New START: expiring arms accord between Cold War rivals

Moscow - Russia and the United States have until February 5 to prolong a key agreement to curb their nuclear arsenals, the last remaining arms reduction pact between the former Cold War rivals.

Here are key details of the New START treaty, which expires a little over two weeks into US President-elect Joe Biden's first term.

 

- A legacy of the 'reset' -

 

The accord was signed in the Czech capital Prague by then-US president Barack Obama and Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 and was seen as a key component of Obama's efforts to "reset" ties with the Kremlin.

The United States and Russia will be looking to extend New START before February 5 in yet another climate of heightened mutual distrust, after US lawmakers last year accused Kremlin hackers of launching a massive cyberattack on American government institutions.

 

- Nuclear cuts -

 

The accord restricts the former Cold War rivals to a maximum of 1,550 deployed warheads each, a cut of about 30 percent from a limit set in 2002, and 800 launchers and bombers -- still enough to blow up the world many times over.

The treaty also provides for a series of mutual onsite inspections, a cornerstone of former US president Ronald Reagan's "trust but verify" arms control mantra.

The protocol for renewing New START is simple and requires only that Washington and Moscow exchange diplomatic notes.

 

- Trump's China concern -

 

Negotiations to renew the accord stalled under the administration of US President Donald Trump, who lobbied unsuccessfully to have China become a party to the restrictions.

During one set of talks in Vienna last year, Trump's arms control envoy even tweeted a picture of a Chinese flag next to an empty chair in a negotiations room, saying "China is a no-show," although there was no expectation for Beijing to attend.

- The last pact -

 

During Trump's tenure the United States withdrew from two major international accords -- the Iran nuclear deal and the Open Skies treaty -- and pulled out of a centrepiece arms control agreement with Russia, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who brokered the INF treaty with Reagan, has called on Russia and the US to extend New START and work together to agree further cuts to the countries' nuclear stockpiles.

 

- Last-minute overtures -

 

In the months leading up to presidential elections in the United States last year, the two sides made a series of ultimately unsuccessful overtures to agree a New START extension.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin proposed a one-year extension without any pre-conditions to create an opportunity to hold "substantial negotiations".

The US shot down the move saying it had proposed a series of conditions for extensions.

Putin at the time noted it would be "extremely sad" if the treaty, which was successful in containing an arms race, expired.

 

- Five-year extension -

 

Days after Biden was sworn in as US president, the White House said Washington would work towards a five-year extension of the treaty.

The initiative was welcomed by the Kremlin, while spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that everything would depend on the details of this proposal.

Those efforts won the backing of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg who warned against creating a situation with "no limitations whatsoever on nuclear warheads".