New START Or New Agreement? The Future Of Arms Control Depends On The U.S. Election Outcome

The last nuclear limitation treaty, “anchor of strategic stability” New START, is ready to expire in February 2021. If so, it will be the first time since the 1960’s that neither Russia nor the U.S. has any limitations on their nuclear arsenal. Depending on the election outcome, there is a chance that START would be extended for one more year. Otherwise, until a completely new agreement would be reached, the world will have to be far more cautious experts say. This era of instability can last for many years or even decades.

During the global great power competition, the USSR (later Russia) and the U.S. created three treaties and maintained a robust infrastructure of mutual deterrence. These agreements have complemented each other as the puzzle pieces of one solid picture. In the last years of the Cold War, these documents were signed and signaled the World about growing trust between the great powers. Unfortunately, the golden era of mutual trust is over. Two of those agreements, ABMT and the INF Treaty, were terminated, the last one is ready to expire.


The first agreement, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty or ABMT), was accomplished by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1972. The U.S. withdrew from this agreement in June of 2002. During the announcement that the U.S. had pulled out of the treaty, President George W. Bush only wrote that, “(it is) now behind us.” He saw the agreement as a Cold War relic that created many obstacles to improve a national missile defense. At the same time, in response to it, Russia withdrew from the START II treaty in June 2002 that actually never entered into force.

In 2019, the United States withdrew from the “Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty” (INF Treaty). In December of 2018, NATO allies concluded that Russia had created an intermediate-range missile and violated terms. For instance, Russia failed to notify the U.S. of massive military exercises and covert development of an intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile, the SSC-8/9M729. Moscow has denied such accusations.

The third agreement, “START III” (New START), remains the only arms limitation treaty in force between Russia and the United States; it is set to expire in February of 2021. Russia has consistently been reported in compliance with the New START Treaty (1991-Present). However, many U.S. experts and policy advisors see this agreement as a relic of the Cold War Era that limits the U.S. They insist that the deal doesn’t consider today’s reality – new technologies and growing players in this field.  

The New START treaty was the result of renegotiated agreements START I (1991), II (1993, never entered into force), and the treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Strategic Offensive Reductions (SORT) that came into force on June 1, 2003. The last agreement was to expire on December 31, 2012, but was superseded by New START.


The U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) was signed on July 31, 1991, by U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. START I was the first treaty to deliver deep reductions of U.S. and Soviet strategic nuclear weapons. Though many treaty elements quickly became outdated—such as the limits on warheads and delivery vehicles—it was the first treaty to provide stability and predictability to the strategic balance.

Negotiations of START I followed the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of the 70s. President Ronald Reagan renamed the talks “START” in 1982 and proposed more radical reductions of strategic warheads’ existing stockpile, rather than limitations. The negotiations received a boost after the Reykjavik summit between President Reagan and President Gorbachev. After ten years of bumpy negotiations, the comprehensive START I was signed in 1991.

START I was quickly ratified by the U.S. Senate, but the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 left four independent states with strategic nuclear weapons—Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Russia. In May 1992, the Lisbon Protocol was signed that allowed these new States to become signatories of START I, but Russia was recognized as the only nuclear state; Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine had to destroy their arsenals or turn them over to Russia.

Although START I took three years to enter into effect, crucial activities took place after its signing, such as the exchange of data on strategic weapons and facilities, inspections to verify the technical characteristics of strategic missiles as well as the implementation of the protocol on test launches.

START 1’s nuclear legacy lasted for 15 years and expired on December 5, 2009, with the option of extending the treaty for five-year periods. Both Washington and Moscow declined to extend the treaty as negotiations were already ongoing for a new treaty. SORT and START I were both replaced by “New Start.”


The original  New Start Treaty was implemented under ex-President Barack Obama’s administration. It was signed on April 8, 2010, in Prague and entered into force on February 5, 2011. However, right from the time Presidents Obama andthe premier of Russia Medvedev signed the treaty, there were many concerns raised by many experts. 

A Senior Research Fellow for Defense Programs at the Heritage Foundation, Dakota Wood, explained to NYCFPA that critics emphasized that it didn’t do enough to put in limitations as to throw weight. The treaty didn’t limit how many warheads and the weapon platforms could deliver them or the development of new nuclear capability. “But at that point in time, there were promises made within the United States to critics of the treaty that along with the treaty there will be an investment in modernizing U.S. nuclear capability. That never happened. So, for critics, a new start treaty was flawed fundamentally,” he added. 

Moreover, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, Steven Pifer, during his testimony in July 2010 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, pointed out that at that time, “the Russian strategic missile force has been shrinking… Moscow thus far has made a policy choice to allow that shrinkage.” In this context, he insisted that this agreement was in the national interest of the U.S.

Nevertheless, in 10 years, the situation in the world and these two countries changed dramatically. New Start did not take these changes into account. For instance, as was mentioned, the New START Treaty has no limits on the total throw- weight of the number of warheads. Russia’s older SS18 ICBM can carry ten warheads. But they are developing a new version RS-28 SARMAT – a heavy ICBM that has 10-15 MIRV’s or carry an unspecified number of their AVANGARD hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) warheads. Moreover, where the United States has reportedly about five hundred tactical shorter-range lower yield weapons of the type deployed in Europe during the Cold War, Russia reportedly has somewhere around two thousand.

Furthermore, Russia has pursued unmanned underwater nuclear drone capabilities, nuclear cruise missiles, and aero-launched ballistic missiles, all of which are nuclear-armed. Dakota Wood continues that, “new weapons and new capabilities are not covered with the New START to begin with and does not seem to be in the line of negotiating possibilities later on.”

Expert reasoning, “if the actual desire was to limit the potential of nuclear war or to reduce inventories, why would Russia be pursuing a brand-new ICBM that dramatically increases the carrying capacity of the warheads? That would seem to be moving in the opposite direction of whether to reduce rather than to increase potential nuclear conflict.”

Similarly, the U.S. has reduced its deployed warheads and delivery count and unilaterally de-MIRVed (reduced our Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle capabilities). “We got rid of all of that; we had three re-entry vehicles per warhead missiles, now we have single head warheads. It was voluntary on the part of the U.S.,” Mr. Wood explains. At the same time, the United States’ missile inventory had been extended 30 years beyond their planned service lives. With that being said, the United States has not been actively modernizing, pursuing, and keeping its capabilities updated. In contrast, countries such as Russia, and certainly China have been very aggressive in looking for new capabilities.

Mr. Wood also emphasized that there are still many questions in terms of inspections where a U.S. team would go to Russia, and a Russian team would go to the U.S. facilities; these inspections would be arranged with a 24 hours advance notice. “Russia will have 24 hours of advance notice. And the same for the U.S., which allows the country to be inspected to change conditions. So, even the verification process is difficult.”


These difficulties didn’t help the U.S. and Russia to reach a new agreement under Trump’s administration. According to Axios, Trump and Putin have discussed arms control in a string of phone calls over the last six months.  Counterparts also dispatched envoys to negotiate in Vienna. On August 18, during the press briefing at the State Department,  Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Ambassador Marshall S. Billingslea explained that “New START is a deeply flawed deal negotiated under the Obama-Biden administration, has significant verification deficiencies, and does nothing to address the most imminent problem of this decade, which is China’s secretive crash nuclear buildup.” Furthermore, despite “some areas of convergence between Russia and the United States, we remain far apart on a number of key issues.” He also emphasized that, “Russia understands our position, and what remains to be seen is if there is the political will in Moscow to get this deal done.”

Meanwhile, President-elect Joe Biden has expressed unequivocal willingness to extend the New START treaty. Biden sees this agreement as, “an anchor of strategic stability between the United States and Russia, and (would like to) use that as a foundation for new arms control arrangements.” It got the attention of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  “Biden has publicly said that he is ready to extend New START or to sign a new treaty on limiting strategic offensive weapon. It is already a key element of our possible cooperation in the future,” Putin said to Russia-1 TV.

After this statement, on October 11, Trump said that he wanted to reach a nuclear accord with Putin by the election. Putin commented on this treaty in response to Trump many times. On October 22, he said, “nothing bad will happen,” if the New START gets extended for one year. This way, both sides would have more time to find a compromise. It means the Kremlin skipped its previous proposal to extend New Start for five years. Moreover, Russian negotiators have proposed freezing the total number of nuclear warheads (including tactical nuclear warheads not limited by the treaty) as the U.S. has demanded. Despite this, with only a few days before the election, an agreement has not been reached.


In this light, likely, the New START – the last arms control agreement between the United States and Russia is set to expire in February 2021.

Some experts and policymakers insist that letting it expire would destabilize the arms-control process and deprive the U.S. of the opportunity to verify the Russian nuclear arsenal size. For instance, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator Bob Menendez characterized Trump’s administration as having “failed to make any progress on arms control issues.”

“If the United States fails to extend the New START Treaty, it will be the first time since the 1960’s that Russia’s nuclear arsenal will not be constrained by an international arms control framework,” he added on his official website. 

Mr. Wood disagreed with that position. He said that it was clear that the new nuclear agreement in this time framework wasn’t reachable and although  Trump made this statement that he is ready to accomplish the agreement in a couple of weeks before the election, “It is a political maneuver to deflect the question a little bit,” he said.

He continued: “What incentive is there for the Trump administration to agree to any kind of extension? So, the Trump administration would be left with the current agreement, which, as I described previously, has a lot of fundamental flaws and enables Russia to continue expanding its nuclear arsenal. And it is very clear that Russia has not been abiding by the spirit of the treaty anyway.”

Wood believes that President Putin’s suggestion to try to extend the end of the treaty for at least a year is nothing but a tactic to get beyond this current election cycle.” In his opinion, Russia expects that if there is a view that former Vice President Biden may win the election, they will be negotiating New Start either as an extension or a new version of New START with Biden’s administration…and based on observed behavior and policy preferences, President Biden would be much more like President Obama. And this negotiated treaty would be much more to the benefit of Russia than it would be to the United States.”

On the other hand, “If you allow the treaty to expire, the U.S. is no longer limited, because the U.S. has been abiding by the terms of the treaty. The treaty freezes the United States from pursuing other efforts and legally prevented them from doing so. So, in the new negotiating cycle, the U.S. will have a greater advantage or leverage in the discussions.”

A new treaty has to account for new systems that Russia is developing, how many warheads could be delivered with a particular platform, and it would also have to take into account what other countries are now developing and the modernizing of their nuclear capabilities that are not covered with New Start. Primarily that would be China.

Dakota Wood added that the significant impact on this new agreement may have some world events including global recession as the consequences of COVID-19 on national economies, what happens in Europe, what will be Germany’s energy-related relationships with Russia, how “does the Russia – China contest play out (sometimes they are in alignment in their policy, but their independence has increased, as well), does India become a serious player, etc.

“Two weeks to the election, there is just no time to do something on that magnitude, and this is going to be pushed beyond the election. We will see who wins. If Donald Trump – President Putin will have to deal with President Trump as the New START treaty expires.”, Wood explained.

He agreed that maybe it is a little bit scary not to have any nuclear agreement. In this context, he gave an example of a study about traffic intersections. Presumably, people see when the traffic light turns yellow and slow down; when the light turns red, they come to a stop. Every once in a while, somebody not paying attention goes through this intersection, and an accident happens.

“But this study showed that if you remove the traffic light from the intersection, and even remove the stop sign, people start becoming very cautious. Because the risk of not paying attention and going into the intersection may cause a crash, and it is actually causing more caution. People are stopping and checking, allowing others to go through the intersection.  So, it could be that the absence of a New START replacement, or extension, that both sides would be a little bit more cautious about what they are doing and not precipitate a rapid escalation,” he concluded.

Sign up for our Newsletter

Click edit button to change this text. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit