A 'New START' to an arms race between the US and Russia?
How European missile defense is blowing up the 'New START' nuclear weapons treaty, US relations with Russia, and possibly reigniting a cold-war arms race.
Judging by the sound and fury coming from Russia lately, the United States might be witnessing the slow-motion destruction of President Obama’s foreign policy crown jewel, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).Skip to next paragraph
But no big surprise there, really: It was only a matter of time before the time bomb attached to the treaty – European missile defense – blew it up. Not only is Russia figuratively up in arms, but it has actually upped its nuclear arms lately, possibly re-igniting a cold-war-style arms race.
Under New START, which entered into force in February, Moscow and Washington agreed to reduce their deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 each by 2018. This strict balance or “parity” in strategic warhead numbers is a central tenet of the treaty.
The problem with European missile defense is that while it’s designed to counter Iran, the faster interceptors due to come online in 2018 will also be able to engage Russian warheads, upsetting this all-important perception of parity. Indeed, this interplay between strategic offense and defense was explicitly recognized in the preamble to the treaty.
For more than a year, Moscow and Washington have been negotiating on possible ways to cooperate on missile defense. The Russians would like to set up a joint European missile defense network with NATO, to make sure that the elements of the system – in a number of NATO countries, including Turkey – will not neutralize Russia’s nuclear warheads.
NATO, in contrast, has proposed the creation of two entirely separate systems that would exchange information. But the discussions have gone nowhere, and on Nov. 23, President Dmitry Medvedev finally threw in the towel, announcing the end of negotiations on missile defense cooperation.
Now Russia is warning it will deploy advanced conventional Iskander missile systems in its western and southern Kaliningrad and Krasnodar regions and neighboring Belarus if there is no satisfactory closure on the missile-defense issue. These missiles would be capable of targeting the NATO missile defense bases.
Russia has also been increasing its deployed strategic nuclear stockpile. Russian warhead numbers had already dipped below the New START limits earlier this year, but have now increased to 16 warheads above the treaty limits. While the increase is not large, the trajectory of change is discouraging: Instead of continuing the decline in warhead numbers, Russia is now evidently increasing its deployed strategic stockpile.