Pressed by challenges ranging from the novel coronavirus to Cold War 2.0 with China, Joe Biden opted for a conventional solution to make his first international political headline as President of the United States.
Thursday evening (21), the new American president announced that he wanted to extend the Novo Start agreement, the last nuclear weapons control instrument in force in the world, by 5 years.
At the same time, in order not to appear to have yielded to the wishes of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, investigations will be carried out by the American government on three sensitive subjects, likely to formulate new trade sanctions against the Russians.
Among them are the poisoning and imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalni, the recent hacker attack on various US government systems and an older charge that Russia paid Afghan mercenaries to attack US targets. in the Asian country.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said such measures were aimed at curbing Russia’s “reckless and contradictory attitudes”, while the extension of the Fresh Start would “anchor stability” in relations between countries.
Russia said the nuclear proposal was welcome on Friday, but did not comment on the rest of the package. Previously, the Navalni case was classified as a Russian domestic court case and the other two charges were dismissed.
Biden’s game, which had received signs of impatience from Russia, is clear. The list of global and domestic issues on your desk, left by Donald Trump’s stormy leadership, is very long.
Accepting Russian terms in the New Start is a way to save time and look good in the photo, as it is the survival of the human race that is at stake when considering the arsenal of the two. nuclear powers.
While huffing, he bites down on issues that in practice tend to go nowhere, but he keeps the rhetorical pressure on Moscow and reminds Putin that Trump’s time for mercy is over.
The New Start (acronym for Strategic Weapons Reduction Treaty, while the “new” refers to previous versions of it) was signed in 2010 and will expire on February 5th.
For more than two years, Trump’s negotiators have been trying to change its content. First, they insisted that China be included, which Beijing and Moscow denied. Then, in a twist, they put that aside and demanded that more weapons be included in a nuclear moratorium.
All this would only guarantee Washington a postponement of one year. Putin said no and Biden now accepts his terms in full, tempering the fact with harsh words and legal threats so as not to appear defeated.
In any case, from the point of view of world peace, this is good news. The New Start is the only treaty in place to try to curb the arms race between the Russians and the Americans.
It provides for a limit of 1,550 operational nuclear warheads and 800 launching assets (silos and launchers for land missiles, submarines and bombers, of which 700 are on standby). It also sets up satellite surveillance and 18 annual mutual inspections.
Experts say this is little, given the evolution of weapons. But it is at least something, argue the negotiators on the ground.
Trump has opted for confrontation in this sector, leading to what Putin calls a dangerous increased risk of accidental nuclear war. The American left two other collision avoidance treaties, one on intermediate-range missiles in Europe and the other on mutual military reconnaissance flights.
In addition, it revised the US nuclear stance to allow the use of so-called tactical atomic weapons against specific military targets, and put one of these bomb designs into service last year in its submarines.
All of this made the Kremlin react and say that it was ready to retaliate with the full force of its arsenal if a miserable tactical missile, armed or not with a nuclear warhead, was launched against itself or its allies – a problem. , given that on paper Iran, the alleged target of such attacks, is close to Moscow.
Critics say the extension is just a way for Putin to gain more time with his internal and external problems – only in 2020 he had to intervene in three crises in his peripheries (Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan) and saw the emergence of a fourth potential (Moldova).
In fact, the Russians are testing new models of shorter-range missiles, but the United States has done the same since leaving the Treaty of Installation in Europe.
It is also unclear when and if new technologies to deliver nuclear warheads to their targets, like the hypersonic missiles Putin talks about so much, will eventually make a treaty.
A legacy of the Cold War, the world’s nuclear arsenal is concentrated in the hands of former adversaries. About 92% of the 13,400 atomic weapons in the world are American or Russian, according to the Federation of American Scientists.
The largest inventory comes from Moscow: 6,370 warheads, of which 2,060 are deactivated and 4,310 in stock. Within the limits of the Novo Start, 1,572 are operational on ground, submarine or aerial missiles.
Washington has 5,800 weapons, of which 2,000 are retired, 3,800 in stock, and 1,750 active – 150 of them not covered by the New Start because they are tactical rather than strategic, those used to win wars. .
Moscow also has an uncertain number of such weapons, of course, and the lack of transparency in general worries experts. China, the third nuclear power, has 320 warheads in stock, enough to guarantee its dissuasive power.
From a pessimistic perspective, Novo Start’s limitations don’t prevent the world from being wiped out multiple times in the event of war. But these are limits and they serve to keep a cool head.
Ironically, a utopian United Nations treaty entered into force on Friday, aimed at a complete ban on nuclear weapons worldwide. 86 countries have signed it, including Brazil, and 51 have already ratified it. Of course, none of the nine atomic powers subscribes to it.