Former President Trump, who killed two other arms control deals with Moscow, had put extension of the treaty in jeopardy by demanding unrealistic changes, indicating to critics he wanted to kill it as well.  Said Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “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.”

The treaty, which has strong verification protocols including onsite inspections, places limits on both sides’ intercontinental missiles, submarine-launched missiles and nuclear-capable bombers, as well as caps on the number of strategic warheads.

The treaty was originally negotiated and signed by the Obama-Biden administration in 2010, but Senator Lugar was key to its ratification by the U.S. Senate.  Although Republican President Ronald Reagan had launched the modern era of arms control, Republicans in latter decades have become increasingly hostile to such agreements. Initially Sen. Lugar, at the time the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was the only Republican Senator to express support for the deal.

He and Committee Chair John Kerry (D, Mass.) held twelve hearings on the pros and cons of the treaty. The committee voted 14-4 to report the treaty to the full Senate, with Sen. Lugar joined by two other GOP Senators. With a two-thirds majority required for ratification, the Senate narrowly approved the pact 71-26. Only with Sen. Lugar’s active engagement did enough Republicans vote for passage.

In the 10 years since, Moscow has complied with all New START’s conditions, as verified by a rigorous inspections regime, including unannounced inspections. “The level of confidence in the United States in our ability to detect non-compliance on the Russia side is very, very high,” Kenneth A. Meyers, former head of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, testified before Congress in 2019.

However, President Trump came into office hostile to virtually all existing international agreements, claiming the United States was always taken advantage of. He pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019, citing Russian violations of the pact. Last year, the Trump administration also left the Open Skies Treaty, which was designed to reduce the chances of an accidental war by allowing mutual reconnaissance flights, also citing Russian violations.

With New START set to expire on Feb. 5, 2021, the Trump administration was silent for months in 2020 about its intentions to invoke the five-year extension contained in the treaty. Finally, it came up with an elaborate proposal to bring in the Chinese, who have never participated in any U.S-Russia treaties, and demanded that the scope of the treaty be extended to cover more types of weapons.

When that failed, it also tried to strike a deal for a one-year freeze on nuclear warheads while negotiating a brand new treaty. That effort also fizzled.

President Biden came into office vowing to extend the treaty, but also promising a much tougher stance toward Moscow than President Trump, who was widely criticized, even by members of his own party, for a too-cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Biden and others said Trump overlooked Russia’s meddling in American elections, its cyber-attacks on this country, its poisoning and assassination of dissidents, and other transgressions.

Secretary Blinken this week pushed back against charges that extending New START was inconsistent with claims of a tougher Russia stance. Extending the treaty advances American interests, he said, but “we remain clear-eyed about the challenges that Russia poses to the United States and the world. Even as we work with Russia to advance U.S. interests, so too will we work to hold Russia to account for adversarial actions as well as its human rights abuses.”

Sen. Lugar’s long experience with the Nunn-Lugar program convinced him that cooperation on arms control, which benefits both countries, has served as an important anchor to the relationship when it is buffeted by other controversies.  As he said in 2010 when urging New START ratification: “One does not have to abandon one’s skepticism of the Russian government or dismiss contentious foreign policy disagreements with Moscow to invest in the practical enterprise of nuclear verification and transparency.

“In fact, it is precisely the friction in our broader relationship that makes this treaty so important. It would be an incredible strategic blunder to sever our START relationship with Russia when that country still possesses thousands of nuclear weapons. We would be distancing ourselves from a historic rival in the area where our national security is most affected and where cooperation already has delivered successes.”

Alluding the phrase, ‘Keep your friends, close but your enemies closer,’ he said, “When it comes to our nuclear arsenals we want to keep Russia close. There are enough centripetal forces at work without abandoning a START process that has prevented surprises and miscalculations for 15 years."