New START Treaty

Bethany Chaffin
March 11, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016

Background: U.S.-Russia Relations

Fig. 1: Nuclear materials facility in Mayak, Russia. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Over the past several decades and more recently, in the wake of the Cold War, U.S.-Russia relations have been rocky to say the least. The New START treaty, signed in April of 2010, is meant to provide greater cooperation between the two nations and improve relations.

Russian and U.S. interests are largely separate, and where they do align, Russia tends to doubt U.S.'s methods of achieving its goals. The U.S. sees its role as one of global leadership, whereas Russia's goals lie primarily in strengthening relations with nearby countries, maintaining its energy monopoly, and preventing terrorism within its borders. More generally, Russia's goal is to reinstate itself as a global superpower. This goal includes a focus on Russia manifesting itself as the nation with the strongest nuclear presence.Moreover, the fact that Russia does not need the U.S. to achieve any of these goals eliminates potential leverage the U.S. could hold over Russia. On the other hand, the U.S. does need Russia's cooperation to achieve many of its geopolitical goals (e.g., Russia's vote in the UN Security Council dealing with North Korea's nuclear program). [1]

The New START treaty is viewed as one sign of thawing U.S.-Russia relations, although some experts view it as an ineffectual agreement, since it made cuts in the Russian nuclear arsenal that would already have occurred anyway as the weapons aged. Still, combined with Russia's backing of UN sanctions on Iran, the ratification of this treaty is, at the very least, a positive symbolic statement between the two countries. [1]

Is Russia A Serious Nuclear Threat?

The old fear of the Kremlin launching a strategic nuclear attack on NATO is gone. In fact, although its strategic nuclear arsenal is the only thing that would allow Russia to call itself a military superpower, two-thirds of its missiles are obsolete and it does not have the ability to launch an attack in Europe, not to mention the rest of the globe. According to some experts, the only chance of a nuclear threat from Russia would be an accidental conflagration due to paranoia or incompetence. However, Russia's passive threats to exert its nuclear strength against Europe have shaken geopolitical relations and revived the defensive behavior the U.S. exhibited during the cold war. In 2007, Putin declared that the INF (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty) no longer supported Russia's interests, claiming that if the U.S. continued with its European missile defense plans, Russia would pull out of the treaty, which would allow it to develop shorter-range nuclear missiles and target them at Europe. [2]

America's European missile defense system, which consists of interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic, were built to aim at Iran's nuclear missiles, not Russia's. However, although American military scientists have presented this to their Russian counterparts in at least ten technical presentations at the NATO-Russian council, Russia remains furiously opposed to the plan. At the same time, Russia's objections to the U.S.'s missile defense system in Europe are contradictory. Russia claims that the system threatens its national security while also boasting that its nuclear technology is so advanced that the U.S. can do nothing to stop an attack. Additionally, Russia (and others) doubt that such a missile defense system will work. Russia's threat to target its short- range missiles at Europe has a serious symbolic effect, but almost no practical one - it is an argument revolving around politics that has almost nothing to do with serious nuclear strategy. [2]

Effects of the New START Treaty

There is concern that Russia will continue its past behavior of flouting treaties. Prior to President Obama's administration, official U.S. treaty-compliance reports showed frequent misbehavior on the part of Russia, including violations of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Limited Test Ban Treaty, SALT I, SALT II and START I. [3]

The New START agreement accomplishes the U.S.'s goals of strengthening our own security and that of our allies, and promoting strategic stability between the U.S. and Russia, in several ways. First, it substantially limits U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals and holds Russia accountable to the treaty obligations by including systems of verification, including short-notice inspections of both deployed and non-deployed systems (such as the storage facility shown in Fig. 1). The New START treaty reinstates and strengthens many verification components of the previous START treaty, which expired in 2009, providing greater transparency and cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. Second, the treaty allows the U.S. not only to retain but to strengthen its nuclear strategy by allowing funding for research and modernization of its nuclear arsenal. Finally, the treaty does not limit the U.S. from expanding its missile defense systems to protect its allies and the homeland, or from deploying conventional prompt global strike capabilities (i.e., launching a missile to hit any target around the globe in less than an hour). [4]

© Bethany Chaffin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. Shleifer and D. Treisman, "Why Moscow Says No," Foreign Affairs 90, No. 1, 122 (January/February 2011).

[2] E. Lucas, The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[3] K. B. Payne and M. B. Schneider, "The Nuclear Treaty Russia Won't Stop Violating," Wall Street Journal, 11 Feb 14.

[4] R. Gates, "The Case For the New START Treaty," Wall Street Journal, 13 May 10.