Time is running out on an arms control treaty that, if it’s allowed to expire, will leave the world with no legal restrictions on U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons for the first time in nearly half a century.
If U.S. President Donald Trump doesn’t extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — only remaining U.S.-Russia arms control pact — or succeed in negotiating a replacement treaty, it will expire on Feb. 5. That’s just 16 days after Trump begins a second term or his successor is sworn into office.
Russia has offered to extend New START for up to five years, but Trump is holding out. He thinks China, which is expected to double its stockpile of nuclear weapons in the next decade, should have to sign on to a nuclear arms control accord, too.
The future of New START was further called into question with Trump’s announcement Thursday that the U.S. intends to withdraw from another treaty that permits observation flights over the U.S., Russia and more than 30 other nations.
Trump voiced his desire for a three-way arms control agreement months ago, but that effort is still in the starting blocks.
Marshall Billingslea, who was appointed last month as the president’s special envoy for arms control, said Thursday that he had his first secure phone call with his counterpart in Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. Billingslea said they agreed to meet, talk about their objectives and find a way to begin negotiations.
“Suffice to say, this won’t be easy. It is new,” Billingslea said, adding that the U.S. fully expects Russia to help bring China to the table.
Russian officials and many arms control experts agree that China, as a rising power, should be part of a nuclear arms accord, but they are eyeing the calendar.
“It’s really hard to see how, in the midst of a pandemic that would make actual in-person negotiations quite difficult, you’re going to get something done and ratified and in force before the New START treaty expires on Feb. 5, 2021,” said Alexandra Bell at the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation.
They note how Trump’s reelection campaign, the coronavirus pandemic and the economic problems it has created are consuming a lot of time. Negotiating complex nuclear accords can take years, and even the president, who has blamed Beijing for not stopping the spread of the virus, has said he’s doesn’t want to talk to President Xi Jinping right now.
A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Geng Shuang, said in January that China has “no intention to participate” in trilateral arms control negotiations. Billingslea, however, is optimistic that Beijing will want to joint in and be seen as a world power.
New START imposes limits on the number of U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear warheads and launchers. If it were to collapse, it would be the first time in 50 years that the U.S. does not have the ability to inspect Russian nuclear forces, said Rose Gottemoeller, a former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.