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Will New START push global denuclearization?

Teri Schultz
January 28, 2021

Presidents Biden and Putin have quickly agreed to continue limiting their nuclear weapons. But, as Teri Schultz reports, Washington may not be able to count on the Kremlin to rein in Beijing's burgeoning arsenal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping (center)
Some arms experts believe Putin is unlikely to use any pressure on ChinaImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Zemlianichenko

US President Joe Biden hadn't even been in office a full day when he moved to make up for lost time in preserving the only remaining pact limiting the number of US and Russian strategic nuclear weapons. Russia responded in kind with almost immediate approval of the New START extension in the Russian Duma on Wednesday.

One huge sigh of relief came from California, where Rose Gottemoeller, who joined Stanford University after leaving her post as NATO deputy secretary general in 2019, had been watching with concern as the clock ticked toward February 5 when the treaty was due to expire. It was Gottemoeller who hammered out the New START agreement with Russian counterparts in Geneva back in 2010 and she's been advocating its extension throughout the years, even as the former Trump administration failed to do so.

Despite her conviction that both governments wanted — and agreed they needed — this extension, she was very pleased to see the deal quickly clinched, especially after the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the INF, due to Russia's development of a missile breaching the limitations. Now, Gottemoeller can envision increasing cooperation.

"There are things on the agenda and on the horizon that make me rather optimistic about the future of nuclear arms limitation," she told DW. "There are a lot of interesting ideas out there about how we move forward, including limiting warheads, finding a way to monitor and verify those limits, working also with the Chinese." With New START's extension, she added, "we'll have a solid foundation to work on that future agenda."

On Wednesday she gave a thumbs-up to a tweet by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who had been responsible for the treaty talks with the Trump team, as he welcomed the five-year window now open to expand the scope of discussions.

How (not) to bring China to the table

It's not clear, however, whether Ryabkov is signalling Russian willingness to help with the US' key goal of including China in future negotiations, one major point that doomed New START's prolongation during the previous US administration. The Trump team insisted that China join the existing treaty, among other demands, but left very little time to manage a complex process to which Beijing is openly antagonistic.

Trumpian tactics to bring China to the proverbial table included the literal designation of a seat for a Beijing representative at a New START negotiation in Vienna, despite China having declined the offer. Marshall Billingslea, Trump's lead negotiator on New START discussions, in June posted photos and a video declaring China a "no-show."

Gottemoeller believes it's essential to include China in global arms control efforts, but said the way Trump tried to do it wasn't logical. "Chinese strategic nuclear forces are so much smaller than those of the United States and Russia," she explained. "Yes, China's modernizing, but they have a long way to go to catch up and we're going to see them coming. We'll have plenty of warning if they are, as we say, sprinting to parity."

She agrees with the ambition, but emphasizes "it's going to take some time, some talking and a good period of some hard preparatory work as well."

'Russia is not going to use any pressure on China'

Vassily Kashin, a military expert with Moscow's Higher School of Economics, warns against presumptions the Kremlin is going to throw its weight behind this plan. Kashin noted that Beijing maintains it will not join arms control agreements until it has reached that parity mentioned by Gottemoeller. And he predicts Russia's increasing ties with China will tip the balance in favor of Beijing.

A combat unmanned aerial vehicle and its compatible missiles are on display during the 12th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition
Gottemoeller said China has 'long way to go to catch up' its strategic nuclear forcesImage: Shan He/dpa/picture alliance

"At this point, Russia is not going to use any pressure on China to join the agreement because such pressure will be absolutely useless and will just spoil Russian-Chinese relations," Kashin told DW correspondent Emily Sherwin in Moscow.

"If China at some point decides to join the agreement, we will be absolutely happy about that. If the Chinese consider this agreement as being counterproductive for them, then we wouldn't insist."

Will arms control coordination get nuked by other spats?

While Gottemoeller is confident that constructive work on disarmament can be kept separate from other bilateral tensions, saying this principle has held since "Soviet Union times," the general atmosphere could well worsen with the resolute determination of the Biden administration to address what it views as Moscow's widespread malign behavior.

White House spokesperson Jen Psaki announced the desire to extend New START. She added that "we work to hold Russia to account for its reckless and adversarial actions" such as alleged involvement in the Solar Winds hacking incident, attempted election interference, the poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and accusations Russia may have paid the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.

Russia will have its own list of issues with Washington. And Gottemoeller notes that the US also intends to upgrade its nuclear arsenal over the next five-year window to match Moscow's advances — albeit now, she said, in keeping within New START's limitations.