On Tuesday, in his long-delayed state-of-the-nation address, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Moscow would suspend its participation in the New START nuclear arms treaty, but not withdraw from it. Putin added that Russia stands ready to resume nuclear weapons tests if the United States does.
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is the only bilateral nuclear arms control agreement between the United States and Russia, which possess the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals and more than 90 percent of its nuclear warheads.
Since 2010, New START has limited the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and 700 delivery vehicles each. In addition, the treaty allows each party to conduct 18 on-site inspections every year. New START is set to expire in February 2026—three years from now.
Echoing his president, a Russian lawmaker told TASS, the Russian state-owned news agency, that Moscow may “denounce” New START if the United States continues to ignore Russian calls to reconsider the way it is implemented. The “[treaty’s] implementation needs to be clarified,” the lawmaker added. This request for clarification left experts both perplexed and puzzled as to why a treaty that has been working properly for over a decade suddenly would need clarification, with no party having changed its posture.
Putin’s speech was quickly followed by a flurry of comments on Twitter from nuclear policy experts about the significance and consequences of his decision to suspend New START.
Jon Wolfsthal, a senior advisor at Global Zero and a member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, warned that both the United States and Russia have many more nuclear weapons and delivery systems in reserve that they could deploy if the treaty goes away. But Wolfsthal lowered concerns that Putin’s decision would affect US security: “[The United States] still has extensive ability to monitor Russian nuclear forces even without a treaty in place.” Laura Kennedy, a former US ambassador to Turkmenistan and US permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, also cautioned about the political implications: “Putin is also aiming to unsettle the US domestic political situation. Here too, important that we not take the bait, but consult and respond appropriately.”
Hans Kristensen, a researcher at the Federation of American Scientists and co-author of the Bulletin’s nuclear notebook, said that New START and nuclear arms control were important to Russia’s security too: “Without it, [the United States] could double [its] deployed arsenal.” Matt Korda, also at the Federation of American Scientists and co-author of the nuclear notebook, reacted: “This is a massive own-goal by Putin. Russia benefits from New START just as much as the United States. This decision is clearly political and emotional, not strategic.” Korda added that the expected biannual data exchange scheduled for March 1, 2023, “presumably won’t happen now.” This is a “huge loss for transparency,” he added.
James Acton, co-director of the Nonproliferation Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, had a pithier initial reaction on Twitter: “Well, this sucks.” With less transparency comes more uncertainty about the other party’s deployed nuclear forces, with a possible increase in the perceived threat, Acton said: “There’s an assumption that, by ‘suspending’ [rather than withdraw from] New START, Putin is signaling an intention to stay below the central limits. I think this is *probably* right but, in my opinion, there’s real uncertainty here.” Wolfsthal went further adding that “the loss of agreements will increase uncertainty and chances of misunderstanding, inflate threat perception and fuel accelerating arms race.”
Experts were also worried about the long-term consequences of Putin’s decision. In a Twitter space, Monica Montgomery, a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation said: “It’s not a change on any posture on the ground, but it is a concerning development [for] the long-term future of arms control.” Others were even more pessimistic. François Heisbourg, a senior advisor for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a special adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research, said on Twitter that the “US-Russian arms control is officially dead after more than a half a century,” referring to Putin’s decision. “[The United States] remains a superpower. [Russia] now becomes just a power with nukes,” Heisbourg concluded.
While many were hopeful that Putin would use his speech to announce that Russia would be pulling out of Ukraine, instead the partial pullout he announced involves New START. But Putin’s decision to suspend New START was not exactly a jaw-dropping surprise. It came after a series of decisions had already started to undermine the treaty in recent years. On-site inspections under New START have been suspended since 2020—first due to the COVID-19 pandemic and now because of the war in Ukraine. Last year, Russia postponed a meeting of the Bilateral Consultative Commission, the treaty’s implementing body, planned for November 2022. In addition, Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine has reduced the prospects that a follow-on agreement could be negotiated before New START expires in 2026.
Putin’s suggestion on Tuesday that Russia could resume nuclear testing has so far received less attention than the announcement of a New START suspension. It was not clear why Russia alluded to the United States possibly resuming nuclear testing.
Nuclear weapons tests have had a record of wide and long-lasting impacts on military personnel, populations, and the environment. A resumption of nuclear testing would put an end to a global moratorium in place since Cold War times.
Putin’s decision happened while US President Joe Biden made a surprise visit in Ukraine to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky and offer his administration’s “unwavering support” against Russian forces. In his address, the Russian president put the blame for his decision on the United States and its NATO allies for openly seeking to inflict a “strategic defeat” on Russia in Ukraine.
Later on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered the first official US reaction. Addressing journalists from the US embassy in Athens, Blinken qualified Russia’s decision as “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible,” but added “it matters that [the United States] continues to act responsibly in this area. It’s also something the rest of the world expects of us.”
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