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Opinion Trump is right to bide his time in renewing a nuclear treaty with Russia

An intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a silo in Russia. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP) (AP)

Michael Singh is managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From 2005 to 2008, he worked on Middle East issues at the National Security Council.

Next February, the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which limits U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons, will expire. With the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) last year following Russian violations, and Moscow’s flouting of other treaties meant to limit U.S.-Russian competition, the lapse of New START could prove to be the final nail in the coffin of the post-Cold War arms-control regime.

That prospect has raised alarms on Capitol Hill, where Republicans and Democrats alike find themselves in the unusual position of joining Russian President Vladimir Putin in urging the Trump administration to renew the treaty, which can be extended for five years by mutual agreement. President Trump, however, is right to hesitate. Rather than acquiesce to calls for an immediate extension of New START, the president should instead use negotiations with Moscow to begin addressing new and heretofore neglected nuclear threats.

To be sure, the benefits of New START are compelling. Senior U.S. military officials have praised the treaty’s notification and inspection provisions, which provide a modicum of transparency at a time when trust and communication with Moscow are at low ebb. The agreement’s caps on strategic nuclear launchers and warheads also eliminate any need to engage in a costly buildup of such weapons, which would divert resources from other defense priorities.

Washington’s embrace of arms control has also arguably tamped down European political opposition to nuclear cooperation with the United States and helped to win bipartisan support in Congress for the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Nor have the concerns that New START critics expressed at the time of its ratification in 2010 been borne out. Some analysts — pointing not to the text of the treaty but Russia’s comments on it at the time — worried that New START would impose limits on U.S. missile defense. Ten years later, there are no signs it has done so.

Similarly, some worried that Russia would seize on the treaty’s relaxed warhead-counting rules to significantly increase, rather than decrease, its number of deployed warheads. Instead, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley Jr. confirmed in May 2019 that Moscow has adhered to the treaty’s limits. Indeed, he warned that were the treaty to lapse, Russia could take advantage of the unused “upload” capacity of launchers to quickly increase its deployed warheads.

Yet it would be a mistake to view the costs and benefits of New START in isolation. Russia might be respecting the treaty’s provisions, but it has treated the rest of the international arms-control architecture with flagrant disregard. Moscow violated the INF treaty, leading to the U.S. withdrawal last year; similarly, it has violated the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Open Skies Treaty and has long failed to implement the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

According to the DIA, Russia is developing new nuclear technologies such as the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, is failing to adhere to the moratorium on nuclear testing, and has placed nuclear forces at the center of its defense doctrine.

As a result, the DIA assesses that Russia’s nuclear stockpile will actually grow significantly over the next decade even with New START’s limits in place, driven by an increase in non-strategic weapons. Seen in this context, Putin’s desire to extend New START appears less a signal of nuclear restraint and more of a need to prioritize Russia’s resources — in this case, toward new nuclear technologies and intermediate-range missiles, and away from a costly arms race with a much richer United States.

The other significant change in the nuclear landscape is the rise of China as a strategic competitor to the United States. While China’s nuclear arsenal is much smaller than that of the United States or Russia, the U.S. intelligence community estimates that Beijing will at least double the size of its stockpile over the next decade and is unlikely to accept numerical limits for the time being. The Chinese are rapidly rolling out new nuclear weapons and launchers. In 2018, they conducted more ballistic missile tests than the rest of the world combined.

The challenge for the Trump administration is to preserve the benefits of New START while leveraging Russia’s desire for an extension to address new nuclear threats. To this end, the Trump administration should offer an extension in exchange for a series of commitments from Moscow.

The two countries should launch a broader dialogue on bilateral arms control, to include intermediate-range weapons. They should freeze the development of new nuclear technologies, excluding modernization of existing missiles. And they should agree to jointly press China to respect norms and demonstrate transparency with regard to nuclear arms, even as Washington seeks to open bilateral talks with Beijing on the same subject.

What the Trump administration should not do is panic. New START can be extended by executive fiat, and the coming year affords the president plenty of time to do so. It would be a pity to lose the agreement’s benefits but a greater loss still to squander U.S. advantages at a moment when the arms-control landscape is changing in ominous ways.

Read more:

Michael McFaul: Here’s how Trump can get a win with Russia — and actually help all Americans

The Post’s View: This is a nuclear weapons offer Trump ought not refuse

Katrina vanden Heuvel: From the hope of 1989 to a new Cold War

David Ignatius: Trump is ignoring arms control. It’s a dangerous mistake.

The Post’s View: Mistrust with Russia is growing. Why make things more opaque, President Trump?

The Post’s View: Trump wants to negotiate nuclear deals. He should start with the one he already has.