Russia Nuclear Treaty Lapse to Degrade U.S. Influence: Ex-Military Leaders

A group of more than 60 former military leaders and national security officials have written to Congress urging the extension of the U.S.-Russia New START arms control agreement, which is now the only deal restricting the nuclear armories of the two most heavily armed nations in the world.

Members of the American College of National Security Leaders sent a letter Wednesday warning the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that failure to extend New START beyond its February expiration date would represent a failure of U.S. global leadership and could spark a dangerous and costly arms race.

President Donald Trump's administration has thus far refused to extend the treaty under its existing terms despite repeated offers from Russia to do so. Trump has said he wants to include China in any extended or new deal, but experts and Chinese officials have dismissed the proposal as infeasible.

Retired Air Force Brigadier General Ricardo Aponte, the chief operating officer ACNSL, wrote in a statement that New START should be extended for an additional five years.

"New START currently guards against a new nuclear arms race between the superpowers as both countries benefit from the agreement due to provisions that increase transparency and reliability between Russia and the United States," Aponte said. "With the stroke of a pen, the treaty can be extended and the extension does not prevent the United States from engaging in other arms control agreements with Russia and others."

U.S. and Russian officials met last month in Vienna to discuss the extension of New START, which itself is an extension of the original START agreement signed between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President George W. Bush in 1991.

Gorbachev has described New START as the last of "the three principal pillars of global strategic stability," along with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty from which the U.S. withdrew in 2002 and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty from which the U.S. withdrew last year.

New START limits U.S. and Russian forces to 1,500 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and bombs. It also caps the number of deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers used for nuclear missions at 700. The total allowed number of deployed and non-deployed assets is 800.

Though the Trump administration wants China brought into the deal, the U.S. and Russia currently possess some 90 percent of the world's nuclear warheads—around 5,800 in the U.S. and 6,375 in Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. China is believed to have around 320 warheads.

Some observers, including the Chinese government, have suggested that Trump's effort to include China is merely a smokescreen for U.S. withdrawal, driven by the administration's desire to expand its nuclear capabilities. America's NATO allies have also expressed support for the treaty's extension.

China's director general of arms control Fu Cong said Wednesday that Beijing would be willing to join New START talks if the U.S. and Russia agreed to cut their nuclear arsenals to match China's. "But actually, we know that it's not going to happen," Fu said. "We know the U.S. policy."

State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said Thursday that the U.S. welcomed China's commitment to engage—seemingly ignoring the apparent insincerity of the offer—and encouraged face-to-face talks between U.S. and Chinese officials.

"We will all bring different perspectives and objectives to the negotiating table and will surely have disagreements," Ortagus said. "But it is time for dialogue and diplomacy between the three biggest nuclear weapons powers on how to prevent a new arms race."

But Aponte told Newsweek that third nations such as China "should be treated separately" when it comes to New START. "Once extended, the U.S. can choose to begin new negotiations with other nuclear armed capable countries such as China," he explained, something ACNSL would support.

Retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Willie Williams, who also signed the letter, said that allowing New START to lapse would degrade America's international leadership credentials, which have been eroding under an isolationist, unilateralist Trump administration.

"With the missteps of our recent past, the United States can ill afford to continue our 'Global Leadership' downward slide, knowing that history will not judge us well without a change in vector," Williams said in the ACNSL statement.

"Global challenges are not new, it's how we deal with them that makes the difference," Williams said. "We now find ourselves with an alliance that's teetering and beginning to look in a different direction for that expressed leadership the United States has provided over the years."

"Extending the New START Treaty for an additional five years can begin to show the change all are looking for," Williams said.

Having already ditched the INF treaty after accusing Russia of violations, the Trump administration is also on course to withdraw from the Open Skies agreement in November.

The latter has been in force since 2002 and allows the 35 signatories to conduct unarmed aerial surveillance flights over each other's territories, in theory decreasing tensions via transparency over force deployments.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Russia of multiple violations of the treaty upon announcing the U.S. withdrawal. Russia has warned that the move will increase military tensions and make the world—and America's European allies—less safe.

Aponte suggested that Russia's reported violations of the INF and Open Skies treaties should be treated separately from New START. Asked whether a New START extension might send a message that violations are rewarded, Aponte responded: "I do not believe so."

"Keeping current nuclear systems of the two nations under the New START guidance is beneficial to both," he told Newsweek. "Deviations from the treaty can be highlighted and discussed diplomatically. In addition, any new weapons development that are not part of this treaty are not forecast for years, well beyond the extension period (five years) of the treaty."

Russia, US, ICBM, New START, nuclear weapons
A Russian Topol intercontinental ballistic missile launcher is pictured during the Victory Day parade in Red Square in Moscow on May 9, 2012. NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/GettyImages/Getty