America Should Set Nyet to Any Nuclear Warhead Freeze Russia Wants

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Originally published by National Interest

Arms control is worth pursuing if it serves American national-security interests. Since Russia has continued the Soviet tradition of cheating on almost every-arms control agreement to date, that is unlikely. A nuclear freeze is not a diplomatic victory, it could be the death knell of the U.S. nuclear triad

The United States and Russia are reportedly close to an agreement to temporarily freeze the number of nuclear warheads on both sides and extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) treaty for one year, in a move that could be disastrous for America’s nuclear deterrent.

The Trump administration had previously refused a nuclear freeze, insisting China be party to any New START extensions. But officials walked back that demand in August, probably seeking to reach an agreement before the Presidential election in November. The current agreement would extend New START for one year, and then allow for a potential future treaty to replace New START and include China.

Russia has previously resisted a nuclear weapons freeze.

New START caps the number of strategic missiles and heavy bombers to 800 total. Both countries could only deploy 700 launchers and 1,550 nuclear warheads at a maximum.

Russia has to built up its nuclear force since the treaty was signed in 2010 as the U.S. reduced deployed nuclear forces in every category.

The treaty suffers from a number of loopholes. For example, the treaty presumes bombers to carry only one warhead, while they actually can carry many more. This allows Russia to have an estimated 2,690 deployed nuclear warheads in its strategic forces as of 2019. The treaty was also criticized when it was negotiated for its weak verification mechanisms.

Russia has also been developing a range of strategic “superweapons” not covered in New START. One, called the Poseidon, is a drone which would detonate a nuclear weapon near an enemy coast creating a radioactive tsunami.

New START also did not include tactical nuclear weapons where Russia has a 10:1 advantage. Tactical nuclear weapons are central to Russia’s “escalate to deescalate” strategy. Russia could invade a neighboring country (as they did in Ukraine in 2014) using a tactical nuclear weapon that would kill a few thousand people.

The United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) do not have comparable tactical weapons. The choice would be using a strategic weapon—and risking full scale nuclear war—or giving in to Russian demands. Surrender would be more likely if Russia, after showing willingness to use smaller tactical nuclear weapons, threatened to use a superweapon.

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