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What Will It Be Like With No U.S-Russia Nuke Limits?

The end of the New Start Treaty approaches, and will leave the two countries to their own devices for the first time since 1969.

On February 5, 2021, the New START treaty between the United States and Russia will expire. Barring an extension, or some other solution, this will mark the end of the last extant nuclear deal, and will leave the two nations to their own devices on creating and deploying arms.

The United States officially introduced the atomic age in 1945, at the end of World War 2. In late August of 1949, the Soviet Union followed suit with a successful test of an atomic bomb of its own. What followed was two decades of unrestrained arsenal growth, with both sides building irresponsibly large supplies of weapons whose use would be disastrous to the world.

By 1969, both nations had to pause. Thousands of warheads now at the ready, it was clear that if the two nations had a proper nuclear exchange, it would mean the end of human civilization, if not the outright extinction of humanity. But what really led to talks was not the threat of an atomic horror, but rather the terrible harm it was doing to both nations’ economies to spend every dime they could scrounge up on more weapons. 

So the two nations did the next best thing to not planning for doomsday: they tried to budget for it. In 1969, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talk (SALT) Agreement I was negotiated, in which both sides agreed to cap their respective arsenals. This was followed by the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) of 1972, which greatly restricted the fielding of missile defenses. 

Both treaties were essential. SALT I capped the two nations’ arsenals at mutually-assured destruction levels, while the ABM Treaty kept them from undermining their first-strike treaties, because the other nation would need to match that with more nuclear arms. The idea was to leave both sides with a substantial but sustainably priced arsenal, both keeping an apocalypse just a button-push away, and ensuring neither nation would bankrupt itself by keeping that option. 

Unfortunately this didn’t work as intended, and it wasn’t long before arsenals started growing again. The SALT II Treaty in 1979 sought to not just cap but reduce arsenal sizes to parity. At this point, the arsenals had grown so far that the best they could do was to counsel reductions.

This had mixed success, from the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (Treaty of Moscow, or SORT) to the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), both of which struggled on monitoring. The currently active deal, New START, had more verification, though it also had the difficulty of very ambitious reduction levels in the face of huge arsenals. 

New START and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which the US only recently pulled out of, had their critics, but they also served the clear purpose of getting the two nations out of bankrupting one another with a huge arms race. 

INF was in many ways as essential to New START as the ABM was to SALT I. The idea was to cap intermediate-range missiles, reducing surprise first-strike possibilities, and keeping a world-ending war predictable for planners. 

The U.S. ended INF on enforcement arguments, but the consequences are much worse. Russia is now worried about the U.S. adding intermediate missiles in Europe, and is set to respond with hypersonic missiles launched from ships. In both cases, the possibility of first-strike grows, and both nations would probably answer this with another race for a bigger arsenal.

New START would be meant to preclude this arms race, which is where the imminent expiry of the treaty becomes all the more essential to address. Neither the U.S. nor Russia could long afford a new, unrestrained arms race. Annual U.S. military expenditures are already fast approaching a trillion dollars, and while Russia has tried to limit things, they surely don’t want an arms race with a nation that is already spending ten-fold what they are on their military, and with roughly 13 times the GDP. 

But with INF gone, the U.S. seemingly views New START as less essential, which is why there have been only very limited talks on extending the treaty. Mostly, those talks saw the US trying to get China involved, and failing.

This has badly stalled extension talks. The US foreign policy is heavily China-centric, but China’s relatively minor nuclear arsenal means they aren’t in a position to have to limit their own arsenal in a way meaningful to the US and Russia talks. Russia sees the US harping on China as a distraction to extension. It’s definitely a distraction, but it’s not clear if it’s deliberate or just part of the way US policy works right now.

Whatever the case, the time is running out on negotiating anything new. Russian officials are almost despairing at that fact, but the reality is New START can be extended as it presently exists to buy time for talks. 

It would be a waste of time to extend New START if officials aren’t sincere on negotiating a longer extension of the nuclear arms limitation treaties. The alternative of a new arms race is so bad, however, that renewing now and beginning extension talks in earnest is the only reasonable course. 

Younger readers may not remember, but for those growing up in the Cold War, even in the waning years, nuclear war was presented as all-but-assured, just a matter of time. It was a grim time, and a new arms race could easily bring that, and the danger of nuclear annihilation, roaring back. 

Arms limitation and mutually assured destruction may be a second-best solution to sensible peace deals and disarmament, but it does have a track record of keeping arms races at least temporarily in check. Barring anything better, that should definitely be the priority. 

Jason Ditz is news editor atAntiwar.com, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has appeared in Forbes, the Toronto Star, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Providence Journal, the Daily Caller, the American Conservative, the Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.

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