The story so far:
On February 23, on the eve of the first anniversary of his country’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow was unilaterally suspending the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty with the U.S., stating that the West was trying to destroy Russia.
Making the announcement at the end of his nearly two-hour-long state of the-nation address to Russian lawmakers, Mr. Putin also said Moscow ought to stand ready to resume nuclear weapons tests if the U.S. does so, a move that would end a global ban on nuclear weapons tests in place since Cold War times. In response, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Mr. Putin’s move was “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible”.
What is the New START nuclear treaty?
About half a decade before the end of the Cold War, the then leaders of the U.S. and the erstwhile Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, declared in a historic statement: “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
While both Moscow and Washington were aggressive in their one-upmanship of expanding nuclear arsenals in the initial decades of the Cold War, they have engaged in bilateral talks since, albeit rocky ones, and signed multiple treaties to shrink and keep checks on each other’s nuclear arsenals. The first formal dialogue, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), started between the two countries under former President Richard Nixon’s administration in 1969. The Anti-Ballistic Missile defence systems Treaty, which provided the shooting down of incoming missiles, was signed in 1972 but the George W. Bush administration unilaterally pulled out of the pact in 2002.
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Notably, while the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), signed in 1991, expired in late 2009 and another treaty, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT or Moscow Treaty), was signed in 2002; the New START treaty, which replaced the 2002 pact, was the last remaining nuclear weapons control agreement between the two powers who together hold 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenal.
The New START treaty was signed in 2010 by former U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and came into force in February 2011. It was extended for five years when current U.S. President Joe Biden took office in 2021. Under the Treaty, America and Russia cannot deploy more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads and more than 700 long-range missiles and bombers. It also limits each country to 800 deployed and non-deployed launchers and delivery vehicles.
It allows each side to carry out up to 18 short-notice (32 hours) on-site inspections of strategic nuclear weapons sites annually to ensure the other has not crossed the limits of the treaty.
Under the agreement, Russia and the U.S. exchange data twice a year on the ballistic missiles under the treaty’s purview, on bombers, test sites, nuclear bases and so on. The treaty also mandates the two parties to send notifications within five days if they change or updates something in their stockpile, like moving missiles to a new base or deploying a new warhead to the system.
According to The Washington Post, after first coming into effect, the pact gave Washington and Moscow seven years to reduce their stockpiles, including nuclear warheads that are launched using long-range missiles, submarines, and bombers. In 2018, both nations met the arms limits prescribed by the pact.
Inspections under the treaty, however, have stalled in the past three years; they were first put on hold in March 2020 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Moscow and Washington were due to discuss the restarting of inspections in November 2022, but this was postponed by Mr. Putin. There has been no development in this regard since.
Why did Putin suspend New START?
“I am forced to announce today that Russia is suspending its participation in the strategic offensive arms treaty,” Mr. Putin said on February 23. He said the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the U.S. wanted to “inflict ‘strategic defeat’ on Russia and “try to get to our nuclear facilities at the same time.”
Mr. Putin argued that while the U.S. had pushed for the resumption of inspections of Russian nuclear facilities under the treaty, NATO allies were helping Ukraine mount drone attacks on Russian air bases hosting nuclear-capable strategic bombers. In December, the Russian military had said it shot down the drones that struck two bomber bases deep inside the country.
Mr. Putin also mocked NATO’s statement urging Russia to allow the resumption of the U.S. inspections as “some kind of theatre of the absurd.” “The drones used for it were equipped and modernised with NATO’s expert assistance,” Mr. Putin said. “And now they want to inspect our defence facilities?” He also put another condition on the table before any return could be made to negotiations. He said the nuclear weapons of Britain and France were part of NATO’s nuclear capability but weren’t included in the U.S.-Russian pact.
“They are also aimed against us. They are aimed against Russia,” he said. “Before we return to discussing the treaty, we need to understand what are the aspirations of NATO members Britain and France and how we take it into account their strategic arsenals…”
The Russian President also accused the U.S. of rejecting some Russian requests for visits to specific U.S. facilities. Meanwhile, in its New START annual implementation report 2023, the U.S. State Department stated that Moscow was not complying with the pact as it had not let Washington carry out on-site inspections.
Will it trigger an arms race?
Notably, since Mr. Putin has not withdrawn from the treaty and just ‘suspended’ it, which is a term not defined in the official pact, analysts are saying the move would not immediately trigger and arms race between the two powers, and could be a part of Russia’s political messaging amid the West’s massive assistance to Ukraine amid the year-long conflict. Evidently, the Russian administration also announced that it does not plan to breach the limits on warheads prescribed in New START. The Russian Foreign Ministry also said that would continue notifying Washington of planned test launches of inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
John Erath, senior policy director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told The Washington Post that Mr. Putin’s move was entirely symbolic”, adding that Russia had already not been permitting inspections. Mr. Erath said the suspension seemed to be targetted at putting pressure on President Biden and European allies “so Russia can dictate the terms under which” the war would come to an end.
Besides, Sarah Bidgood, of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told NPR that Russia’s move is linked to the Ukraine conflict, indicating that the country no longer thinks that nuclear arms control is a separate issue from the ups and downs of bilateral relations.
What does the suspension mean for global arms control?
Following Mr. Putin’s announcement, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the move had made the world a more dangerous place, adding that “with today’s decision on New START, full arms control architecture has been dismantled.”
Observers say the move not only disturbs the fragile calculus of nuclear arms controls between the two largest nuclear powers but could also give an opportunity to other nuclear-armed countries, especially China and others like Pakistan, Iran, Israel, and India among others, to increase their arsenals.
A Reuters analysis quoted Tong Zhao, U.S.-based nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as saying that the move could hamper arms control cooperation between the U.S. and China.
“This is only going to make China even less interested in pursuing cooperative nuclear security with the United States,” Mr. Zhao said. “Now even this last example of arms control cooperation is being seriously undermined.”