Russia Confirm Avangard Missile System Falls Under New START

Russia’s Avangard hypersonic boost-glide missile system will be covered under the extended New START treaty, according to a senior Russian official.

Speaking at Russia’s State Duma earlier today, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated that Avangard—one of Russia’s latest and most advanced nuclear delivery systems—falls under the purview of the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, signed by Washington and Moscow in 2010. “The counting rules within the framework of [New START] will, of course, apply to such new warheads as “Avangard,” if it undergoes ratification and is extended by five years.” Ryabkov added that, in keeping with the treaty’s provisions, the Avangard system was “shown to the Americans.”

In a phone call earlier this week, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the New START treaty, which is set to expire on February 5, by the full five years allotted in the treaty’s provisions.

Avangard is a boost-glide, Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) missile system that was first unveiled during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2018 annual state-of-the-nation address. As a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), the Avangard system combines a high-performance ballistic missile with an unmanned glider vehicle. Once the missile reaches a sufficient altitude, the glide vehicle separates to find its target at staggeringly high speeds. The HGV’s lower trajectory, sheer speed, and ability to maneuver mid-flight make it a more potent weapon as compared with conventional systems, potentially capable of penetrating even the most sophisticated missile defense installations.

As previously discussed in The National Interest, Avangard’s classification under New START is an open-and-shut case. Avangard’s missiles are already regulated under the treaty, but the system itself falls under New START’s criterion for a re-entry vehicle: that is, an object “that can survive reentry through the dense layers of the Earth’s atmosphere and that is designed for delivering a weapon to a target or for testing such a delivery.” Still, the Kremlin demurred over the past several years on whether or not any of its recent weapons, including the new Tu-22M3M strategic long-range bomber, should be brought into the New START treaty format.

New START’s verification provisions will potentially require the Kremlin to notify America whenever it moves, deploys, or tests any of its Avangard units. Likewise, there are satellite tracking and annual inspection mechanisms that govern treaty-accountable weapons. In late 2019, a U.S. team was given the chance to inspect the Avangard missile system within New START’s purvey.

“I want to underline that any future agreements are possible only on the basis of parity,” concluded Ryabkov, referring to the prospects of additional arms treaties between Russia and the United States. “Any unilateral concessions from the Russian side are out of the question,” he added.

As the sole remaining nuclear arms treaty between the U.S. and Russia, New START is the last structural constraint on an unfettered nuclear weapons buildup that could escalate into an strategic arms race between the two states.

Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters.

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Mark Episkopos