quickly.”
“If we have a robust verification and enforcement mechanism in place pertaining to Russia, the intelligence we gather from that apparatus will inform our efforts to modernize our nuclear arsenal,” he said. “Moreover, were we to authorize this agreement for another five years, this buys the United States of America additional time to in an informed way modernize our nuclear arsenal at a time when Russia is frankly out in front of us in terms of nuclear modernization.”
He also encouraged the administration officials in the new year to explain to Congress in both classified and unclassified settings “what actions they have taken in furtherance of their concerns as it relates to China and their nuclear weapons development.”
More hawkish members of Congress, though, are skeptical Moscow can be trusted to continue complying with New START after its violations of the INF Treaty and other malicious behavior.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) dismissed the idea that 2020 will be critical for engaging in arms control talks with Russia.
“I think this is a work in progress,” Risch said. “Things have got to get better before we start moving forward in any way. Like their compliance with treaties.”
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee subpanel with oversight over U.S. nuclear weapons, said it’s “too early to tell” what 2020 will mean for New START.
“We’ll have to see what the situation is,” she said. “Perhaps we just do a reauthorization. My main concern is that we continue to have these agreements, but that the Russians need to be active participants.”