The End of Arms Control As We Know It?
It is one of the absurdities of international politics that arms control becomes politically toxic at the very moment when it is most needed.
Russia pulled out of talks over resuming New START inspections, and their government seems unlikely to change its position anytime soon:
Russia accused the United States on Tuesday of toxic anti-Russian behaviour that it said had prompted it to pull out of nuclear arms talks with U.S. officials in Cairo this week.
In strongly worded comments, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also accused the United States of trying to manipulate the New START nuclear treaty to its advantage, although she said Russia was still committed to it.
Zakharova also said that Russia would not discuss New START-related matters with the U.S. as long as it is arming Ukraine. The Russian government must know that there is no chance that the U.S. will halt weapons supplies to Ukraine while the war continues, so this amounts to setting a condition for resuming talks that they know the U.S. will not accept. That makes it all but certain that verification inspections won’t be taking place for the foreseeable future. There have already been no inspections for the last three years because of the pandemic and the war, and it now seems more likely than not that the treaty will be a dead letter even before it expires in 2026. The already poor chances of negotiating a follow-on treaty to replace New START are now even worse.
Arms control is more important than it has been in decades as U.S.-Russian tensions are the worst they have been since the end of the Cold War. It is one of the absurdities of international politics that arms control becomes politically toxic at the very moment when it is most needed. The major treaties that reduced U.S. and Soviet/Russian arsenals over the last thirty years were negotiated and ratified in the waning years of the Cold War or during the post-Cold War era.
It was only when relations between Washington and Moscow thawed that it became possible to conclude and implement significant arms reduction measures. Now that those relations have fallen off a cliff, the political conditions for new arms control negotiations have all but disappeared. The INF Treaty already died after the U.S. withdrew from it under Trump, and New START was renewed only at the last minute. Arms control was already in terrible shape when Biden took office, and now it is on its last legs.
New START has been a successful treaty, and it has benefited both the U.S. and Russia. When there were still inspections, we know that both the U.S. and Russia were in compliance with the treaty’s requirements, and the treaty ensured stability and predictability in U.S.-Russian relations that we will not have when the treaty is gone. Both countries will be less secure if the treaty expires with nothing to take its place, and the entire world will be worse off if the old arms control regime collapses.
Given the increased fear of possible nuclear use because of the war in Ukraine and the growing danger of direct conflict between nuclear-armed powers in both Europe and Asia, it should be obvious that arms control is an essential part of keeping the peace. The end of arms control would introduce much greater uncertainty and instability into an already strained relationship with Russia, and it would clear the way for a new arms race. We do not want to return to a world where there are no limits on the size and deployment of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. That is where we are heading if the U.S. and Russia do not find a way to change course.