Interview: Steve Fetter on the meaning of Putin’s New START announcement

By John Mecklin | February 21, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin during his address on launching a "special military operation" in Ukraine on February 24, 2022. (Credit: | CC BY 3.0)

With the announced suspension of Russia’s participation in New START, the future prospects for nuclear arms control seem dim. For perspective on what the suspension does and doesn’t mean for US-Russia relations and future nuclear arms control efforts, I spoke Tuesday with University of Maryland policy expert Steve Fetter. Fetter served for five years in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama Administration, where he led the environment and energy and the national security and international affairs divisions. He has also worked on nuclear policy issues in the Pentagon and the State Department and has been a visiting fellow at Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

John Mecklin: What do you think President Putin’s intent was in announcing the Russian suspension from New START?

Steve Fetter: Well, it’s hard to know. Because first, it isn’t clear what suspension means. Inspections were already suspended, and Russia was refusing to restart them.

Steve Fetter

And if that’s the only measure, then it doesn’t really have much effect. There’s nothing new. I suppose Putin was trying to escalate, if not militarily, then diplomatically escalate the conflict with the United States over Ukraine. And perhaps it was a direct response to the US claim that Russia was not in compliance with the treaty because it was refusing to restart inspections. I think maybe Putin has to demonstrate to his own people that he’s standing up to the United States in some way. And this is a way of signaling this.

But it really is difficult to understand the decision, because Putin is saying he’s doing this because relations are so bad between the United States and Russia, but this just makes relations worse. And it’s not clear how this is in Russia’s interest.

Mecklin: So how do you think the United States and NATO should respond, if at all?

Fetter: Well, I think we should respond by asking Putin to reconsider the decision, by pointing out that it is in Russia’s interests, as well as the United States’, to avoid an unconstrained nuclear competition, an arms race. We should be able to pursue our strong shared interest in avoiding an arms race and in supporting the nonproliferation regime. We were able to do this during the Cold War, even during the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars, when we were on opposite sides of those conflicts. That did not prevent us from engaging in arms control negotiations and treaties. And the war in Ukraine makes New START even more important by providing some stability and predictability in the strategic nuclear relationship.

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So I think we should point this out; we should not make any hasty moves. We should, of course, remain in compliance, and call on Russia to comply with the treaty.

Mecklin: What do you think the part of his statement about nuclear testing was about? I don’t know of any US move to resume testing.

Fetter: No, no, none. In the speech, I believe Putin said that if the US tests that they will respond, they will also test. But we have no plan to test. So I find that mildly reassuring, because the United States has absolutely no plans to resume nuclear testing. And there would be no point in doing it. And even if we wanted to, it would take a long time to prepare to do any tests. I assume the same is true for Russia, that it would take years to resume any testing that would have any scientific or technical merit.

So I think that was just a throwaway line. I hope it was a throwaway line.

Mecklin: On another slight tangent in the speech: There’s a mention of Ukraine using drones, with the United States’ help, to attack facilities that have some connection to Russian strategic nuclear assets. I know of nothing like that; do you?

Fetter: Well, there were reports of attacks against two air bases in Russia; it is my understanding that Ukraine has never accepted responsibility for those attacks. I believe it is the case, though, that Russia has carried out attacks against Ukraine from those air bases. And that those air bases are bases where strategic nuclear weapons are based.

But to my knowledge, the US had no involvement whatsoever in in whatever attacks may have taken place, and I really don’t see how this bears on compliance with the New START Treaty. I guess Putin is alleging that somehow inspections would compromise the security of those bases. But that’s difficult to understand, because the location of those bases is well known. And there’s nothing that inspectors would learn during an inspection that would facilitate any attacks by Ukraine.

Mecklin: Let’s say inspections under New START stay off the table and don’t ever restart. What is it that the United States and Russia lose that they don’t get from satellites?

Fetter: Well, that’s a that’s a good question. And I guess it depends on what other measures that Russia might take in this suspension. If it’s just the continuation of a suspension of inspections, that’s concerning—but as you say, we can maintain a lot of our knowledge through data exchanges that are required by the treaty, combined with national technical means, with satellites and other intelligence.

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But if Russia suspended those data exchanges, if Russia took measures to interfere with national technical means, to camouflage activities—the treaty prohibits that. That would be very concerning. If Russia took actions that appeared through national technical means to increase warhead levels above those permitted by the treaty, that would be extremely concerning.

In the last data exchange, I believe Russia was just below the level of permitted strategic warheads; it was at 1549 (deployed warheads), which is one below the level the limit of 1550. That could make it difficult for the US intelligence community to certify that Russia is in compliance with the limit. Now, even if Russia doesn’t violate the limit, it may be difficult or impossible, through national technical means alone, to verify that Russia is in compliance. And that’s concerning, because that could be used by critics in Congress, senators and representatives who are who are critical of arms control—that could lead them to demand that the Biden ministration declare that Russia is not in compliance and take countervailing measures.

Mecklin: That leads to my last question, which is: What does this say about a future for arms control? It’s a complicated world, with China growing its arsenal, all sorts of things going on. What’s your outlook?

Fetter: It is difficult to be an optimist about the future of arms control in the current environment. New START is the last remaining treaty between the US and Russia that limits our deployed weapons. And it already been difficult to see how we could negotiate a follow-on treaty, because New START will expire in 2026. And now it’s looking difficult to even maintain New START through 2026.

So I think the best that we can do is try to do our best to maintain compliance while waiting for the situation to change, waiting for the war to end in Ukraine. And hoping that at that point, there will be an opportunity to reopen arms control discussions, resume inspections with Russia. But it’s hard to know when that will be possible, and very hard to know how the war in Ukraine will end.

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Keith McIntyre
Keith McIntyre
1 year ago

The cost of nuclear arsenal maintenance is a huge deterrent for America. Russia’s costs must be similar and they have less money to work with. Both of these facts will keep a lid on expanionist ideas for both countries. The countries currently pursuing bigger arsenals seem very motivated to continue their efforts regardless of world opinion and their own economic limitations. We are still using 1980’s nuclear weapon technology. Sooner or later a country will decide to break out of the pack and start innovating with radically new weapons. This is a very complicated subject. Dr. Theodore Taylor published an… Read more »