What Will It Be Like With No US-Russia Nuke Limits?

Back to 1968?

On February 5, 2021, the New START treaty between the United States and Russia will expire. Barring an extension, or some other solution, this will mark the end of the last extant nuclear deal, and will leave the two nations to their own devices on creating and deploying arms.

The United States officially introduced the atomic age in 1945, at the end of World War 2. In late August of 1949, the Soviet Union followed suit with a successful test of an atomic bomb of its own. What followed was two decades of unrestrained arsenal growth, with both sides building irresponsibly large supplies of weapons whose use would be disastrous to the world.

By 1969, both nations had to pause. Thousands of warheads now at the ready, it was clear that if the two nations had a proper nuclear exchange, it would mean the end of human civilization, if not the outright extinction of humanity. But what really led to talks was not the threat of an atomic horror, but rather the terrible harm it was doing to both nations’ economies to spend every dime they could scrounge up on more weapons. 

So the two nations did the next best thing to not planning for doomsday: they tried to budget for it. In 1969, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talk (SALT) Agreement I was negotiated, in which both sides agreed to cap their respective arsenals. This was followed by the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) of 1972, which greatly restricted the fielding of missile defenses.

Both treaties were essential. SALT I capped the two nations’ arsenals at mutually-assured destruction levels, while the ABM Treaty kept them from undermining their first-strike treaties, because the other nation would need to match that with more nuclear arms. The idea was to leave both sides with a substantial but sustainably priced arsenal, both keeping an apocalypse just a button-push away, and ensuring neither nation would bankrupt itself by keeping that option. 

Unfortunately this didn’t work as intended, and it wasn’t long before arsenals started growing again. The SALT II Treaty in 1979 sought to not just cap but reduce arsenal sizes to parity. At this point, the arsenals had grown so far that the best they could do was to counsel reductions.

This had mixed success, from the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (Treaty of Moscow, or SORT) to the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), both of which struggled on monitoring. The currently active deal, New START, had more verification, though it also had the difficulty of very ambitious reduction levels in the face of huge arsenals.

New START and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which the US only recently pulled out of, had their critics, but they also served the clear purpose of getting the two nations out of bankrupting one another with a huge arms race. 

INF was in many ways as essential to New START as the ABM was to SALT I. The idea was to cap intermediate-range missiles, reducing surprise first-strike possibilities, and keeping a world-ending war predictable for planners.

The U.S. ended INF on enforcement arguments, but the consequences are much worse. Russia is now worried about the U.S. adding intermediate missiles in Europe, and is set to respond with hypersonic missiles launched from ships. In both cases, the possibility of first-strike grows, and both nations would probably answer this with another race for a bigger arsenal.

New START would be meant to preclude this arms race, which is where the imminent expiry of the treaty becomes all the more essential to address. Neither the U.S. nor Russia could long afford a new, unrestrained arms race. Annual U.S. military expenditures are already fast approaching a trillion dollars, and while Russia has tried to limit things, they surely don’t want an arms race with a nation that is already spending ten-fold what they are on their military, and with roughly 13 times the GDP.

But with INF gone, the U.S. seemingly views New START as less essential, which is why there have been only very limited talks on extending the treaty. Mostly, those talks saw the US trying to get China involved, and failing.

This has badly stalled extension talks. The US foreign policy is heavily China-centric, but China’s relatively minor nuclear arsenal means they aren’t in a position to have to limit their own arsenal in a way meaningful to the US and Russia talks. Russia sees the US harping on China as a distraction to extension. It’s definitely a distraction, but it’s not clear if it’s deliberate or just part of the way US policy works right now.

Whatever the case, the time is running out on negotiating anything new. Russian officials are almost despairing at that fact, but the reality is New START can be extended as it presently exists to buy time for talks.

It would be a waste of time to extend New START if officials aren’t sincere on negotiating a longer extension of the nuclear arms limitation treaties. The alternative of a new arms race is so bad, however, that renewing now and beginning extension talks in earnest is the only reasonable course.

Younger readers may not remember, but for those growing up in the Cold War, even in the waning years, nuclear war was presented as all-but-assured, just a matter of time. It was a grim time, and a new arms race could easily bring that, and the danger of nuclear annihilation, roaring back. 

Arms limitation and mutually assured destruction may be a second-best solution to sensible peace deals and disarmament, but it does have a track record of keeping arms races at least temporarily in check. Barring anything better, that should definitely be the priority.

Source: The American Conservative

  1. Mychal Arnold says

    It matters not. The world is screwed if either one starts a war. They will cheat to get the upper hand. I trust Russia over and above the ussar, as the ussar has used them already. The only way to ensure the peace is that all countries who have such weapons divest themselves of them. There should be no war in the first place but mankind are aggressive and greedy beings and it is asking a lot for us to get rid of these tendencies alas war will always be.

  2. Saint Jimmy (Russian American) says

    As Arnold observes below, I’m not sure limits on nuclear weapons matter. China with “only” 400 or so nuclear weapons could destroy either the US or Russia as nations. Our corporate elites are doing a fine job of destruction without messy nuclear weapons. Of course, any nation that launches nuclear weapons against the US, Russia, or China would also be destroyed.

    Regardless, what would it be like with no agreements on nuclear weapons limits? I think it might constantly be like October 1962 all over the world. There would be even higher levels of fear and hate among the peasants.

  3. Jihadi Colin says

    I have a question on whether a return to full Cold War level MAD standoffs would be such a bad thing. MAD kept Amerikastan in line; Wall Street military industrial complex capitalist warmonger vermin were well aware that they risked their families, lives, property, and most importantly their bank accounts reduced to irradiated ash in case of a nuclear war. It is only after the so called “reduced” arsenals of the 1990s that Amerikastani imperalists again suddenly began talking about nuclear war being “thinkable”; some sites indeed aver that nuclear winter may not even “be a thing”. From there it’s just a short step to say that nuclear war is not only “thinkable” but “doable”. I recall Obamabots in 2014 claiming that Amerikastan could destroy all Russian nuclear missiles “in boost phase”. Trumpets aren’t any less evil than Obamabots but are even less informed and more stupid, so to their two neuron minds nuclear war can be presented as an attractive possibility. However, once the “other side” manifestly has enough warheads to eradicate Wall Street, you’ll suddenly discover that nuclear war talk can fall as quickly silent as it arose in the first place.

    1. Saint Jimmy (Russian American) says

      I recall Obamabots in 2014 claiming that Amerikastan could destroy all Russian nuclear missiles “in boost phase”.

      Me too and it scared the shit out of me. That’s insane and evil. There is no way the US survives as a nation if it launches nuclear weapons on Russia or China and anyone who suggests that it is possible or a good idea should be banished from public life forever or possibly committed to a mental institution. I just can’t believe the pure crap our sold out political system has produced during the 21st century. That’s what unbridled greed and wealth eventually produce, though.

  4. disqus_3BrONUAJno says

    When the United States can and does walk away from treaties that its own Senate has neglected to ratify, why shouldn’t all 7 of the world’s nuclear powers be involved in negotiation any further fictional agreements?

  5. cechas vodobenikov says

    “amerikans have been liars and braggarts for 3 centuries”. D Boorstin
    the insecure feminized amerikkan cannot be trusted—-they don’t trust each other
    “amerika is the ultimate trickster’s paradise”. Sacvan Bercovitch

  6. brian niziol says

    It will be wonderful. We are getting closer now that Belarus will become NATO. The Americans will go after Russia shortly after that. I can’t wait to see the first nuke land on America.

    1. cechas vodobenikov says

      doubtful—EU is threatening sanctions against belarus

  7. Raptar Driver says

    All this reminds me when I was in grade school in the 70s. The Russians are gonna nuke us blah blah blah, it ain’t ever gonna happen!
    Only if we nuke them 1st.

  8. Johann Schutte says

    Don’t be too hard on the Americans. Apart from nuclear holocaust they did bring us grid iron (200 pound gorillas in ballet tights and crash helmets), country music, rap, the blonde slutty look (marilyn and all her clones), cheerleading as a national sport, fast food, recreational shopping, WWF, Jerry Springer, and the only man capable of seven grammatical errors in a simple declarative (GWB).

    Ps. I forgot to include charismatic christianity.

    1. cechas vodobenikov says

      I once read that when Kerry ran for president he required a speech therapist to teach him to dumb down his language and accent

  9. cechas vodobenikov says

    even a regional war would reduce the riches of amerikan oligarchs by half—the threat of a world war is produced to create anxiety/fear…..do the amerikan oligarchs wish to hide in the Cayman Islands or their underground bunkers in NZ?

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