- Putin said Russia will suspend its participation in major nuclear arms control pact with US.
- Without the New START pact and nuclear arms control, the US and Russia could expand their nuclear arsenals.
- The situation is “bad and could and probably will get worse,” one UN researcher said in response.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Tuesday that Russia will suspend its participation in the New START Treaty, the last major nuclear arms control pact between the US and Russia.
The treaty limits the number of long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads that the US and Russia can deploy from their respective arsenals, but Russian moves could threaten those limitations. Nuclear experts say the mov could severely decrease the exchange of information between the two sides and bring about the start of a “dangerous new nuclear era.”
During his annual state of the nation address, Putin said the decision was connected to the US and NATO’s involvement in Russia’s war in Ukraine through actions such as widespread economic sanctions and the consistent supply of security assistance to Kyiv.
“They want to inflict a ‘strategic defeat’ on us and try to get to our nuclear facilities at the same time,” the Russian president said in his speech, the Associated Press reported. He added that the decision was also influenced by a series of what were said to be NATO-assisted Ukrainian drone attacks on Russian bases, which host strategic bombers that are capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
Putin’s announcement was met with immediate condemnation by top Western officials like US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who called the move “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible.”
“More nuclear weapons and less arms control makes the world more dangerous,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. “And that’s the reason why in NATO we have worked so hard to engage Russia on issues related to arms control and why NATO Allies have supported the New START and also why I’m calling on Russia today to reconsider its decision to suspend its participation in the New START agreement.”
What is the New START treaty?
The New START Treaty between Russia and the US entered into force in 2011, and it was extended in 2021 for an additional five years. The agreement limits the number of deployed intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, and heavy bombers in the US and Russian arsenals.
By February 2018, the US and Russia had met the central limits of the agreement. According to the US State Department, the two countries are limited to 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers armed with nuclear weapons.
And the number of nuclear warheads on those deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers cannot exceed 1,550.
The agreement also allows the two countries to inspect each other’s weapons sites, though this was paused in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent years, the US has attempted to restart inspections, but US officials said last month that Russia was not in compliance with the terms of the New START Treaty because it had refused to allow inspections of its nuclear facilities on multiple occasions.
“In refusing to permit the United States to conduct inspection activities on Russian territory, based on an invalid invocation of the ‘temporary exemption’ provision, Russia has failed to comply with its obligation to facilitate US inspection activities, and denied the United States its right to conduct such inspection activities,” the US State Department concluded in a report.
According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), the potential collapse of the New START Treaty could potentially lead to the US and Russia expanding the size of their respective nuclear arsenals, which would have serious global implications. “These moves could trigger reactions in other nuclear-armed states, some of whom might also decide to increase their nuclear forces and the role they play in their military strategies,” FAS said in a February report.
Russia’s foreign ministry has said it will still adhere to the limits of the New START Treaty, but past problems with compliance with this and other agreements call this commitment into question.
A ‘dangerous’ new nuclear era
Even though Putin only announced Tuesday that Russia will suspend its participation in the treaty, the country had already more or less done this by blocking on-site inspections and refusing to meet to resolve any issues, Hans Kristensen, the director of the nuclear information project at FAS, told Insider.
“The only other thing I think they could do would be to stop exchanging data with the United States about what their nuclear forces are. They’re required to do that twice a year,” Kristensen said. Additionally, Russia could stop notifying the US if it moves its nuclear forces or carry out exercises, which it is required to do under the treaty.
Earlier Tuesday, Kristensen wrote on social media that Putin’s announcement has put the treaty on “life support.”
If the treaty completely falls apart, the two sides could revert to “worst case scenario planning,” he explained. In the US, “that would mean removing a fundamental assumption under long-term strategic nuclear planning — that Russian forces, no matter what happens, would not exceed the New START force level.”
Andrey Baklitskiy, a researcher with the weapons of mass destruction program at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, said Russia’s suspension will effectively axe the exchange of information and notifications between the two countries.
“Suspension of the treaty is not equal to leaving the treaty, I assume there will be no Russian build-up above the treaty limits. But there will be much fewer opportunities to verify this (only national technical means), so compliance will be disputed,” Baklitskiy wrote in a thread on social media.
In another post, he wrote that “God only knows where we will end up, noting that “it’s bad and could and probably will get worse.”
Jon Wolfsthal, a senior advisor to Global Zero, which is an organization that works to eliminate nuclear weapons, warned that Putin’s decision could threaten decades of relative nuclear constraint enjoyed by the US and Russia, which have pulled out of other arms control treaties, like the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
“We are in the middle of a very dangerous new nuclear era, and one where we really need to understand the risks — both to American security and allied security,” he said in a Twitter Spaces conversation.