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U.S. and Russia agree to extend limits on nuclear arms

The U.S. and Russia on Wednesday extended the only remaining treaty that limits the deployment of nuclear weapons. But did the agreement go far enough? Rose Gottemoeller, a distinguished lecturer at Stanford University who served as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security during the Obama administration, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss the New START treaty.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the U.S. and Russia agreed to extend the only remaining treaty that limits the deployment of nuclear weapons. New START restricts strategic, or long-range, nuclear weapons.

    Today's agreement will last until 2026. But there are critics who say the treaty, and the Biden administration's efforts to extend it, didn't go far enough.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They are the world's deadliest weapons, able to fly thousands of miles in 30 minutes and obliterate entire cities. And for 10 years, the deployment of Russian and American long-range nuclear weapons has been restricted by New START.

  • Barack Obama:

    Today is an important milestone for nuclear security and nonproliferation and for U.S.-Russian relations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 2010, President Barack Obama and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START. It limits Russia and the U.S. to 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed and sea-based ballistic missiles and heavy bombers. And those warheads can be carried by no more than 700 missiles and bombers.

    It also includes verification measures, such as movement notifications, data exchanges, and on-site inspections.

    Today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote: "Extending the New START treaty makes the United States, U.S. allies and partners and the world safer. An unconstrained nuclear competition would endanger us all."

  • Marshall Billingslea:

    The future of nuclear arms control must address all nuclear weapons.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the Trump administration called the treaty deeply flawed because it does not limit Russia's shorter-range deployed nuclear weapons, as former Special Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea said last year.

  • Marshall Billingslea:

    Maybe, during the Cold War, it made sense to talk about strategic or non-strategic nuclear weapons. I would say that is not what we feel anymore. We view every nuclear warhead as having strategic implications.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Trump team also tried to get Russia to cap the number of all nuclear warheads, short and long-range, including those in storage, something Russia has never agreed to.

    And it sought to include China, as former assistant Secretary of State Chris Ford told me last year:

  • Christopher Ford:

    We think it's essential that China live up to its obligation to pursue negotiations in good faith towards avoiding a nuclear arms race.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, Ford told me the Biden administration should have demanded a shorter extension.

  • Christopher Ford:

    I just think it's a bit of a squandered opportunity. We didn't have to extend it for five years. We could have extended it incrementally and used successive extensions as a tool of a negotiating strategy for dealing with the Russians and perhaps others.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ford also says Biden's campaign promise to extend New START undercut Trump negotiators with the Russians.

  • Christopher Ford:

    If they wanted a full five-year extension with no strings, they knew that they didn't have to talk to us at all, because Biden would come into office, as indeed he has now done, and give them precisely that.

    So, the Russians, in effect, had essentially zero reason to talk seriously with U.S. diplomats for the better part of 2020.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For more on all of this, we turn to Rose Gottemoeller, who is currently a distinguished lecturer at Stanford University. During the Obama administration, she served as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security and was the chief U.S. negotiator of the New START agreement.

    Rose Gottemoeller, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    What's your reaction today to the Biden administration extending New START for five years?

  • Rose Gottemoeller:

    I'm delighted.

    I think it's the right move for the United States of America, because we are embarking on some modernization of our nuclear forces. And I think we really need the predictability and stability that New START will give us over the next five years to make sure that we can do that modernization and keep the price tag within bounds.

    Otherwise, I think we might be chasing the Russians as they build more missiles and more warheads. And we couldn't end up having the kind of predictable nuclear modernization process that we need right now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You heard, of course, some of the criticism in that piece, Chris Ford, Marshall Billingslea, say that the administration should have tried for a shorter extension, perhaps only one year, and that the Biden administration gave up leverage.

    What's your response to that?

  • Rose Gottemoeller:

    Ah, the leverage myth. I do think it's pretty hilarious, because, first of all, when President Biden came into office, I wasn't at all sure that he was going to go for a five-year extension.

    There was a debate among his own team over that. People like Victoria Nuland, very well-respected, have been saying that we should try for some leverage on this.

    I simply disagree on that, because the Russians have been very, very clear for the last year-plus that they don't want this treaty more than we do. And, therefore, they were signaling that they would not be leveraged in this way. And so I — that's why I call it the leverage myth. I just don't think it would have happened.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you think that extending New START by five years one day after Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was sentenced to more than two years in prison, just a few days after the Russian security forces arrested thousands of protesters on the streets of Moscow, sends the wrong message to the Kremlin?

  • Rose Gottemoeller:

    I have to say, nuclear weapon are an existential threat to the United States. These missiles, these long-range missiles armed with nuclear warheads could obliterate the United States in 30 minutes and, indeed, destroy the globe, if we somehow got into a major nuclear exchange with the Russians.

    So, that kind of existential threat means, to my mind, that we have to keep working these problems.

    We have to keep work them, despite the fact we have severe disagreements with the Russians in many, many areas. And that, in fact, was the clear message from the administration, from President Biden today and Secretary of State Blinken, saying that we have to be clear-eyed about the challenges from Russia and really press them on those issues that are so difficult, so problematic, their cyberattacks, the Alexei Navalny case, so many other things troubling about what Russia is up to today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We saw in the story some members of the Trump administration negotiating team.

    Do you think the Trump administration did well to overcome some of Russia's long-term demands to get to the point where New START could be extended today by the Biden administration?

  • Rose Gottemoeller:

    Frankly, I give the Trump administration credit for a couple of things.

    One thing is that they established the principle that we should directly limit warheads. And I think that's a good thing, and that freeze they proposed on all nuclear warheads. So, that was a good principle to establish. And I know that President Biden intends to carry it forward, because he said in his announcement today that he plans to be working next on a treaty to limit all nuclear weapons.

    So, I think that is a really good step.

    The other thing, though — and, here, I think it's important to say that China should be at the table as well. And here, too, President Biden today said that, yes, indeed, China should be part of the next phase of discussions, and I welcome that news very much also.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    How do you propose tackling China?

    Beijing has said that its number of nuclear weapons, believed to be in the hundreds, would have to be somehow matched by the U.S. and Russia, which have well over 1,000, before Beijing would be willing to even undertake arms control negotiations.

    How can that challenge be tackled, do you think?

  • Rose Gottemoeller:

    Yes, you're really right. We don't want to encourage them to build up. That's the last thing we want them to do.

    But we need to look for area where there is some equality of capability on the Chinese side, for example, hypersonic glide vehicles. These are new technologies, new missiles that are being developed that are super fast and super accurate. There are some equality of capability in China, in Russia, in the United States developing as well.

    Here is an area where all three of us may have an interest in sitting down together. I also think we may have a more or less equal interest in constraining ground-launched intermediate-range missiles that really are out there proliferating at a time when the INF Treaty has now gone away.

    So, we should be, I think, ready to engage the Chinese. But we need to engage them where they may have an interest in coming to the table, because they want to see some restraints on us, perhaps on the Russians as well, not just forcing them in a direction they don't want to go, like building up their warhead numbers.

    That is not good for U.S. national security, definitely.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Rose Gottemoeller, thank you very much.

  • Rose Gottemoeller:

    Thank you.

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