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Get Smart on START: Treaty Not About “Nuclear Disarmament”

As Washington buzzes over President Trump’s critique of the New START treaty, a look at pre-Trump coverage of New START serves as a healthy reminder that the agreement is not about “nuclear disarmament.”

Obama and Medvedev

Reuters shook up Washington on Thursday with a report that President Trump told Russian President Vladimir Putin the New START nuclear treaty is a bad deal for the U.S. CNN was one outlet that described New START as a “key nuclear disarmament agreement.”

Take a step back from the Trump era, though, and it turns out New START is not so much about “disarmament” as it is about “armament.”

First, what is New START? It’s an agreement between the Obama-era White House and the Kremlin that sets limits on the “strategic [nuclear] arms” the U.S. and Russia can possess, and lasts through February 2018. Putin had asked Trump, in their call, about an extension to New START.

A 2015 NPR article on the progress of New START reveals that, while the “18 annual inspections” the U.S. and Russia conduct on each other was going smoothly, the deal itself was never about nuclear “disarmament”:

Some who have watched the New START being implemented have doubts about just what the Obama administration was being sold.

“This treaty is actually about nuclear armament, not about disarmament,” says Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. The Moscow-based defense columnist for Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper, says under the terms of New START, Russia has actually been able to increase both its number of deployed nuclear warheads and the means to deliver them.

“This treaty provides for some control, and some inspections to understand what’s happening, but it is really not about disarmament,” says Felgenhauer. “That should be well understood.”

Indeed, the State Department’s own report on New START in October 2016 revealed that Russia “now has 259 warheads more deployed than when the treaty entered into force in 2011.” The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) predicts an eventual reduction in “the overall size of … strategic nuclear forces,” but for now it’s an increase — or “armament” — on the Russian side of the deal.