Is extension of the New START Treaty a good idea without firm commitments?

Stefan Forss - 14/08/2018


Current mainstream thinking in the West is that an extension of the New START Treaty should be urgently pursued as a relatively straightforward means of improving strained U.S. – Russian relations. This became evident before and after the U.S. and Russian Presidents’ Helsinki Summit. Some say extension of the treaty is in the U.S. interest. Others disagree.

Losing the on-site verification instrument would undoubtedly be bad. One should, though, understand that New START on-site verification is not as good as it used to be in the original START. The Russians didn't like "legalized spying" and insisted that portal monitoring at the very important missile plant in Votkinsk was terminated. 

Getting the START process back on track will require resolute measures from the U.S. side. It will not happen just by putting arms control in the driver's seat. Arms control, however commendable, will always be a side show. It works fine when there are mutual interests, but, these lacking, appears to be the case today, it is at best a pipe dream and, at worst, may simply be disinformation or deception. 

One eminent professional insider informed me privately of the basic reason as to why, ten years ago, Russia abandoned Gorbachev's vision of a nuclear free world - a view which the Soviet President shared with President Reagan.

Ambassador Anatoly Antonov, now a member of Putin's delegation in Helsinki, didn't want nuclear arms control to get a more prominent place on the UN agenda. Russia had made a reassessment of its position in the world and Gorbachev's vision had to go. Two distinct motives help explain such a dramatic change in Moscow’s approach to the total elimination of nuclear weapons: the balance of power and Russia’s global power status. 

Consequently, Russia embarked upon an extremely ambitious nuclear rearmament programme which has brought such successful results that, in the end, even the U.S. has had to reconsider its nuclear plans for the future. The huge investment required to modernize the U.S. triad is certainly perceived as a bonus by the Kremlin as it will contribute to diverting money which otherwise would be spent on U.S. conventional weapons developments - an area where Russia is less able to compete.

The Russians themselves thought that their huge ICBM flagship, the Ukrainian built R-36M2 (SS-18 Satan), eventually had been lost for good. Basically, all others who follow these issues thought so too. Therefore, it came as a real surprise when, on March 1, Putin, in his speech about Russia’s current spectacular nuclear developments, disclosed that the RS-28 Sarmat heavy ICBM is essentially as big as SS-18. The RS-28 Sarmat - nicknamed SS-X-30 Satan 2 - has a lift-off weight of 200 tons and a far greater range and variable payloads than the old SS-18, which will be retired in the mid 2020s at the latest. 

The troubled, sea-based Bulava SLBM development programme has finally been completed. The spectacular demonstration in May, when four Bulava missiles were launched at roughly ten second intervals from the Yuri Dolgorukiy SSBN and successfully hit their targets at the Kura missile range in Kamchatka, was the final exam. Bulava was recently adopted for active service.

Lacking a stealth bomber capable of deep penetration, Russia instead chose to develop very long range ALCMs, such as the Kh-101/-102, operationally tested in Syria. These systems are able to cover all of Europe and part of the U.S. west coast without the launch aircraft leaving Russian airspace.

While useful for political signaling and showing presence in airspace close to opponents’ borders, these platforms can't operate close to opponents’ borders in a shooting war against capable opposition. They would simply be shot down. Long range ALCMs solve that problem. The long endurance of these rather old platforms ensures that they're not easily destroyed on the ground. They'll remain safe as long as they stay in Russia's airspace below the radar horizon.

On the sub-strategic level, Russia has restored a whole triad. All major services are able to operate non-strategic nukes. It is, however, fair to say that Russia’s non-strategic nuclear warheads are in central storage sites. In the U.S. by comparison, only the USAF operates a very modest number of non-strategic nuclear weapons

For all practical purposes, Russia has now restored almost everything that was lost because of Gorbachev. It is prudent to assume that there are nuclear weapons available for the whole spectrum of ranges, starting from the 152 mm nuclear artillery shell to very long intercontinental ranges. The yields of the nuclear charges likewise encompass a full spectrum, starting from mini-nukes with a few tens of tons TNT equivalent yields to the multi-megaton yields of some ICBM warheads. Even the idea of weapons in the Czar Bomba 100 Mt class has been mooted. The platform suggested is, as we know, a remotely controlled underwater vehicle.

To sum up; a lot more is at stake here than just extending the New START. Keep in mind that Obama repeatedly invited Russia to a next round of START negotiations and also set the goal of reducing operational strategic nuclear weapons by a third, to roughly 1000. Russia rejected his proposals. After Obama's Berlin speech in 2013, Lavrov responded that the era of bilateral U.S. - Russian strategic negotiations was over. The next round, if there were to be one, would have to be multilateral in the P5 format, with all internationally recognized nuclear weapon states present. Russia then as a matter of fact dumped the START process.

Helsinki may seem to be a return to former policies, but I'm really skeptical. No commitment has been made to a new round of negotiations with clear reduction targets. After the Helsinki Summit, Ambassador Antonov said that both parties verbally agreed in Helsinki to extend the New START Treaty as well as to keep INF. However, when Putin spoke to his ambassadors on July 19, he didn't mention INF. Moreover, he said that Russia, “generally speaking, could have lived without [the New START Treaty] even several years ago”. It is no coincidence that several articles referring to new spectacular Russian nuclear weapons have recently been published. The sincerity of Russia with regard to a new round of START negotiations is seriously in doubt.

Putin, there is no doubt, thinks that this time, compared to Reagan's times, the boot is on the other foot and that now it is Russia which is negotiating from a position of strength. This view is certainly shared by one prominent Russian nuclear expert, Dr Pavel Podvig. The U.S. is ready to have talks with Russia about broader issues, but, as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis indicated back in February 2017, is itself only prepared to negotiate from a position of strength. Concerning nuclear issues, this is essentially a continuation of the policies of the former Obama administration. Russian Defense Minister Shoigu reportedly was not very happy with Mattis’ remark. Good; we need the U.S. to stay firm on this issue.

Stefan Forss

Professor Forss is a physicist, a retired Finnish civil servant and expert on nuclear matters, arms control and security policy. He is Adjunct Professor at the Finnish National Defence University and a former Chief Scientist at the Technical Research Centre of Finland and former Senior Scientist at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed are his own.