ANDREA THOMPSON: A NEW, NEW START? The future of the U.S. and Russia’s nuclear arms reduction treaty

Q: For our readers that may not know what we’re talking about today — can you explain what the New START Treaty is and how it works?

A: Absolutely, and to start off, I want to thank the CDA Institute for the opportunity. As we were talking about a little bit ago, the annual Ottawa Conference in March of last year was my last international trip. I look forward to returning to Ottawa and appreciate the opportunity to talk about the New START Treaty, what it is, and how it works.

Some of the readers may not be as familiar with the treaty, so bear with me as I give a little bit of background on it. The United States and Russia signed the New START Treaty in April of 2010, and it entered into force on February 5th of 2011.You might have heard that date in the news recently. The treaty was due to expire on the 5th, unless both parties agreed to extend it for no more than five years. As you also may have heard in the news, President Biden and President Putin both have agreed this week to extend the treaty. I know some folks have asked me, does it have to go before Congress, and the answer is no. This extension doesn’t require congressional approval. However, for the Russian Federation it does. The Duma (their house) voted it through this week. Once the final details are completed there will be an exchange of diplomatic notes. I would anticipate that would happen early next week. Then the treaty will be extended for five years.*

What does this mean in practice? Here is a bit of background on the numbers. The treaty limits each side, the U.S. and Russia. We can have no more than 1550 deployed warheads. That is the actual number of warheads on our deployed inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).The treaty limits no more than 800 deployed and non-deployed land based ICBMs and SLBM launchers and deployed and non-deployed heavy bombers. Within that total, each side can retain no more than 700 deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped to carry nuclear armaments. Those are the numbers. 1550 is the one that people usually remember.

It’s important to note that during my time as Under Secretary, the U.S. and Russia met the treaty’s requirement which was to complete the reductions by February 5th of 2018. Both countries have been in compliance with the treaty since then. Before we get into some more specifics about the importance of the treaty and how we, the U.S., verifies compliance — the treaty provides definitions that both countries agreed to. There are details within the database that outline the numbers of systems, and how the U.S. and Russia send notifications and coordinate for inspections. Both countries have to notify one another when they are deployed, when they’re making a warhead, when they’re moving a warhead, etc. That’s covered by the treaty. Some people may not know that there are on-site inspections throughout the year. The treaty allows for up to 18 inspections of the other country.

Another important note — you can go on the State Department website and see the numbers of bombers and warheads based on the treaty reporting. It’s public information and publicly available. You can see that the number deployed is capped at 700. The U.S. has 675, Russia has 510. You can see the 1500 cap for the warheads. The US has 1457, Russia has 1447. So, for the folks that wonder, what does this mean, and how can I get this information, you can access that on the State Department’s website.


Q: Can you explain what you did in your former role as the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security in relation to the New START Treaty? What were some of the major debates that you had during that time?

A: Just to frame it before I talk some of the specifics of what we did at the State Department — I think it’s important to start with some background. Ever since the Soviet Union fielded nuclear weapons in 1949, our principal national security priority has been preventing a nuclear attack against the U.S. and our allies. That priority is the foundation of national security policy for every administration. Nuclear deterrence, and our nuclear force, really serve to assure our allies of the protection of the wider U.S. nuclear umbrella, and really limits others to pursue their own nuclear deterrent. If you look through that lens of what the Under Secretary’s role is, that is it. That’s been the policy for administration after administration.

In my former role, we had multiple engagements with our Russian counterparts. We had discussions on strategic stability, strategic security, and we engaged in bilateral meetings under the P5 context. We’d meet in Europe, in New York, at the UN, and anytime we had the opportunity to sit across from one another, we had discussions on the importance of abiding by the treaty.

It’s actually a broad interagency effort. When I had negotiations with my Russian counterpart, I had a Department of Energy rep with me, a senior expert, I’d have representation from the Department of Defence, from the Joint Staff, and then below that level, we’d have technical experts meeting to exchange data as part of the treaty. We continue to meet and discuss the terms of the treaty, and those technical experts are still in our civil service ranks. And that’s an important note — there is great pride in the team at the State Department. You have the change of the administration and elected/appointed officials, but our civil servants that work the issue day in and day out and that have worked on this for years and years are still there. They are still on the team and they’re amazing American patriots that are working to make sure that these systems are safe.

You talked about some of the major debates. They were more like points of contention. From the U.S. side —an issue was the number and role of Russia’s non-strategic nuclear weapons. People may reference it as a “tactical nuclear weapon”. Press reporting, open sources, will tell you that Russia has proximately 2500 of them. It is a threat to our allies in the region. That was one of the points of contention. The U.S. wanted to include the non-strategic nuclear weapons in the updated negotiations as we looked towards developing what would a new and updated New START treaty look like. That obviously didn’t happen within the last round of negotiations. Then you have the typical disagreement on some of the terms, and we agreed to disagree. My sense is that if and when the administration takes up new points of discussion on the treaty, there will still be disagreements, but that’s the heart of diplomacy. You meet and you agree on some things, you disagree on some things, you meet in the middle on other things. It’s a lengthy process, but like I said, the new administration is taking that up, and I’m confident that they’ll get the experts together.


Q: What are your thoughts on other countries such as China and Iran, being pulled into arms control agreements, such as the New START Treaty?

A: The previous administration wanted to expand the arms control discussions, both with Russia on non-strategic nuclear weapons, and they wanted to bring China into the agreement. That was a non-starter for China. They were not keen to come on board to have those discussions. I think it’s important that China be more transparent on what their nuclear policy is. I met with my Chinese counterparts in Beijing, in New York, during the meetings at the UN, and when they had representatives in Washington. I raised with them every time we met that if you want to be called a responsible nation and be a part of this community, you’ve got to be more transparent.

During my time at State, we took a team, shortly after the nuclear posture review was released in 2018 and briefed the UN in an open forum and said — “anyone can come.” We briefed our nuclear policy in an unclassified open forum, we took questions from the floor. In that forum and in others, our allies have also encouraged China to be more transparent. While they have fewer nuclear weapons than both the U.S. and Russia (Open sources state it’s a little bit over 300) I personally don’t see them joining an arms control treaty in the near term. That said, they could take valuable steps towards becoming more responsible and transparent. From looking at the team that the new administration is building and the focus on Asia, specifically with a lot of China hands coming on board, I’d imagine the team will stay engaged with this. Again, I tell folks, the discussions with Russia didn’t happen overnight. These treaties did not happen in a year or two — it was years of engagement. But we need to have that, and we’ve started that discussion with China. It’ll will take time and I hope that the new administration continues to put pressure to China to be more transparent on their nuclear policy.

You talked about Iran. I would just say the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has an ongoing investigation in Iran. I’ll just leave it at that. Again, the readers can look and see what’s open source, but much of it is classified. The work that has been done by Iran is very concerning. What I’d like to add is the IAEA is an important organization. It’s important for the U.S., it’s important for our allies, and it’s important for the globe that the IAEA is able to conduct their investigations and make sure that countries are being held accountable.


Q: What discussions Did you have on artificial intelligence as a measure for further reduction of nuclear arms?

A: The question at the heart of arms control, is, is it verifiable? What are the details of the treaty? Can you verify them? That’s the foundation of arms control. If you can’t verify it, you can’t confirm that nations are doing what they say they are doing. Arms Control treaties only work when all parties to the treaty agree to the terms and when there are systems in place to verify that what they say is true. New START is verifiable. We have systems in place to confirm that. When you talk about A.I. as an example, the question I would ask is, what role will, and can technology play in future treaties? The pace of technology is moving so much quicker than the pace of our policies. I’m no longer advising our nation’s leaders, but for the new team and for our allies, we’ve got to consider the role of technology as we negotiate and as we update our treaties. The treaty is 10 years old. Maybe this is a simple analogy but look at the technology in your home. Is your computer more than 10 years old? Is your phone more than 10 years old? I do think we need to look through that lens of what can technology bring to this. You don’t want to have arms control treaties for artificial intelligence, but can you use emerging technologies to improve upon our verification measures? I think that’s incredibly important. The time is right to have that discussion with our allies and our strategic competitors on the evolving role of technology. We need to ask ourselves what can we do to improve upon our verification measures.


Q: What challenges do you foresee the current administration having as it signs onto the New START Treaty?

A: Those that know me know that I’m a glass half full kind of leader. With the new administration, while there will certainly be challenges (I mean, you’re talking Russia, and potentially China) there will also be opportunities. Negotiating your arms control treaties, and just having the discussions is challenging. This is the nature of diplomacy. It will continue to be challenging. There were press statements as recently as this week — the administration wants to extend the New START treaty, but there is a wide range of Russian actions that need to be addressed. And senior officials have stated — whether its 2016 election interference, or the Solarwinds cyber attack. There is going to be a wide range of things not related specifically to arms control that will impact the negotiations. The other part is that the treaty doesn’t cover Russia’s lower yield tactical nuclear weapons, and it doesn’t cover most of their newer novel weapons. My assumption is the treaty will get extended next week. It covers the same parameters of the last 10 years. My sense is these new systems will require a new treaty. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, who was my counterpart, who led the negotiations on the other side of the table has said that the hypersonic glide vehicles should be part of the existing treaty. I hope they make that happen. But new technologies and new systems will likely require a new treaty. I think every new administration conducts an analysis, and I anticipate this administration will as well to evaluate our U.S. national defence strategy, including the nuclear posture. At the end of the day, I’d expect to see them maintain a reliable, credible, safe nuclear deterrent capability that addresses our current security challenges of today and the security challenges of the future.

The Honorable Andrea L. Thompson is the Founder and CEO of the Andrea Thompson Group, an international strategic consulting firm that works with companies to develop and implement their strategic plans and expand in the global marketplace.

Ms. Thompson served as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, responsible for cyber security, space, emerging technologies as well as foreign military sales, nuclear non-proliferation and arms control policy. Before her arrival at the Department of State, she served as the Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to the Vice President of the United States.

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