Signed by President Barack Obama and former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in 2010, the New START Treaty caps the number of strategic missiles and heavy bombers that the U.S. and Russia can possess. The nuclear arms control treaty is set to expire in February 2021 unless an agreement is signed in the coming months.
Rose Gottemoeller, the chief U.S. negotiator of the treaty, told host Michael McFaul on the World Class Podcast that it wasn’t easy to come to an agreement with the Russians, shared her assessment of whether New START will be renewed, and discussed what steps should be taken to ensure that it does.
Working Under Pressure
Negotiations for New START began in April 2009 after a meeting between Obama and Medvedev in London, and continued throughout the spring and summer with varying levels of success. As it began to get closer to the expiration date of the START 1 treaty in December, both sides began to feel the pressure, Gottemoeller noted.
“The Russians are master diplomats and negotiators,” she said. “They know how to use leverage.”
The U.S. team was joined in the fall by Mike Mullen — the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time — who helped enormously with the negotiation process, Gottemoeller said. By the time December rolled around, she was feeling optimistic about where things were headed with the Russians.
The negotiations were put on pause over the Christmas holiday, and that’s when things began to change. Vladimir Putin, who was Russia’s Prime Minister at that time, made it clear in the Russian press that he did not approve of the treaty and started to attack it publicly.
“At that point I thought, ‘Here we go. We are coming to the end of this game,’” Gottemoeller said. “I really was convinced he was going to shut it down.”
Signing and Ratification
Thanks to Medvedev’s willingness to stand up to Putin and insist that negotiations continue, the U.S. team quickly received a message from the Russians saying that they’d like to meet once again in Moscow to work on some of the final withstanding issues.
By the end of January 2010, they had reached a final agreement on the terms of the treaty.
“It was a very important meeting, and one that proved that the entire U.S. government was committed to the agreement,” Gottemoeller added. “There was a huge delegation from across the agency, from the White House on down. And we ended up getting a lot accomplished in that meeting that ended up being core to the treaty.”
Once the details had been hammered out with the Russians, the final step for the U.S. team was ratification. Its next negotiation was with the U.S. Senate, and the Senators had a lot of questions — over 1,000, in fact.
“My bottom line message was that it provides us clarity and predictability about what is going on in the Russian strategic nuclear forces,” Gottemoeller said. “These are weapons of mass destruction that could incinerate us in seconds. So it's extraordinarily important that we keep a handle on them, that we know where they are, what they're doing, what their readiness status is.”
In the end, the team was able to secure 72 votes from the Senate — just more than the 67 needed to pass — and the treaty was officially ratified. New START was signed on April 8, 2010, by Obama and Medvedev, and took effect on February 5, 2011.
A New START Extension?
To prevent the treaty from expiring in February, action needs to be taken soon by the Trump administration and the Kremlin. Fortunately, Putin’s views on New START have shifted dramatically during the past decade — he has since declared it to be a “gold standard” for treaties of its kind, and sees it as beneficial for Russia’s national security, Gottemoeller noted.
During the past several years, the Russians had talked about putting some conditions on the extension of New START, but the Trump administration has since convinced them to drop those conditions, and Gottemoeller feels optimistic that an extension will happen. President Donald Trump has expressed interest in meeting with Putin before the November 2020 election, which could open the door for negotiations, she said.
“I do think there will be some extension of New START — perhaps a shorter extension than five years,” Gottemoeller predicted. “And I see clear hints. President Trump and President Putin have spoken repeatedly on the phone recently, and in many of his recent public statements, the president has said that he wants a new nuclear deal. I think the easiest way to do that is to extend New START.”