Breaking the Impasse on Nuclear Disarmament, Part Two

Arms Control Association
4 min readMay 4, 2024

By Daryl G. Kimball

The success of the global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament system has always relied on effective cooperation and dialogue between the two largest nuclear-weapon states.

U.S. and Russian flags fly on the Mont-Blanc bridge on the eve of a U.S.-Russia summit, on June 15, 2021 in Geneva. (Photo by Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images)

But as their relations deteriorated over the past decade, Russia and the United States have dithered and delayed on new disarmament talks and even failed to resolve disputes on successful arms control agreements that helped ease tensions and reduce nuclear risks in the past.

Russia’s illegal and brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threat rhetoric have increased the danger of nuclear conflict. The war has become the Kremlin’s cynical excuse to short-circuit meaningful channels of diplomacy that could reduce nuclear risk.

In early 2023, Russia suspended implementation of the last remaining Russian-U.S. nuclear arms control agreement, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), while publicly committing to adhere to the treaty’s central limits. But New START will expire in February 2026.

That is why U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan proposed in June 2023 that the two sides start talks “without precondition” to establish a new nuclear arms control framework.

“It is in neither [Russian or U.S.] interests to embark on an open-ended competition in strategic nuclear forces,” and the United States is “prepared to stick to the central limits as long as Russia does,” he said. New START caps each side at no more than 1,550 treaty-accountable deployed nuclear warheads.

But in December, Russia rejected the U.S. proposal, saying it sees “no basis for such work” due to tensions over the war in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, China is expanding and diversifying its relatively smaller arsenal, now estimated at 500 nuclear warheads, about 300 of which are on long-range systems. After agreeing to discuss nuclear risk reduction with U.S. officials in November, Chinese leaders have declined so far to meet again.

The White House has requested $69 billion for sustaining and upgrading the massive U.S. nuclear arsenal in fiscal year 2025, a 22 percent increase from the previous year. Nevertheless, some politicians and members of the nuclear priesthood are pushing to increase the cost and size of the nuclear arsenal even more by deploying 50 extra land-based missiles and uploading additional warheads on existing missiles.

If Russia and the United States exceed New START limits, China undoubtedly would be tempted to accelerate its own nuclear buildup. Such an action-reaction cycle would be madness.

Once nuclear-armed adversaries achieve a mutually assured destruction capability, as China, Russia, and the United States have done, expanding their nuclear forces or acquiring new capabilities will not lead to more security but rather to an increasingly costly, unstable, and dangerous balance of terror. As U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin put it in December 2022, “Nuclear deterrence isn’t just a numbers game. In fact, that sort of thinking can spur a dangerous arms race.”

Halting the cycle of spiraling nuclear tensions is in every nation’s interest. Furthermore, under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Russia and the United States, along with China, France, and the United Kingdom, have a legal obligation to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” Refusing to engage at the negotiating table, combined with building an even greater nuclear destructive capacity, is a violation of this core NPT tenet.

Ahead of New START’s expiration, all NPT states-parties, nuclear armed or not, allied or nonaligned, must increase the diplomatic pressure on Russia and United States, as well as China, to freeze the size of their nuclear arsenals and engage in meaningful, sustained arms reduction talks. Their message should be sent through all relevant channels, including bilateral meetings, the upcoming preparatory meeting for the next NPT review conference, the UN General Assembly, and daily at the UN Security Council.

A comprehensive, formal Russian-U.S. nuclear arms control deal would be difficult to achieve even in a more stable geostrategic environment. In these more troubled times, the pragmatic interim approach should be for Moscow and Washington to pursue a simple executive agreement or just unilaterally declare that they will continue to respect New START’s central deployed warhead limit until a more comprehensive nuclear arms control framework agreement can be concluded.

As part of such a deal, the two sides also should seek to resume on a reciprocal basis data exchanges and inspections similar to those under New START. If they cannot do that, each side could confidently use their national technical means of intelligence to monitor compliance and ensure there is no militarily significant violation by the other party of the deployed warhead ceiling. Such an arrangement would lessen dangerous nuclear competition and create space for more intensive and wide-ranging arms control negotiations.

More nuclear weapons make us all less secure. Embarking on a safer path through disarmament diplomacy is imperative.

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Arms Control Association

The Arms Control Association, founded in 1971, is dedicated to promoting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies.