Supporters of a key arms control treaty between the United States and Russia are raising pressure on the Trump administration to renew the pact after the one-year deadline to do so passed.
Democratic lawmakers, arms control advocates and at least one Republican issued a flood of statements this week urging President Trump to renew the New START Treaty, which they fear he will allow to lapse.
Whether their pressure campaign is working is another question.
Administration officials have said they want to update the treaty by adding China and expanding it to cover new weapons, but there has been no apparent movement on talks as the agreement’s expiration looms.
National security advisor Robert O’Brien said this past week arms control talks with Russia would begin “soon.”
“We’ll start negotiations soon on arms control and on the nuclear issue, which is, you know, important to the safety of the world, to every country, not just the US and Russia,” O’Brien said in an address at the Meridian International Center.
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) represents the last major treaty binding the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.
The agreement, which was negotiated by the Obama administration, caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads each country can have at 1,550 a piece. There are also limits on deploying weapons, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, that could deliver the warheads. And the treaty lays out a verification regime that includes 18 on-site inspections per year.
The agreement expires Feb. 5, 2021, but there is an option to extend it another five years after that.
Russia has offered to extend the treaty immediately with no-preconditions. China, meanwhile, has rejected joining the talks.
Arms control advocates have been sounding the alarm on New START since Trump withdrew last year from a separate arms pact with Russia known as the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
The demise of the INF Treaty left New START as the lone treaty limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, and Trump letting New START expire would mean the world’s two largest nuclear powers have no legal constraints on their arsenals for the first time in five decades, advocates warn.
The New START’s expiration date comes a couple weeks after the next presidential inauguration date, meaning the decision to renew it could be left to Trump’s successor if he’s defeated in November. Major Democratic candidates — including former Vice President Joe Biden; former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — have backed renewing the treaty.
But it’s unclear whether a new president would have enough time to act. Russia has suggested it won’t wait until the last minute to renew the treaty.
“I would think there would be enough time, but I don’t know for sure,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said.
Smith said it’s imperative lawmakers keep pressure on the Trump administration to stay in the treaty, but acknowledged “there’s only so much we can do.”
“We’ve had a sense of urgency for some time because the administration has signaled reluctance to extend it. As far as if there’s anything we can do, we have to put pressure on them to keep going, to continue the treaty,” he said, adding that pressure can come by bringing “public attention to the issue of how dangerous a nuclear arms race would be.”
To that end, supporters of renewing the treaty put out a slew of statements this past week as the agreement reached its ninth anniversary and final year before expiration.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace tweeted out a page on its website titled “The Last Nuclear Arms Treaty” with a red countdown clock ticking down the seconds until New START expires.
Global Zero, which advocates for the elimination of nuclear weapons, released a statement from executive director Derek Johnson marking the start of “a countdown to nuclear chaos.”
“If Donald Trump lets New START expire, there will be no restraint, no inspection, no verification whatsoever of American and Russian nuclear activities for the first time since 1972,” Johnson said in the eight-paragraph statement. “Both nations will be free to build even more nuclear weapons, with no obligation to declare, display or control any of them. It will be a return to the most dangerous days of the Cold War, and the security of the entire planet hangs in the balance.”
While covering China and new Russian weapons systems in an agreement are “worthy goals,” Johnson added, “they won’t happen unless the current system of restraint and verification is maintained and strengthened.”
Arms Control Association executive director Daryl Kimball similarly warned in his own statement that a lapse in New START would “open the door to unconstrained nuclear competition that President Trump says he wants to avoid.”
In Congress, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Senate Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) released a joint statement urging Trump to extend the treaty.
“It is time for President Trump to listen to reason, expertise, and our allies who recognize the treaty as an indispensable pillar of security,” Engel and Menendez said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) tweeted that New START “has reduced the threat posed by nuclear weapons around the globe and helped maintain our world order,” while Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) tweeted that “we risk a 21st-century nuclear arms race” if Trump doesn’t extend the “indispensable pillar of security” of New START.
“Today, New START remains critically important as relations between the U.S. and Russia become increasingly strained and with our own nuclear arsenal in desperate need of modernization,” Young said. “With nuclear threats emanating from Russia and emerging from China, it is paramount that we work together to curb the threats posed by nuclear war and extend the New START Treaty.”
Many of Trump’s Republican allies in Congress, though, oppose the treaty, arguing it handcuffs the United States when China is not a party to it and Russia may not be trusted to comply.
Russia violated the INF Treaty ahead of the U.S. withdrawal, but it has complied with New START. China, meanwhile, is known to have a fraction of the number of nuclear warheads possessed by the United States or Russia.
Last year, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced companion bills in their respective chambers to limit funding for New START unless it covers China and all Russian nuclear forces.
In his address to dozens of foreign ambassadors, O’Brien said there’s “no more serious issue” a president can face than nuclear weapons, but suggested the administration has not yet settled on a structure for arms control.
“How the framework is set up for those negotiations, whether it’s a new treaty, whether it’s an extension of New START, those are things that we’ll have to work out,” he added. “But I also think, and more importantly the president believes, that it shouldn’t just be the United States and Russia. We think that China is going to need to become involved in any serious arms control negotiation. And so we’re going to work on those talks in the coming months and year.”