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Start Talks Start

US-Russian talks started this week in Vienna between the US and Russia to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty which expires in February. 

Negotiators face massive obstacles—for lots of reasons. 

For a start Presidents Trump and Putin are fond of their nuclear toys. They have both effectively scrapped the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty (INF) and announced a significant investment in new nuclear weapons.  

Both men are keen on the more “bang for the buck” theory of nuclear war. 

The other big reason the talks are headed for failure is the Trump Administration’s insistence that China is included in the negotiations. China’s nuclear arsenal is minuscule (300 warheads compared to an estimated 6,185 American and 6,800 Russian). But the Americans view the Chinese as the greater medium to long-term threat to American interests. 

The French and British nuclear deterrents have been accounted for in the complex alphabet soup of Soviet-American nuclear weapons accords. But France and Britain are American allies. China and Russia are—at the moment—close—but not allied. The Chinese argue that if they are included then why not also India, Pakistan, Israel and possibly even Iran. This would, of course, turn negotiations into an incomprehensible farce as each country has a different strategic reason for its nuclear deterrent.

START was the final building block in the US-Soviet nuclear arms negotiations which were first mooted by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 in the aftermath of the terrifying Cuban Missile Crisis. Proper negotiations finally started in 1967 and in 1972 bore fruit with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the first Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT I ) Treaty. SALT Two was blocked by the US Senate following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For various reasons, there was no approved Start Treaty until the New Start Treaty in 2011. It is that treaty which is up for renewal. 

There are all sorts of complicating factors facing negotiators in Vienna other than the participation of China. Both sides accuse the other of breaching existing agreements and both have been busy developing new weapons systems and strategies. President Trump was recently reported to be considering resuming nuclear tests as a means of forcing concessions from both Russia and China. Many nuclear experts believe that this could open the flood gates to a fresh nuclear arms race. 

Vladimir Putin has been loud in extolling the advances of Russia’s strategic arsenal. These include a cruise missile with unlimited range; hypersonic missiles armed with multiple warheads that move so fast that they are virtually undetectable to anti-ballistic missile defences and a nuclear torpedo capable of creating a 500-metre high radioactive tsunami.

The talks are further complicated by domestic politics in both countries. In an election year, Donald Trump cannot afford to be seen by his base as soft on defence. And Vladimir Putin needs to justify the constitutional changes that will make him effectively president for life. And both men need to re-establish their political credibility in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Tom Arms is a regular contributor and author of The Encyclopedia of the Cold War

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