As the last nuclear control treaty left between the United States and Russia, the extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) came as a relief to those worried about an uncontrollable proliferation of artificial intelligence weapon systems. Signed by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, the treaty was made to work towards a nuclear-free world by increasing transparency between the two former Cold War rivals, who collectively hold about 91% of global nuclear weapons. New START limits both nations to deploying 1,550 nuclear warheads over 700 delivery systems, which includes intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and bombers; the treaty also allows for 18 yearly on-site mutual inspections. The significance of the treaty lies in its meticulous verification and regulation of the U.S. and Russia’s nuclear weapons, many of which could result in catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences.
Though it is currently the only nuclear arms control treaty to exist between the two nations, New START is one of many bilateral agreements that have existed between the U.S. and Russia, in repeated attempts to limit their nuclear weapon arsenals. After World War II, the struggle for domination in nuclear warfare began at the outset of the Cold War, as these nations began developing stockpiles of atomic weapons as means of intimidation and defense. A nuclear war never erupted due to the possibility of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), a military strategy doctrine in which a full-scale nuclear attack between two or more sides would result in the absolute obliteration of the attacker and defender. In 1972, steps were taken to ensure the regulation of these destructive weapons with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty), the first nuclear arms control agreement between the U.S. and Russia.
Over time, many of the treaties established between the two nations either expired, were terminated by the withdrawal of parties, or were never entered into force despite negotiations. As the sole nuclear arms control treaty still standing, pressure mounts over New START’s continued success, lest future attempts to regulate nuclear arms between the U.S. and Russia fail.
Russian officials welcomed the New START extension as a step forward in improving arms relations with the Biden administration, which is working to reverse setbacks from the Trump administration. In 2019, the U.S. withdrew from the historic Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which called for the elimination of U.S. and Russian missiles with ranges up to 5,500 kilometers. The U.S., endorsed by its NATO allies, asserted that Russia violated the treaty as early as 2014 with its development and fielding of a missile system that poses significant risks to Euro-Atlantic nations; however, Russia denied this accusation. Trump also rejected Russia’s offer for an unconditional five year extension of the New START treaty and instead pushed for a shorter arms control agreement that included a freeze on all nuclear warheads, as well as the future inclusion of China. Negotiations ended in a stalemate until Biden’s renewal of the New START treaty on February 3rd. The president previously expressed strong interest in extending the treaty during his presidential campaign and Russia has long been open to its extension without preconditions.
In light of Russia’s recent alleged violation of the INF treaty, the Biden administration’s decision to extend the New START treaty allows for the careful monitoring of Russia’s missile arsenal. The end of New START would suggest an era of unchecked nuclear proliferation, rendering our society vulnerable to nuclear incidents. Furthermore, resolving tensions between the U.S. and Russia is but one of a series of issues that Biden must tackle within the realm of nuclear arms. China, already an economic and political powerhouse, has also shown an increase in new weapons technology, fueled by artificial intelligence. The CCP is aggressively pursuing artificial intelligence as a key military technology, with the government already exporting military unmanned systems and developing autonomous military vehicles. During Trump ’s negotiations of New START, China refused to join the treaty unless the U.S. reduced its arsenal to China’s size, a worrying sign of the country’s uncurbed arms development. Without a regulatory framework like New START, a new arms control treaty would have to be developed, a process which is both time consuming and difficult. Maintaining the current treaty, which has been a longstanding and tested agreement, could potentially buy time for Washington and Moscow to persuade others in joining weapons limitation agreements.
While the extension of New START signals a potential change in bilateral relations, tensions will likely continue to exist between the two nations. Actions such as Russian interference in the 2016 elections and the alleged offering of bounties for the deaths of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has resulted in a diplomatic stalemate and animosity between the countries. While the prolonging of the treaty might incentivize the creation of new bilateral initiatives that could advance stability in the international community, the treaty has only been signed for another five years.
As of now, there has been no indication that the treaty will continue to exist after those five years and its survival is contingent on the two nations’ relations in the future. Serving as the last nuclear arms control treaty between both parties, failure to fully commit to the terms of agreement has the potential to bring about the unbridled proliferation of nuclear arms and the implications of a nuclear attack are huge. Not only will the impact of a nuclear weapon cause massive destruction to infrastructure and human lives, the ionizing radiation produced from these weapons has long term health and environmental consequences. With our planet already grappling with the effects of climate change, a nuclear detonation could cause the extreme disruption of ecosystems, harming the biodiversity necessary to sustain life. With its devastating power, it is clear that a nuclear incident will dramatically alter life on Earth and it is imperative that Washington takes advantage of this opportunity to strengthen cooperation and communications with Russia, in hopes of keeping humanity safe from the threat of catastrophic nuclear events.