The Biden administration formally moved ahead Wednesday with a five-year extension of the fast-expiring nuclear arms control treaty with Russia by five years, despite outcry from critics who say the move ignores China’s emergence as a major nuclear power and cedes leverage to Moscow over future negotiations.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken brushed aside such criticism Wednesday, defending the decision to extend the New START Treaty ahead of Friday’s expiration date. The pact that dates back to the early 1990s and was last renegotiated in 2011 limits how many intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads the U.S. and Russia are allowed to possess.
New START is one of the last major military pacts still standing between the U.S. and Russia, after the Trump administration pulled out of two other accords dealing with shorter-range nuclear weapons and surveillance overflight rights.
The Arms Control Association, a Washington-based nonprofit, estimates that Russia has around 6,374 nuclear warheads while the U.S. has roughly 5,800 and China’s number is about 320.
Mr. Blinken said a straight extension of the current New START accord is the right move because it will enable U.S. officials to continue “monitor[ing] Russian compliance with the treaty and provides us with great insight into Russia’s nuclear posture, including through data exchanges and onsite inspections that allow U.S. inspectors to have eyes on Russian nuclear forces and facilities.”
“The United States has assessed the Russian Federation to be in compliance with its New START Treaty obligations every year since the treaty entered into force in 2011,” the secretary of state added.
President Biden said on the campaign trail last year that he favored preserving New START and, following his inauguration last month, he signaled that he planned to go ahead with the five-year extension. Russia, which had long proposed prolonging the treaty without changes, responded by quickly pushing through its own extension approval that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed on Friday.
The Trump administration in its final year pressed for significant revisions in New START to cover newer Russian armaments and unsuccessfully insisted China should be included given its fast-growing arsenal. But Mr. Trump left office with New START’s fate still hanging in the air.
The Chinese sharply rejected the invitation to join the talks. Under the terms of the original deal, Mr. Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin could agree on an up to five-year extension of the current deal without congressional approval in the U.S.
But key Republican lawmakers overseeing foreign policy described the extension — which was quickly agreed to by the Kremlin — as an opportunity lost.
“It’s frustrating the Biden administration is wasting an opportunity to negotiate a stronger version of New START that includes non-strategic nuclear weapons, new weapon systems not covered by the original treaty, and a stronger verification regime,” Reps. Michael McCaul and Mike Rogers, the lead Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs and House Armed Services Committees, respectively, said in a joint statement on Jan. 27.
“A clean five-year extension gives Putin exactly what he asked for and causes the U.S. to lose critical leverage to bring Russia back to the negotiating table,” the two wrote. “Regardless, the U.S. must maintain and modernize our nuclear deterrent and also must begin the process to address the People’s Republic of China growing nuclear stockpiles.”
Mr. Blinken, however, said Mr. Biden had made the right move, giving the U.S. negotiators time to formulate a longer-term game plan for both Russia and China on nuclear arms.
“Extending the New START Treaty makes the United States, U.S. allies and partners, and the world safer,” the secretary of state said, arguing that “an unconstrained nuclear competition would endanger us all.”
“The United States will use the time provided by a five-year extension of the New START Treaty to pursue with the Russian Federation, in consultation with Congress and U.S. allies and partners, arms control that addresses all of its nuclear weapons,” he said. “We will also pursue arms control to reduce the dangers from China’s modern and growing nuclear arsenal.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said this week Moscow was open to returning to the Open Skies Treaty permitting military surveillance overflights if the U.S. would rejoin. President Trump withdrew from that pact last year.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the Biden administration was still “studying the issue.”