Ask This General

Brigadier General Peter B. Zwack {Ret.}

I was heartened to see the new Biden administration publicly announce its strong interest to immediately extend the strategic New START nuclear treaty with Russia that is set to expire next week, on Feb. 5. This came after Biden announced his commitment to philosophically and substantively reenter the multi-national world by rejoining The Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization. Undoubtedly the White House is consulting closely with our close NATO allies, who are almost certainly greatly relieved by President Joe Biden’s accession to office. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also stated several times Russia’s openness to extend the treaty.

Other than the ongoing battle with the implacable Coronavirus and grappling with our own serious internal division and economic hardship, there is nothing more immediately existential to us — and by extension, the greater world — than the prospect of our nuclear-tipped nations falling back into a terrifying and unconstrained modern new arms race, where ultimately there can be no “winners.”

If New START indeed dies without extension and/or modification, compensating views such as outspending opponents into oblivion with modern new weapons suggest a risky weapons-centric approach that appears dangerously obsolete in this increasingly asymmetric world.

A reminder: New START regulates and verifies the thousands of U.S. and Russian strategic long-range civilization-ending nuclear weapons and delivery systems in our arsenals. Without it, there will be fewer checks and balances and reduced contact points, which would make our societies desperately vulnerable to a cyber-fast nuclear accident or incident.

New START is undoubtedly aging and has issues, foremost the rise of an increasingly restless China reluctant to be part of any weapons limitations, and dangerous new weapons systems and technologies enabled by cyber and AI not included in the original 2010 treaty. It has, however, a time-tested and still functioning regulatory and verification mechanism that — with a solid extension — could buy time for experienced U.S. and Russian negotiators to build an updated treaty that could involve other nations such as France, UK and at least collectively address China. Without New START’s existing framework, it will be devilishly difficult and time consuming in the current environment to create an entire new arms control and overall strategic stability framework from scratch.

Finally, for Washington and Moscow, a New START extension heralds a fleeting chance to begin the new Biden-Putin relationship with a positive anchor from which to build. Bilateral relations are currently awful, but some senior-level dialogue exists. While clearly there is no appetite for a “reset,” successfully extending New START could open a slender gateway toward opening other initiatives, and readdressing important treaties involving the U.S. and Russia such as the foundering 34-nation (including numerous NATO allies) Open Skies Treaty, from which both Washington and Moscow recently declared they will pull out.

This is a truly pivotal time for U.S.-Russia relations. An ephemeral opportunity beckons. The extension of New START would be an immediately tangible step toward improving confidence and contact between our dangerously distrustful and heavily armed nations. It could provide a potential bridge to more initiatives between the United States and The Russian Federation and thereby provide the prospect of a safer world for our citizens, and overall global commons.