As US-Russian relations continue to deteriorate, Presidents Trump and Putin appear eager to find common ground on arms control when they meet in Helsinki on Monday. The reason for their urgency is clear: The framework that has stabilized the US-Russian strategic balance since the fall of the Soviet Union is in danger of collapsing.
While there seem to be no easy solutions to our differences over Crimea and Syria, and no prospects of satisfactory answers to charges of cybercrime and election-meddling, arms control appears rather straightforward by comparison. The United States and Russia share a strong interest in avoiding a destabilizing arms race. Above all, both countries understand that increasing the number of deployed nuclear weapons would make the world a more dangerous place.
Meaningful progress on arms control would represent an important first step toward rebuilding lost trust in Russian-American relations. A productive, good-faith negotiation would establish a foundation from which diplomats could reach for more ambitious goals.
Trump should agree now to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years, per Article XIV of the original agreement. The deal was signed in 2010, achieved full implementation earlier this year, and will expire in February 2021 if not extended.
Extending New START is essential to preserving strategic stability. The treaty limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed warheads and facilitates detailed information-sharing and mutual inspections. Thus far, the parties have exchanged more than 15,000 notifications and performed 15 on-site inspections. If these verification measures were to end, the risks of misperception and miscalculation would rise sharply and compound the escalatory pressures of unbridled nuclear rearmament.
Moreover, the restrictions imposed by New START help keep arsenal maintenance costs down. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the United States will spend $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize a “nuclear force roughly the same size as it is today.” Participating in a nuclear arms build-up would be much more expensive.
Overall, New START has been a resounding success. Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, put it best when she remarked that the “implementation of the New START treaty enhances the safety and security of the United States and our allies and makes strategic relations between the United States and the Russian Federation more stable, transparent, and predictable.”
So why agree to extend New START now when the treaty does not expire until February 2021? We believe there are two key reasons.
The first is that granting an extension — one of Putin’s top priorities — could be part of a broader effort to revive arms control efforts between Washington and Moscow. Trump could, for example, package New START extension with a proposal to revitalize the Bilateral US-Russian Presidential Commission on arms control. Among other issues, the commission could seek to resolve the ongoing dispute over both countries’ compliance with the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. It could also discuss ways to manage emerging military technologies like hypersonic glide vehicles and anti-satellite weapons that threaten to undermine strategic stability.
The second is that prolonging New START now would eliminate some of the uncertainty that surrounds the future of arms control. Waiting until the 11th hour to extend or replace the treaty would force both countries to prepare for a world without strategic arms limitations and monitoring protocols. Moreover, negotiating positions can change with time. Putin’s enthusiasm about a New START extension may wane as the global threat landscape evolves. Above all, even if it does not lead to progress on other arms control issues, securing a New START extension is itself a major victory.
The Helsinki summit presents a unique opportunity for Trump to achieve tangible progress toward reviving arms control efforts with Russia. Failing to capitalize would be a major setback for his foreign policy and the country’s national security.
Gary Samore is executive director for research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School and former White House coordinator for arms control under President Obama. Alex O’Neill is a junior at Yale and a student associate at the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center.