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'Today Marks a Countdown to Nuclear Chaos': Trump Urged to Extend Key Treaty With Russia

"The collapse of New START would be a global disaster—and can be avoided at the stroke of a pen."

Putin, Trump

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump now have one year to extend New START, the last remaining nuclear pact between their countries. (Photo: Presidential Administration of Russia)

With just a year until the last remaining nuclear treaty between the United States and Russia expires, the Global Zero movement on Wednesday urged U.S. President Donald Trump to extend the pact and warned of the potential consequences if it ends.

"It would be gross negligence and the height of stupidity to let this moment pass."
—Derek Johnson, Global Zero

"Today marks a countdown to nuclear chaos," declared Derek Johnson, executive director of the international Global Zero movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The movement's statement noted that since Trump took office in 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered to extend New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) at least twice, but Trump has demurred.

Johnson explained that "if Donald Trump lets New START expire, there will be no restraint, no inspection, no verification whatsoever of American and Russian nuclear activities for the first time since 1972. Both nations will be free to build even more nuclear weapons, with no obligation to declare, display, or control any of them. It will be a return to the most dangerous days of the Cold War, and the security of the entire planet hangs in the balance."

"The collapse of New START would be a global disaster—and can be avoided at the stroke of a pen," he said. "New START must be extended. No delays, no conditions. It's time to get this done."

Global Zero is circulating a petition that encourages both Trump and Putin to extend the treaty:

The petition acknowledges that another deal between the United States and Russia, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, recently collapsed. Despite warnings from nuclear experts and peace advocates, Trump suspended the Cold War-era treaty in February 2019 and formally withdrew six months later. Those moves drew greater international attention to the upcoming expiration of New START, signed by former President Barack Obama in 2010.

Johnson argued Wednesday that extending New START is in the best interest of both countries and the international community, and that those who want to let the agreement expire are advocating for a more dangerous world:

Nuclear weapons policy can be complex, and can require months or years to sort out. But this is not one of those times. Extending New START is the obvious choice and easy to do. The treaty has a proven record of success. Extension is in the best interests of the United States, Russia, and the world. That's why it enjoys overwhelming political and military support, including from the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral (ret.) Michael Mullen, and former head of U.S. Strategic Command General (ret.) James Cartwright.

Opponents of New START operate in a Cold War time warp where zero-sum thinking is the norm. It's inconceivable to them that what’s good for America might also be good for Russia. They downplay the inherent risks of nuclear weapons and take as a matter of faith that deterrence is the only guarantee of security, mistakes will never be made, crises will always be controlled. They have lost sight of the wisdom affirmed by Gorbachev and Reagan that 'a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.' This is exactly the arrogance that drove the massive build-up of nuclear weapons in the 20th century and took us to the brink of extinction. We cannot allow the Trump administration to drag us back to those dark days.

We know that Russia and the United States are complying with New START, and we know it can continue to work for years to come. We tempt fate if we allow the treaty to expire, or even let its future remain uncertain as we are now. There is no way to know what might affect the relationship between the U.S. and Russia in the weeks and months to come.

While the U.S. has continued to comply with the pact during his presidency, Trump "has expressed contradictory and erratic views about nuclear weapons and our nuclear relationship with Russia," Arms Control Association executive director Daryl Kimball wrote for Just Security in December 2019. "For nearly two years, Trump and his national security team have dithered on an interagency review that would consider whether to begin talks with Russia to extend the New START."

Both Kimball and Johnson made the case that rather than letting New START expire, Trump should extend the deal and then begin discussions for the more ambitious agreement he has claimed to be seeking.

"President Trump says he wants to include China in future nuclear arms control agreements, and to ensure all Russian systems are covered by such agreements," Johnson explained. "These are worthy goals, but they won't happen unless the current system of restraint and verification is maintained and strengthened. Extending New START is the surest path to achieving what the president says he wants."

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"Trump can secure New START through 2026 and lay the groundwork for a more ambitious agenda, one that draws in China and other nuclear-armed states," he added. "It would be gross negligence and the height of stupidity to let this moment pass."

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) also used the one-year deadline on Wednesday to warn that "the administration must negotiate an extension for New START this year, or we risk a 21st-century nuclear arms race." Casey shared his concerns in a tweet, linking to a letter he and 23 other senators sent Trump in April 2019 urging him to extend the pact.

Though not a signatory to her colleagues' letter, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) also took to Twitter Wednesday to pressure Trump to extend the treaty.

The comments from lawmakers and Johnson on Wednesday came in the wake of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' decision last month to set the Doomsday Clock—a decades-old symbol for potential global catastrophe—at 100 seconds to midnight based on the threats posed by "two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society's ability to respond."

As Common Dreams reported, that is the closest that the clock has been to midnight since it was launched in 1947—signaling to the world that, in the words of Bulletin president and CEO Rachel Bronson, "we now face a true emergency—an absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs that has eliminated any margin for error or further delay." The Bulletin's recommendations included extending the treaty.

The fresh calls for Trump to immediately extend New START also came just a day after the Pentagon confirmed that, as DefenseNews reported, "a new nuclear warhead requested, designed, and produced under the Trump administration, has been deployed aboard a nuclear submarine." The deployment was first revealed by the Federation of American Scientists on Jan. 30.

U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood claimed Tuesday that the deployment "strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon; supports our commitment to extended deterrence; and demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario."

However, arms experts—including Global Zero co-founder Bruce Blair, who testified against the weapon to Congress last year—were not enthusiastic about the new "low yield" nuclear weapons and challenged the narrative that such a weapon is more "usable" than those which are more powerful.

"We must not delude ourselves into thinking lower-yield nukes are more usable in a conflict," Blair told the Associated Press. "Any use of this sea-based weapon—either first or second—will risk stoking the flames of conflict and escalating to all-out nuclear war. A wiser response to an enemy's use of one or two low-yield nukes would be to refrain from nuclear escalation while unleashing America's ferocious and decisive conventional juggernaut."

Arms Control Association's Kimball wrote for Just Security Wednesday that "the administration's stated rationale for the new weapon, a modified, lower-yield nuclear warhead installed on Trident D-5 submarine-launched strategic ballistic missiles, is deeply flawed, and the decision to field the device only heightens the danger of escalation."

"The belief that a nuclear conflict would be 'limited' and could be controlled is extremely dangerous," he continued, pushing back against Rood's statement from Tuesday. "Political and military leaders must recognize even so-called 'limited' nuclear use puts their national survival at risk."

Kimball also reiterated the importance of extending the existing treaty, concluding that "without New START, and with the pursuit of new nuclear weapons capabilities on both sides, the risk of all-out nuclear arms competition will only grow."

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