Over the last four years, Donald Trump did everything possible to help the world unravel. Sometimes that meant withdrawing from organizations like the World Health Organization, or dropping out of the Paris agreement. It also meant flat-out breaking trade agreements or even the six-party nuclear agreement on Iran. Trump has also moved to simply allow existing treaties to expire, including major arms agreements that have (had) existed for decades.
Now there’s just one major treaty remaining that places limits on the nuclear stockpiles of the two nations that control most of the world’s nuclear weapons: The START Treaty between the United States and Russia. As The Washington Post reports, that treaty is set to expire on Feb 5. There’s no doubt that, had Trump remained in office, the treaty would have been allowed to expire, kicking off a new, unlimited nuclear arms race.
Now President Biden has just days to secure an extension on that agreement, after Trump made absolutely no preparations to deal with that looming deadline.
Trump’s failure to make any opening moves on a renewed START Treaty leaves the Biden administration in a tough spot. On the one hand, there’s a strong desire to punish Russia for their none-too-subtle cyber intrusions and attempts to interfere with the election. Vladimir Putin has also been repeatedly bragging about a new generation of missiles that are tougher to stop and more precise in their targeting. All of this means that what the U.S. really wants is a treaty that cuts Russia’s nuclear capacity.
That’s just part of why Victoria Nuland, slated to take the number three slot at the State Department, has argued that the United States should seek only a brief extension of the START Treaty while using sanctions and other actions to pressure Moscow into further reductions in their nuclear stockpile. The current version of the START Treaty gives each nation the right to keep up to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads ready to fire. Both nations have larger stockpiles of weapons (6,350 total warheads for Russia, 5,800 in the United States), but thanks to START, most of them are not ready to fire on a moment’s notice. START is really about controlling the systems that are used to deploy and deliver nuclear weapons.
On the other hand, on Feb. 6, Russia—and the U.S.—will be effectively free to start cranking out new bombs, new land-based missiles, and new submarine missiles without limit. It would also end the START protocol, which currently gives both nations a robust system of inspections and access to facilities that make it very difficult for either side to line up a set of weapons unseen. Considering both the number of weapons each side already controls, and the instability that Trump (and Putin) have instigated over the last four years, sending the world into Cold War II seems ridiculously risky.
Getting cooperation on a treaty extension may take compromise on every side. Secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken is strongly supportive of additional sanctions against Russia, but those sanctions are unlikely to be deployed in the midst of last-minute nuclear negotiations. And there are Republican braniacs in the Congress who, like Trump, believe that allowing the treaty to lapse would be a good chance to “modernize” America’s arsenal with a whole new set of hypersonic weapons that can thread a needle at Mach 5. An extension isn’t just the only thing that’s likely to be negotiable in the short time remaining, it might be the best thing that could be hoped for under the circumstances.
Of course, there is one thing that has already happened in 2021 that greatly lowered the threat of nuclear war. It happened on Wednesday.
“Fun” facts: When the Soviet Union and the United States were vying for nuclear superiority in the early 1960s, previous to the signing of the first nuclear treaties, The Soviets decided to demonstrate their technical strength by building larger and larger weapons. This culminated with the detonation of the Tsar Bomba in Arctic Ocean on October 30, 1961. At 50 megatons, it was 3,800 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The flash of the massive explosion was visible over 600 miles away. The heat was great enough to cause immediate third-degree burns to anyone within 70 miles and level buildings for 100 miles.
In response, the United States chose to demonstrate it’s ability to crank out new weapons at a fierce rate. In 1961 and 1962, the United States detonated 106 nuclear weapons, most of them in Nye County, Nevada. For a period of over two months, the United States detonated a nuclear weapon every other day. These included the five “Starfish Prime” tests in which the United State detonated nuclear weapons high in the atmosphere to test theories around generating an electromagnetic pulse.
In atmosphere testing finally came to an end on August 5, 1963 with the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that prohibited nuclear weapons tests under water, in the atmosphere, or in outer space. This eventually led to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which was passed by the United Nations and signed onto by President Bill Clinton in 1996. It would also eliminate underground testing.
The Republican led Senate rejected that treaty 51 to 48.
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