'A hugely consequential first move': Biden offers to extend nuclear START treaty with Russia
Vladimir Putin (Shutterstock)

In a move applauded by anti-war activists, U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday reportedly offered Russian President Vladimir Putin a five-year extension of the New START treaty just days before the pact—the only remaining nuclear arms control agreement regulating the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world—is set to expire.

"President Biden's offer signals a welcome return to serious diplomacy that provides a path to a safer and more secure future for all."
—Derek Johnson, Global Zero

If the White House and Russia cannot settle on a mutually agreed-upon plan to extend the New START treaty, which caps the number of offensively-deployed nuclear weapons that each country is allowed to have at 1,550, the deal will expire on February 5, 2021.

Letting the treaty expire could unleash "a full-blown nuclear arms race that exposes the whole world to an intolerable level of risk," Derek Johnson, chief executive officer of Global Zero, an international movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons, said in a statement on Thursday.

"After four years of efforts to kill arms control and chase the false security of nuclear dominance, the U.S. is coming back to its senses," said Johnson. "Extending New START is a hugely consequential first move by the Biden administration."

In response to Biden's proposed extension of the New START treaty, Paul Kawika Martin, senior director for policy and political affairs at Peace Action, said in a statement that after years of former President Donald Trump "putting Americans in harm's way by decimating international agreements, we can all breathe a bit easier now that he cannot start a nuclear war within minutes."

Trump "tried to conclude a shorter extension with Moscow in the final months of his presidency, but he failed to reach an agreement after his nuclear envoy spent months trying to persuade China to join the accord before dropping that demand," The Washington Post reported Thursday.

As The Moscow Times reported on Wednesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused the Trump administration of "'deliberately and intentionally' dismantling international arms control agreements," interpreting "its 'counterproductive and openly aggressive' approach in talks" as an indication that Washington was not interested in extending New START.

Now that Biden is in office, Moscow expects the U.S. to "take a more constructive approach in its dialogue with us," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "We are ready for such work on principles of equal rights and taking mutual interests into account."

According to The Moscow Times:

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the treaty should be extended in its current version and "without any pre-conditions," adding that prolonging the arms pact for five years would be "preferable."
"This would allow Russia and the United States to seriously begin a joint search for responses to the issues of international security and strategic stability that are now arising," the ministry said in the statement.
"At the same time the current level of transparency and predictability in relation to New START would remain in place which would be in the interests of security of both our countries and the whole world."

While Putin is seeking an unconditional extension of the treaty, The Post reported that the Biden administration "is preparing to impose new costs on Russia pending a newly requested intelligence assessment of its recent activities."

Two senior U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic, told the newspaper that "Biden is ruling out a 'reset' in bilateral relations with Moscow as many new U.S. presidents have done since the end of the Cold War."

The Post noted that "Biden's plans for potential punitive actions toward Russia at the outset of the administration is unique among his recent predecessors, all of whom attempted to turn a new page with the Kremlin in the hopes of encouraging a more productive relationship."

While the White House's specific terms are not yet clear, The Post reported that unlike his predecessor, Biden "is not interested in holding an extension of New START hostage to China."

Johnson of Global Zero said that "the treaty is an essential guardrail against nuclear arms-racing that imposes equal limits on U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons. Both countries are in full compliance with the agreement, and its intrusive verification provisions ensure neither side can cheat without detection."

"President Biden's offer signals a welcome return to serious diplomacy that provides a path to a safer and more secure future for all," Johnson added. "Unless you're a defense contractor, this is good news for everyone."