Nobody wins a nuclear war—especially not two nuclear behemoths

By Daniel R. DePetris

U.S. and Russian officials met this week in Geneva for what one hopes will be new strategic arms reduction talks. Trump administration officials are cautiously optimistic the discussions could lead to a more substantive negotiation about capping — and perhaps even decreasing — the number of nuclear weapons both countries have in their stockpiles. This matters for U.S. and global security because these two nations possess more than 90 percent of all nuclear weapons.

President Trump, however, wants to go further than a simple extension of the 2010 The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) agreement or a new bilateral treaty with the Russians. Instead, he is prodding China to join a trivariate arrangement. But in prefacing or linking an extension of New START to a fresh accord that includes the Chinese, the administration is increasing the possibility of ending up with neither.

For one, pushing Beijing to into a three-way deal is like pushing on a locked door. The Chinese have shown no interest in a three-way deal, in large measure because their nuclear arsenal is a fraction (roughly 2 percent) of the globe’s entire inventory.

At roughly 290 warheads, Beijing’s nuclear weapons program is minuscule when compared to the thousands of combined warheads Washington and Moscow have stockpiled. Indeed, China stockpile is less than 1/20th the size of the United States and about 1/22th the size of Russia’s.

To expect the Chinese to participate in a new arms control negotiation with two nuclear superpowers when the numbers are so steadily stacked against them is a fool’s errand. Beijing’s no-first use nuclear policy, in place since its first ever nuclear explosive test in 1964, was recently reaffirmed just last year.

An offensive nuclear strike is not something U.S. officials in Washington have to worry about. To focus on a U.S.-Russia-China nuclear agreement at the expense of keeping an already existing New START accord alive is the wrong priority.

New START, signed in April 2010, was a win-win, pragmatic arms control agreement for both sides. The pact cut the U.S. and Russian stockpiles by around one-third; capped the amount of nuclear warheads on deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles at 1,550; limited the number of deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers to 800; and allowed each country to verify compliance with the treaty, including on-site inspections, information exchanges and advanced notices. Unlike the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, inspectors have verified Moscow’s compliance with the letter of the deal.

For two countries that possess a combined 12,675 nuclear weapons, New START is a critical enforcing mechanism for nuclear parity and a stable balance of power.

It is now the only functional arms control accord preventing the U.S. and Russia from entering another costly, risky arms race. The deal expires in February 2021 but could be extended for another five years if both Presidents Trump and Putin agree to do so. Putin has already expressed his interest. Trump, someone who considers himself a transactional pragmatist, shouldn’t waste any more time before doing the same.

Nobody wins a nuclear war — especially not two nuclear behemoths

© Getty Images

U.S. and Russian officials met this week in Geneva for what one hopes will be new strategic arms reduction talks. Trump administration officials are cautiously optimistic the discussions could lead to a more substantive negotiation about capping — and perhaps even decreasing — the number of nuclear weapons both countries have in their stockpiles. This matters for U.S. and global security because these two nations possess more than 90 percent of all nuclear weapons.

President Trump, however, wants to go further than a simple extension of the 2010 The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) agreement or a new bilateral treaty with the Russians. Instead, he is prodding China to join a trivariate arrangement. But in prefacing or linking an extension of New START to a fresh accord that includes the Chinese, the administration is increasing the possibility of ending up with neither.

For one, pushing Beijing to into a three-way deal is like pushing on a locked door. The Chinese have shown no interest in a three-way deal, in large measure because their nuclear arsenal is a fraction (roughly 2 percent) of the globe’s entire inventory.

At roughly 290 warheads, Beijing’s nuclear weapons program is minuscule when compared to the thousands of combined warheads Washington and Moscow have stockpiled. Indeed, China stockpile is less than 1/20th the size of the United States and about 1/22th the size of Russia’s.

To expect the Chinese to participate in a new arms control negotiation with two nuclear superpowers when the numbers are so steadily stacked against them is a fool’s errand. Beijing’s no-first use nuclear policy, in place since its first ever nuclear explosive test in 1964, was recently reaffirmed just last year.

An offensive nuclear strike is not something U.S. officials in Washington have to worry about. To focus on a U.S.-Russia-China nuclear agreement at the expense of keeping an already existing New START accord alive is the wrong priority.

New START, signed in April 2010, was a win-win, pragmatic arms control agreement for both sides. The pact cut the U.S. and Russian stockpiles by around one-third; capped the amount of nuclear warheads on deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles at 1,550; limited the number of deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers to 800; and allowed each country to verify compliance with the treaty, including on-site inspections, information exchanges and advanced notices. Unlike the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, inspectors have verified Moscow’s compliance with the letter of the deal.

For two countries that possess a combined 12,675 nuclear weapons, New START is a critical enforcing mechanism for nuclear parity and a stable balance of power.

It is now the only functional arms control accord preventing the U.S. and Russia from entering another costly, risky arms race. The deal expires in February 2021 but could be extended for another five years if both Presidents Trump and Putin agree to do so. Putin has already expressed his interest. Trump, someone who considers himself a transactional pragmatist, shouldn’t waste any more time before doing the same.

An extension of New START, however, is not only important for strategic stability between the two nuclear superpowers (without New START, there is nothing stopping either the United States or Russia from building and deploying more and better nuclear warheads). but also valuable for stabilizing the entire U.S.-Russia relationship in desperate need of improvement. For this reason, a constructive relationship with Moscow is unquestionably a good thing for U.S. security. Extending New START is a no-brainer and indeed could very well be an opportunity to mend relations.

It’s not hyperbole to describe U.S.-Russia relations as being at their lowest since the land-based missile build-up in Europe in the early 1980s. From Syria and Ukraine to NATO and cybersecurity, Washington and Moscow are often on opposite sides of the issue. Even though both nations share some interests, including arms control and countering terrorism, Washington has become the epicenter of anti-Russia sentiment, where condemning Putin and advocating for sanctions is sport.

Good politics, however, doesn’t necessarily correspond with good statecraft or foreign policy.

Talking with adversaries, rivals, or competitors is a critically important component of effective foreign policy. We must engage with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Simply ignoring the Russians, pretending they don’t exist, or believing that using the stick unreservedly against Moscow will force it to cry uncle and change its policies to our liking makes conflict between nuclear superpowers more likely.

Giving New START another five years of life is perhaps the only issue Washington and Moscow can agree on in today’s political climate. It’s perhaps the most important reason the U.S. and Russia must find a way to co-exist.

Ensuring New START survives should be pursued aggressively for the sake of U.S. and global security Nobody wins a nuclear war — especially not two nuclear behemoths with thousands of warheads apiece.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on July 17, 2019. Read more HERE.