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Prospects for US-Russian nuclear arms control

Published Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Bilateral agreements aimed at restricting the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia have been in place since the early 1970s. For the first time in nearly 50 years that nuclear arms control architecture is now potentially heading towards a crisis.

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Bilateral talks aimed at restricting the nuclear arsenals of the Soviet Union and the United States began during the late 1960s as concern mounted over the rapid expansion in the number of warheads and delivery systems. Over the decades that followed a series of arms control regimes emerged.

Of those only the New START treaty, concluded in 2010, remains in force after the US officially withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty on 2 August 2019.

Under the terms of New START the US and Russia committed to a limit of 1,550 strategic operationally deployable warheads and a combined limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments. The treaty also establishes a verification regime that combines various elements of the original START verification regime and measures that are tailored to the current treaty.

Under the treaty agreed reductions in warhead numbers and delivery systems were to be achieved within seven years. New START data exchanged between the US and Russia showed that both countries had reached the agreed treaty limits by the requisite deadline.

New START will remain in force until 2021, unless superseded by a subsequent agreement, and may be extended for no more than five years.

What next for arms control?

With both State Parties reaching the agreed treaty ceilings of New START by the February 2018 deadline, attention has subsequently shifted toward the future and whether Presidents Trump and Putin will agree to extend the treaty out to 2026, and/or negotiate a successor to the treaty, achieving further reductions in their nuclear arsenals.

Complicating the issue, however, is the wider political relationship between the US and Russia, which is arguably at its lowest since the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of INF treaty, which has been overshadowing the arms control agenda more broadly.

In its February 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the US clearly identified Russia as a strategic competitor and one of the main threats driving the assumptions and conclusions of that review. It also clearly linked progress in future arms control to Russian compliance with existing international agreements.

Russia, in turn, has very firmly expressed the belief that the threat to the existing arms control architecture lies with the United States’ refusal to engage in substantive talks.

As such, the prospects for negotiating a successor treaty to New START do not appear encouraging in the near term. However, extending the treaty to 2026 is widely acknowledged as a potential ‘win-win’ compromise for both Presidents, both in terms of arms control but in US-Russian relations more broadly. Both Presidents could, by personal agreement, extend the treaty without the need for ratification by the US Senate or the Russian Duma. By taking this option it would allow the existing limits on warheads and delivery systems, and the verification regime, to continue for a further five years in the hope that US-Russian relations, at some point, chart a more favourable course thereby allowing negotiations on further nuclear reductions to occur.

If New START treaty is allowed to lapse in 2021, however, there will be no limits on the US and Russia’s strategic nuclear forces for the first time since 1972, prompting fears of a quantitative arms race. It will also leave the US and Russia with fewer tools with which to verify the size and composition of each other’s nuclear arsenals.

Observers have also pointed out that it will leave both countries in violation of their disarmament obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

US Position

Early on in his Presidency Donald Trump was dismissive of the New START treaty, reportedly calling it “one-sided” in favour of Russia and failing to respond positively to a suggestion allegedly put forward by President Putin that the deal should be extended.

In the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review the US outlined its ongoing commitment to implement New START, although stopped short of committing to an extension of the treaty or negotiating a successor agreement. It also offered no proposals for moving this issue forward, claiming that Russia had “rebuffed” US attempts to start discussion on the next round of negotiated reductions. In May 2018, however, the US Government announced that it would conduct an interagency review which would examine “whether to extend, replace or jettison New START or to pursue a different type of approach such as the 2002 SORT treaty”.

More recently the US administration has been pushing the idea of a ‘grand bargain’ in arms control that would include China in any future treaty and broaden it out to include other weaponry. Many analysts have expressed concern, however, that the proposal will merely present an opportunity to jettison New START while pursuing a politically unattainable objective, at least in the short term.

Russian Views

The Russian Government has consistently stated its desire to keep New START and has repeatedly expressed its willingness to engage in discussions on extending the treaty.

However, the apparent unwillingness of the US to hold substantive talks, led President Putin to declare on 2 February 2019 that Russia would no longer initiate proposals or talks and in June 2019 he told reporters that Russia would be prepared to let New START lapse if the Trump administration was not interested in extending the agreement.


Thus far, on the US side at least, there has appeared to be little interest in committing to a future for New START or to pursue any sort of bilateral agreement with Russia on nuclear reductions. Instead the US administration has chosen to focus on realising President Trump’s vision of a ‘grand bargain’ in nuclear arms control.

However, negotiation of any new multilateral arms control agreement will be complex and time consuming and is considered unlikely to bear fruit before New START expires in 2021.

As such, there is still merit in the ‘extension compromise’ while arms control negotiators pursue a ‘bigger and better’ deal. And the departure of John Bolton as National Security Adviser and head of the interagency review on New START, offers a degree of hope that the US administration may yet change course.

If the New START treaty is allowed to lapse, without arms control progress elsewhere, then President Trump will be the first sitting US President since Richard Nixon not to have engaged in, or agreed to, meaningful arms control negotiations or restrictions with Russia.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8421

Author: Claire Mills

Topics: Arms control, Eastern Europe, Europe, North America, Russia, Western Europe

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