09 August 2019

The new START- the last redoubt against the nuclear chaos. Will EU be there when a future decision on mankind’s future will be made?

Niculae Iancu

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) was signed on 9th of April 2010, by Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, presidents, at that time, of two of the greatest nuclear superpowers, US and the Russian Federation. Treaty’s provisions came into force on 5th of February 2011 and will end after a decade since being created, on 5th of February 2021, if the signatory parts will not extend it. Which are the premises for the last international agreement on nuclear weapons control that we have today to actually make it through? Is it powers’ will still enough to save the treaty or will China also have to join them? Does EU play any role in this game? These are just some questions the international community will have to answer to in the following period.

Image source: Mediafax

Coming back to peace’s provision strategy by showing off the nuclear power

A month after taking White House’s Oval Office, president Donald Trump was stating, in an interview for Reuters, that he will make sure that US has the “best nuclear arsenal in the world”, as he was thinking that US has lost its credibility in nuclear deterrence field. “I am the first one that would like to see ... nobody have nukes, but [until then] we’re never going to fall behind any country even if it’s a friendly country, we’re never going to fall behind on nuclear power”, was saying Trump, forecasting the major decisions succession, to have a significant impact on international security’s functioning in the last three decades. Shortly after taking power, in the first part of the mandate, the American administration was going to announce US’s withdrawal from many international treaties and agreements the president saw as disadvantageous and start a supported offensive to determine allies to increase the common defence budget, to review the American forces’ dislocation strategies outside the national territory, to increase the national security and defence investments and take economic, commercial and institutional measures, which affected the international system’s functioning.

The nuclear power was one of Trump’s team foreign policy electoral topics. The campaign message was “strengthening and expansion of nuclear capabilities”, as “vital necessity for the improvement and modernization of nuclear deterrence capacity, to provide peace by showing off the power”. A surprisingly realist language, apparently unusual at that time for West’s world political elites which, after the end of the Cold War were promoting the idea of liberal democracy’s values and principles universality, as all states were naturally opened towards cooperation and dialogue. Concretely, a huge armed conflict was not possible anymore. The obstacles that could attack democracy all over the world were about to be local and be completed with small scale military interventions, reduced as intensity and time, usually post-conflict, to restart and upkeep the peace. Then it followed a period of small or great intensity crises, determined by the dissolution of some central benchmarks of the bipolar world stability and the emergence of tensions and violence caused by the social, economic and religious transformative forces of post-industrial and post-colonial world.  The solutions for that period’s challenges were included in new doctrines, wherefore the conflicts moved from traditional battlefields to urban environments. The military structures adapted through numerical decrease and the adoption of a new fight equipment, developed around the universal soldier concept. The great tanks division and nuclear missiles strategic forces got blocked between the covers of military plans, written for conventional or nuclear wars scenarios, which became improbable.

All these conceptions rise until March 2014, when, unexpectedly, Russia military occupies and illegally takes the Ukrainian Peninsula Crimea, proving that the armed aggression between states and the invasion on new territories are, again, possible. A year after the invasion, the Russian televisions were broadcasting the documentary “Crimea. The path to the homeland”.  Vladimir Putin, documentary’s key character, was making a surprising statement, when remembering that “Russia was ready to use its nuclear capacities if US and its allies would have interfered to help Ukraine”.

That was the moment the nuclear power was becoming, again, a viable threat against the international security and was, once more, on the global security agenda.

A new impulse towards developing nuclear military technologies

 Realism and pragmatism in global security affairs were about to enter the common language of the new team installed at the White House, at the beginning of 2017. The National Security Strategy, published in December 2017, defines the world we live in today as "a competition between the great powers", wherein “America’s military remains the strongest in the world. However, U.S. advantages are shrinking as rival states modernize and build up their conventional and nuclear forces. […] China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. [... China] is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own. Its nuclear arsenal is growing and diversifying. […]Russia aims to weaken U.S. influence in the world and divide us from our allies and partners. Russia views the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (EU) as threat [and] is investing in new military capabilities, including nuclear systems that remain the most significant existential threat to the United States.” In this new security environment, wherein rivalry between the great powers has become prevalent, Washington believes that the nuclear deterrence strategy is again "essential to prevent nuclear attacks, non-nuclear strategic attacks and large-scale conventional aggression."

Following Soviet Union’s disintegration, US reduced its investments in the nuclear triad and diminished the role of nuclear deterrence within the national security strategies. Military nuclear technology has continuously been obsolete, and the infrastructure has become old-fashioned, most of it remaining at Cold War’s technical level. According to the February 2018 Nuclear Capacity Analysis, the US reduced their nuclear arsenal by 85% compared to the maximum reached during the Cold War, while, in the last two decades, they did not operationalize any new nuclear capacity. That is why, following the National Security Strategy, the US will "modernize its nuclear business to make sure that they have the necessary scientific, engineering and production capabilities to have a safe and efficient nuclear triad, aiming at responding to future nuclear security threats. Modernization involves making investments in outdated command and control systems and developing new nuclear weapons production and operationalization.” The necessary budgets are huge. The costs estimated by President Trump himself, when he took office, were worth $ 1 trillion, over the next 30 years. Currently, the US Congress is considering allocating nearly $ 500 billion, over the next ten years, to fund programs for nuclear forces under Defense and Energy departments’ responsibility.

On the other hand, after the hard post-communist world decade, Russia started the gradual modernization of its nuclear forces, so that, now, it can use nuclear power as a threat factor within the narrative and political discourse. In December 2016, President Vladimir Putin stated that "[Russia] strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems." Moreover, the leitmotiv behind the messages on the Russian military force, sent by Putin to his own electorate, is represented by Russian Federation’s technological advance comparing to US and NATO in terms of new weapons systems, which, according to Moscow, would be able to ridicule the deployed Western anti-missile shields, where Russia considers to be its traditional area of ​​strategic influence.

Also, China's military ascension and its exclusion from nuclear weapons control mechanisms has allowed Beijing to reach a level that gives it the potential to strongly influence the global power balance. China has become a major regional power in the Indo-Pacific area and its exponential growth has pushed Americans to reconsider their strategic priorities and relocate important military resources given the well-known predicted "Pacific Century of the United States." At the same time, China's economic expansion and its global investments are worsening the international security equations, within the bi- and multilateral combinatorial game relations that Beijing is playing today. The joint military exercises with Russia, the naval military presence in all world's oceans, the development of privileged relations with the states on the new Silk Road are just as many premises of the future international security’s complexity, wherefore the conventional analysis models will be unable to provide sufficient and objective assessments.

Despite the ongoing power accumulation, China is not part of any international agreement aimed at reducing or eliminating strategic or intermediate nuclear forces. This happens for two major reasons. The first is historical, the international framework of nuclear non-proliferation, designed according to the bipolar world logic of the Cold War. The second one is determined by Beijing's permanent refusal to take part in the negotiations on the international arms control regime reform. Chinese’s lack of involvement in this sensitive topic has become a privilege that seems to be accepted neither by the Americans, nor the Russians. Essentially, both sides pleaded with China's increased military power as one of the main exogenous reasons for their decision to recently denounce the INF Treaty. Equally, China's participation becomes a prerequisite for Washington and Moscow's commitment to continue to be part of the New START, the only international treaty that continues to keep the nuclear power proliferation under control.

The New START based on numbers

The new START sets “the necessary measures for the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms". The treaty stipulates that each of the two signatory sides have to reduce their nuclear arsenal to 1 550 nuclear warheads and 700 land, submarine and air operational launch platforms. The launch platforms the agreement refers to include the launch facilities for intercontinental ballistic missiles, ballistic missile launch submarines and heavy strategic bombers, equipped for missions involving nuclear weapons. The treaty gives military strategists the freedom to decide the numerical distribution of all three launch platforms categories of the nuclear triad, without exceeding the imposed limit.

The United States and Russia have announced that their nuclear capabilities number, which are under treaty’s incidence, has already dropped below the limits imposed in the first seven years since its entry into force, as agreed from the beginning.   

The new START also imposes a strict compliance verification regime with its provisions, which gives each part the opportunity to perform up to 18 inspections per year at the nuclear facilities owned by the other party. For example, during this year, the Americans carried out 8 inspections, Russians 10 and 18,352 notifications were exchanged between both capitals.

But, what would be the significance of all these figures? In order to understand the importance of the New START, it is noteworthy to remember that both superpowers held together, during the Cold War, over 70,000 nuclear warheads, when nuclear weapons reached their all-time high. This happened in 1986, one year before the INF Treaty being signed. Also, it should be noted that the new START replaced the START I Treaty, signed by US and USSR on July 31, 1991 and reconfirmed shortly after Soviet Union’s demise, on May 23, 1992, by the US, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Unlike the current agreement, the START I Treaty was foreseeing Moscow and Washington’s number limitation of nuclear warheads to 6,000 and the number of launching platforms, of all three types, to 1,600 for each party. START I stopped working on December 5, 2009.

According to data provided by several US and Europe strategic analysis centers, today there are about 14,600 nuclear warheads all over the world. 6 850 of them are owned by Russia and 6,550 by the United States. France has the third place, with 300 warheads, which will remain the only EU member state with nuclear weapons after BREXIT, followed by China with 280 warheads, Great Britain with 215, Pakistan with 150, India with 140, Israel with 80, because the last position is occupied by North Korea, with an estimated number of 20 wares.

 Uncertainties on New START’s future

The new START was, for almost a decade, along with the recently ended INF Treaty, "the foundation of the international system of nuclear weapons control". Since the moment it was signed, the agreement was regarded as "a success story and a victory for both sides". President Barack Obama described it as "an important milestone in strengthening nuclear security and the non-proliferation regime, as well as a historic moment for the US-Russia relations." President Dmitry Medvedev said that the agreement created "a win-win situation for both sides".

Immediately after the treaty came into force, in February 2011, Americans discussed the need for further negotiations to reach a new phase of nuclear weapons reduction, particularly the nuclear warheads and tactical nuclear weapons. They started from the assumption that the START agreements aimed mainly at limiting the number of launching platforms and thought that it is the perfect time to drastically reduce the number of nuclear warheads and the transition to a world without nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Russia seemed more interested in debating the missile defense systems and conventional strategic weapon systems limitation, than the nuclear warheads themselves, regarded as areas where US forces dominance remained extremely high for Moscow’s concerns. Despite Washington's pressures, Russian officials have managed to avoid starting a new round of negotiations by imposing preconditions that are hard to accept by Pentagon strategists, at least during the Obama administration, such as, for example, the US nuclear tactical weapon complete withdrawal from Europe. The postponement of a return to negotiations highlighted sides’ option of extending current treaty’s provisions’ applicability timespan, at least for the active maintenance of the provisions that its limits will not be exceeded again.

Currently, less than 18 months before the new START expires, high officials in Trump’s administration believe it is necessary to negotiate, at any cost, a new treaty and not extend the existing one. President Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, a former member of President Bush Jr.'s "war eagles" neoconservatives, said, earlier this year, that the current treaty could no longer effectively respond to the military business paradigm shift, enhanced by the new "hypersonic weapons or nuclear-powered intercontinental missiles." In April, the White House chief executive called on his administration to "prepare a new approach for future agreements with Russia and China in the field of arms control", leaving the impression that, despite his isolationist policy at issue with any external cooperation of any kind, he would agree to maintain an international framework for nuclear arsenals' limitation and control. However, there was something quite difficult to ignore. No more review was needed. They were asking for a reform to ensure that all the states with high power aspirations were included in the new agreements. At the same time, Trump has repeatedly accused Russia of violating the effective treaties and harshly criticized China for having avoided to join the agreements on nuclear weapons control, despite accelerated development of new weapons systems and, perhaps more importantly, a complete absence of transparency in terms of its strategic capabilities.

US President position is also supported by the US Congress, which adopted, in May, a law promoted by Republicans that "limits the financing of any New START extension or a subsequent agreement, without the inclusion of People's Republic of China and all the strategic and non-strategic nuclear forces of the Russian Federation in the agreement”.

On the other hand, although the nuclear weapons control issue has traditionally enjoyed bi-partisan support, this time the Democratic Party considers that the time left until the New START expires is not enough to negotiate a new treaty. Hence, the only viable solution is extending the current treaty by at least five years, until 2026, when other options may be explored. In June, a group of eight Democratic congressmen, important within the national security field, signed a letter to the president, warning that "a failure to expand the New START will have long-term consequences on United States’ abilities to combat the Russian nuclear threat and its capacity to modernize its own nuclear arsenal." At odds with Republicans, Democrats believe that by extending the agreement, "the administration will ensure the arms control architecture perpetuation, which made it possible to limit the Russian nuclear arsenal after the end of the Cold War. [...] In the absence of New START’s constraints, Russia will have the opportunity to quickly develop its nuclear capabilities, and the United States will be forced to assume a costly and unnecessary expansion of the nuclear triad in order to maintain strategic stability." The position of the letter’s authors is all the more important as the presidential election is at the corner and everyone expects for the issue of nuclear deterrence to have an important place among both camps’ foreign policy issues, in a world in which the central role of the United States is not a certainty anymore.

Also in June, due to the increasing debates tone on the future of the New START, President Putin said that Russia would not unilaterally extend its participation in the agreement, "despite repeated calls from Moscow to avoid a catastrophe". According to Moscow’s leader, New START’s expiration will "relaunch an arms race" and lead to "dislocating nuclear weapons in space". Such a message reminds of an extremely sensitive topic for Russia, all the more so, since we are only a few months after the establishment of American space forces “perceived by Russian generals as a huge step for Washington towards "a new stars war", a war wherein the United States will be able to carry out pre-emptive space attacks on Russian or Chinese targets, placed anywhere in the world." Moreover, Putin believes that "in order to be pragmatic", all states possessing nuclear weapons, "admittedly or unofficial", will have to join the negotiations for current agreement’s extension and getting to a consensus on both parts convincing China to join them.

Chinese security analysts are spreading the idea that getting China in a treaty on nuclear capabilities reduction is an obsession, rather than a useful process for the great nuclear powers. Their arguments start from the important difference nuclear warheads’ number that are provided by the three parties involved. One such indicator would allow China, if it would join a nuclear weapons control agreement, to impose United States and Russia's nuclear arsenals limitation to several hundred nuclear warheads, as many as it has. For Chinese strategists this can hardly be accepted by Washington and Moscow. Moreover, they believe that joining the negotiation of a new strategic nuclear deal could turn into a dangerous precedent, which could, later, be exploited by opponents to lure China into other types of disadvantageous arrangements, such as control the new smart and autonomous weapons that Beijing is currently developing. And there is another important topic that Beijing considers. The Chinese don't have the war gene and, as a result, the use of nuclear weapons will never be a first choice for them. Consequently, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, said, in May, that "Beijing is opposed to any country bringing China into arms control and will not take part in any trilateral negotiations on a disarmament deal." nuclear".


After three decades since Berlin’s Wall collapse, nuclear guns are, again, the cutting edge of the security debates at an international level. Nuclear deterrence and enemy’s isolation by force reentered the common security language, and the nuclear status-quo regains its relevance as strategic stability indicator.

The disintegration of the international nuclear weapons control regime, through INF Treaty’s dissolution and the lack of solutions for the New START’s continuation are creating some authority gaps that could lead to major breaches, which would eventually push the entire world into a new arms race. This time, we can no longer talk about a game to have no winners. Now, the center of debates is China, whose economic and military growth, in the last two decades, is anything but not negligible. Furthermore, any post-New START scenario must include the importance of US’s European allies, whose security is highly dependent on Washington’s military force in Europe.

Given the current tensions between all these actors, preserving the international nuclear weapons control framework is becoming increasingly unfeasible. Sitting honestly around the negotiating table gets hindered by many vision differences, caused by all sides not following the rules that have governed the global order in recent decades. The mutual allegations between Washington and Moscow about repeated breaches of existing nuclear agreements are slowly destroying the consistency of the common denominator that should the starting point of future negotiations. The economic and trade differences increase between US and China, seen by many analysts as part of a true "economic war", is postponing the military cooperation approach. Reducing Western world’s cohesion amid the growing mistrust between the two Atlantic coasts as a result of unpredictable developments in sensitive topics, such as the equitable distribution of the common defence costs, energy security and Europe's growing dependence on Russian energy resources, the growing protectionist measures to defend the intellectual property rights and for funding the development of new military capabilities, the lack of communication before making major decisions that affect Middle East, Africa and Asia security dynamics are blocking the will to make nuclear arms race issue the no. 1 priority on the international agenda.

Paradoxically, the European Union could actually be stronger after all these uncertainties. Brussels’ ambitions to get strategic autonomy and a relevant role on the international scene, can become reality after bringing all important actors at the negotiation table regarding  the future nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament initiative framework. Federica Mogherini, Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stated, in December last year, in front of the EU Nuclear Non-Proliferation Consortium representatives that "the greater the nuclear challenge in terms of security, the more important are the political and diplomatic". It would probably be more important now than ever that all the EU's "unparalleled diplomatic and technical expertise" in this area to be enhanced, by promoting "truly innovative solutions", to prove that the "European model" has strengths universal and can have results even in situations where the weapons’ sound emerges again. And, in order to end this scenario, what if Romania would start working on making this desideratum a reality, and Bucharest would be the place to have those negotiation on nuclear agreements? The New START was signed in Prague, so why not signing the future New START in Bucharest?

Translated by Andreea Soare