In this file photo taken on Wed. June 24, 2020, Russian RS-24 Yars ballistic missiles roll in Red Square during the Victory Day military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in Moscow, Russia.

US and Russia extend key nuclear arms reduction treaty

The World's host Marco Werman spoke to Lynn Rusten, vice president of global nuclear policy at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, about the New START treaty's extension and the urgency of follow-up agreements.

The World

Russian lawmakers on Wednesday quickly approved the extension of the last remaining nuclear Russia-US arms control treaty, a fast-track action that comes just days before it’s due to expire.

Both houses of Russia's parliament voted unanimously to extend the New START treaty for five years, a day after a phone call between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin said they agreed to complete the necessary extension procedures in the next few days.

Related: Will New START nuclear treaty survive 'hostile' US-Russia relations?

Speaking via video link to the World Economic Forum's virtual meeting, Putin hailed the decision to extend the treaty as “a step in the right direction,” but warned of rising global rivalries and threats of new conflicts.

The pact’s extension doesn’t require congressional approval in the US, but Russian lawmakers must ratify the move and Putin has to sign the relevant bill into law.

Related: Would China bring a new start to New START?

New START expires on Feb. 5. After taking office last week, Biden proposed extending the treaty for five years, and the Kremlin quickly welcomed the offer.

The treaty, signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.

Biden indicated during the campaign that he favored the preservation of the New START treaty, which was negotiated during his tenure as US vice president.

Related: McFaul: Blinken can 'reinvigorate America's place in the world'

The World's host Marco Werman spoke to Lynn Rusten, vice president of global nuclear policy at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), about the New START treaty's extension and the urgency of follow-up agreements.

Marco Werman: Lynn explain, first of all, what the New START treaty is and how it actually limits both the US and Russia's nuclear arsenals.

Lynn Rusten: The New START treaty is the only treaty remaining that limits US and Russian nuclear arms. It has numerical limits on deployed nuclear warheads, 1,550 on each side. And importantly, it has very intensive, intrusive verification and inspection measures so that we can confirm that Russia is complying with the treaty. This includes 18 on-site inspections each year in each other's countries.

So you've been working on arms reduction for some time. It was in 2010 and 2011 when New START was being negotiated with the Russian government. Take us back, if you would. What were those negotiations like? 

Well, I supported those negotiations from Washington, but we are negotiating in a circumstance when the original START I treaty was set to expire. Basically, for 50 years, the United States and Russia have had a succession of agreements regulating their strategic nuclear arms. And so, it was critically important to put the next agreement in place, which New START was. It was negotiated fairly quickly in about a year, and then it took some months to get it ratified and entered into force.

If New START were to have expired on Feb. 5, what would have been the potential dangers and the impact to global security? 

Yeah, I just can't stress how critically important it is that this treaty is being extended. In the intervening period, we've seen a succession of treaties fall by the wayside either because in one case, Russia violated one, the United States has withdrawn from treaties. Frankly, under the Trump administration, there was kind of an aversion to arms control agreements. And so the whole fabric of arms control agreements that help regulate nuclear competition has been eroding. And this is the last standing treaty governing the most destructive weapons in the world on the part of the two countries that have, by far, the preponderance of these weapons. And so having the limits, having the verification in place for another five years is essential.

Aside from New START, are there other agreements that put limits on US and Russian nuclear arms? I mean, does New START cover all nuclear weapons?  

It is the only agreement remaining, but it does not cover all types and classes of nuclear weapons. And so the next stage of arms control is going to need to do a couple of things. One is, hopefully, to begin to address what is not covered in this treaty that includes all nuclear warheads. And also, when you have the problem that the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty has been terminated, and so we now have a class of intermediate-range systems that can be armed with nuclear weapons. And then third, there's a whole set of technologies that don't really lend themselves as much to formal arms control.

For instance, cyber risk to nuclear command and control systems. And those risks can come from third parties, as well. It's really essential that our systems be hardened against cyber intrusions. And so that's really critical to begin to, at least, discuss that problem with Russia and kind of identify the mutual interest in not messing around in that way with each other's nuclear command and control systems.

You kind of tipped to it there, I'm wondering how the world has changed since New START was originally signed. And if you could do it all over again, Lynn, what would you change?

I don't know that the point is to go back and do something all over again. I think the point is to build on where we are. The one thing that's also a good start by President Biden is he's setting a tone that says, we will cooperate with Russia in areas [of] United States interests, even as we're firm on areas that we differ in terms of principles and values. And clearly, nuclear risk reduction and nuclear nonproliferation as an area where we are, as someone once said, doomed to cooperate with Russia because they also have so many nuclear weapons. And so, getting on a path where you can have diplomacy — even with adversaries like Russia — to work on common problems and reduce risk, even as you have differences in other areas of the relationship, is essential.

The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.

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