Allegations of Russian bounties paid to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan, of extensive Russian hacking of U.S. computer systems and of interference in the 2016 election, as well as the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny — just a few of the issues driving the U.S.-Russian relationship to a post-Cold War low.
But even during that conflict's long twilight struggle, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were able to negotiate arms-control agreements. In fact, the embedded enmity made pacts limiting nuclear weapons more important than ever.
So given the deteriorating dynamics of this era, President Joe Biden was right to signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their first call the U.S. would agree to extend for five years the New START Treaty, which limits the size of America's and Russia's strategic arsenals.
New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) caps deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550 and constricts the number of nuclear weapon delivery systems like intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers and submarine launchers. Importantly, it also allows for some on-site inspections of each other's weaponry and other exchange of data verification.
The accord isn't perfect and isn't comprehensive to all nukes, in part because the Trump administration unwisely pulled out of two other key pacts: the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty. New START also does not include China, a growing, albeit much smaller, nuclear power. That was one of the Trump administration's justifications for not extending New START.
Ideally and perhaps eventually, China needs to be part of a broader effort to cap nuclear weapons. But its absence is not a reason to let the current framework expire — especially given the strains between Moscow and Washington.
"You don't really need to make deals of this sort with your friends; you make it with countries you don't necessarily trust, and countries that can do you harm," Mark Bell, a University of Minnesota assistant professor of political science, told an editorial writer.
Bell, an expert in nuclear proliferation issues, said it was "a sensible move to extend the treaty in that it is basically in the interests of the United States and Russia. By itself it doesn't get rid of the problems of the U.S.-Russia relationship, but allowing it to collapse would add danger to the relationship."
And to the world. Just last week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its "Doomsday Clock" to 100 seconds to midnight, "the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse." Factors beyond proliferation it considered included the badly handled pandemic, which "serves as a historic wake-up call, a vivid illustration that national governments and international organizations are unprepared to manage nuclear weapons and climate change, which currently pose existential threats to humanity, or the other dangers — including more virulent pandemics and next-generation warfare — that could threaten civilization in the near future."
The extension of New START should be just that kind of wake-up call and the beginning, not an end, of controlling and eventually ending the threat of nuclear weapons.