WASHINGTON – Weeks before the July 16 summit between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was scheduled, Putin’s predecessor, former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, suggested that the two leaders focus on strategic nuclear stability and putting the brakes on what some are concerned could be a rapidly accelerating nuclear arms race.
Gorbachev told the Interfax news agency in late June that he hopes Trump and Putin “will confirm adherence to the main nuclear disarmament treaties – the New START and INF Treaties” when the leaders meet one-on-one in Helsinki.
The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which Gorbachev signed in 1987 with then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and the and New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, are bilateral agreements regulating both countries’ massive nuclear arsenals.
In recent years, the U.S. and Russia have accused the other of violating the INF treaty. The New START will expire in 2021 unless the two countries can agree to a five-year extension.
“If the treaty won’t be extended, for the first time in decades the U.S. and Russian Federation will not have a strategic nuclear arms treaty,” says Justin Anderson, senior research fellow at the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction . “Both sides will no longer be legally balanced.”
According to the Ploughshares Fund, a public foundation that works to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons, nine countries – the U.S., Russia, France, China, the U.K., Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea — collectively have 14,000 nuclear weapons. The U.S. and Russia account for more than 90 percent of that total.
“It’s numbers that are enough to destroy both countries as functioning states,” Anderson explains.
Here’s a closer look at the two treaties and what may be at stake.
The Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty
Signed in 1987 by the United States and what was then the Soviet Union, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty bans the production and possession of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (310 and 3,400 miles).
The treaty eliminated an entire class of the most destabilizing weapon systems – about 2,600 U.S. and Russian missiles were dismantled and destroyed once it went into effect – and played a key role in building strategic stability in the later days of the Cold War.
Today, the treaty is still considered a landmark agreement of international security and stability between the two countries. It sets equal limits and rights between the United States and Russia; it doesn’t affect NATO’s conventional defense capability; and it is verifiable through the Special Verification Commission, which allows parties to address and resolve compliance concerns.
In 2014, the U.S. formally accused Russia of developing a weapon in violation of the INF Treaty – a missile later identified by a White House National Security Council official as 9M729, an extended-range version of the Iskander-K, which is a short-range cruise missile.
Three years later, on the treaty’s 30th anniversary, the State Department reported that Russia had taken steps “to develop, test, and deploy a ground-launched cruise missile system that can fly to ranges prohibited by the INF,” and that therefore the agreement would have to be considered under threat.
The Kremlin rejected the claims, and in December 2017 accused the U.S. of violating the treaty by selling Japan two U.S. missile defense systems.
The question of whether either country is in violation of the INF Treaty must be settled in order for the treaty to remain intact.
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty balances American and Russian strategic nuclear forces by limiting deployed nuclear warheads and allowing on-site inspections of each side’s nuclear stockpiles.
Signed in 2010 by the-U.S. President Barack Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the treaty replaced the 1991 START I pact and limits both countries to no more than 1,550 deployed warheads and bombs, a 30 percent reduction from previous bilateral agreements.
The treaty limits the number of deployed and non-deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers assigned for nuclear missions to 800 for each country. The treaty also allows annual data exchanges, notifications and inspections on each side’s nuclear arsenal.
Both the U.S. and Russia announced they met New START limitations by Feb. 5, 2018. However, if the two superpowers do not agree on a five-year extension, the treaty will expire in 2021, triggering an expensive and dangerous new arms race, experts warned.
“The fact that both sides are taking steps to upgrade their respective nuclear arsenals reinforces the value of the treaty and the importance of an extension,” says Kingston Reif, director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association.
In a February 2017 call with Putin, Trump rejected the extension proposal and called New START “a bad deal” for the U.S., claiming it was one of the several “one-sided deals” negotiated by the Obama administration. In March, however, Putin told NBC News that Russia was willing to extend New START and further reduce the overall number of warheads and launchers.