Experts Say US-Russian Collaboration on Arms Control Still Vital

May 17, 2019 by HJ Mai
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi on May 14, 2019. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The United States and Russia each still possess enough nuclear warheads to ensure mutual destruction in case of an armed conflict between the former superpowers.

It’s a scenario that has kept the world and the residents of both countries in a state of collective fear for parts of the last century. In order to rein in the nuclear arms race and positively impact the bilateral relationship between the two countries, Washington and Moscow started nuclear arms control talks in 1969 with the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, or SALT.

Over the next fifty years, further arms control negotiations produced more acronyms – SALT II, INF, New START – but more importantly kept the world safe. But change is afloat. The relationship between the U.S. and Russia has drastically deteriorated, the INF Treaty is heading for demise and New START expires in less than two years.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed strategic arms reduction and nuclear non-proliferation during a recent phone call, but the future of New START and the negotiations of a possible new arms control agreement remain very much in doubt.

“It’s not inevitable that in an environment where you have no nuclear arms control that the U.S. and Russia would increase their nuclear weapons or get back into a nuclear arms race,” Sharon Squassoni, research professor at George Washington University and nuclear arms control expert, told The Well News. “But I could easily see us moving in that direction. That’s why I think arms control is so important.”

The first step toward a future without an arms control agreement has already been initiated. On Feb. 2, the U.S. formally suspended its obligations under the INF Treaty, triggering a six-month withdrawal process. The reason for the American withdrawal was Russia’s alleged non-compliance of the agreement. Moscow responded swiftly by suspending its participation in the treaty as well.

“Our actions on the INF Treaty have demonstrated that we’re committed to effective arms control that advances U.S. allied and partner security that is verifiable and enforceable. The President has charged his national security team to think more broadly about arms control, to include countries beyond our traditional U.S.-Russia framework and a broader range of weapon systems,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Sochi this week.

While the U.S. publicly states it hopes Russia will return to compliance before the Aug. 2 deadline, Trump appears to be already looking beyond. He recently mentioned the possibility of including additional countries in any new arms control deal between the United States and Russia, in particular China.

U.S. lawmakers and arms controls experts, however, expressed their skepticism that China would be willing to join any agreement, given Beijing’s modest nuclear stockpile of about 300 weapons. In comparison, the U.S. and Russia each have an arsenal of more than 6,500 nuclear warheads.

“I don’t believe that this latest idea of bringing China in somehow has any chance of being successful,” Squassoni said.

A surprising fact in all of this is that European countries, which were trapped between the two superpowers during the Cold War period, have kept largely quiet so far.

“The most perplexing element of this is why Europe has been relatively silent,” Squassoni told The Well News. “I think a reintroduction of those kinds of capabilities that we eliminated under the INF Treaty would be destabilizing in Europe. I can’t imagine how they wouldn’t be.”

While she doesn’t think that any amount of good advice will be followed by the Trump White House, Squssoni hopes the historic collaboration between U.S. and Russia on arms control will not be completely abandoned.

“I would hope that both sides see some value in retaining some of that even if we have differences in specific areas,” she said.

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