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Putin Has Suspended Russia’s Role in the Nuclear Treaty. Is the Arms Race Back On?

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Putin Pulls Russia Back from New START Arms TreatySasha Mordovets – Getty Images

At the end of a lengthy, 100-minute speech doubling down on his invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Tuesday that he would “suspend” Russia’s participation in New START—the last remaining major arms treaty constraining the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia.

As a justification, Putin cited a brief spate of Ukrainian long-distance drone attacks on Russian bases used by strategic bombers launching cruise missiles at Ukrainian cities. Although these attacks are employed Soviet reconnaissance drones modified by UkrainePutin dubiously characterized the strikes on his nuclear-capable bombers as part of a US campaign “get at our nuclear facilities,” saying it was therefore “nonsense” to give US inspectors access.

Article XIV of New START does allow either party to withdraw from the treaty if “extraordinary events … have jeopardized its supreme interests.” But there’s no clause providing for any kind of “suspension” in the treaty, so it will therefore not be considered to have legal weight with Washington. Practically speaking, Putin’s announcement means Russia will not comply with treaty requirements to allow US inspectors to verify the size of its nuclear arsenal.

In fact, the State Department reported to Congress this January that Russia was already not in compliance for refusing inspection access to nuclear facilities, and failing to convene treaty-mandated bilateral meetings. While the inspection-based verification had been suspended during the COVID years, last fall, Russia indefinitely postponed a scheduled conference in Cairo.

Putin’s announcement could mark a fatal blow for New START, which was drafted following a meeting between former President Barack Obama Obama and Dimitry Medvedev in 2009, came into effect in February 2011, and then extended from 2021-2016 shortly after Joe Biden came to office .

Hear it from Ankita Panda, an expert on nuclear arms control, via Twitter:

“[The suspension] is a function of Putin’s broader strategy for dealing with the West amid the ongoing war…It now seems highly unlikely that New START will make it to Feb. 2026. All this said, Russia has no reasonable grounds for taking this step beyond a general desire to impose costs on the United States for supporting Ukraine. Should New START end, it will be entirely of Russia’s doing.”

Even dimmer, though, are prospects for a treaty to succeed New START at its expiration in three years, given the collapsed Washington-Moscow relationship since the latter invaded Ukraine.

Broadly, New START limits the US and Russia to actively deploying 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads—defined in the treaty as on platforms with a range exceeding 3,417 miles. It also specifically limits the number of deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and long-range bombers to 700 (or 800, including those not actively deployed). To meet treaty obligations, in the 2010s, the Pentagon removed its nuclear weapons capability B-1 bombersretired at least 30 ICBM silos, and reduced the number of functional missile-launching tubes on its Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines from 24 to 20.

New START may become the last of the Cold War nuclear arms control treaties killed off in the 21stSt century under the administration of Putin and US presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump including the Anti-Ballistic Missile treatythe Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF, which Russia violated by secretly developing a medium-range land-based cruise missile), and the Treaty on Open Skies. These variously constrained the size of forces committed to attacking or defending against nuclear attacks, saving hundreds of billions of dollars, while creating verification mechanisms to monitor adherence.

The Biden administration even offered to institute a new treaty banning medium-range missiles to replace INF in a failed effort to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine.

Putin’s suspensions come in the context of that disastrous warwhich has seriously undermined the capacity and credibility of Russia’s conventional military deterrence. Arguably, that means Russian nuclear deterrence now plays an even bigger role in constraining the US/NATO action, therefore reducing Moscow’s interest in strategic stability in favor of nuclear grand standing and brinksmanship.

Already, Moscow has played fast and loose with nuclear threats, and hosts of Russian-state run media aimed at domestic audiences regularly. contemplate nuclear attacks on the UK and US

Likely, Moscow sees the suspension of New START as a way of stoking fear of nuclear weapons employment in NATO, thereby discouraging military assistance to Ukraine, and creating a potential bargaining chip in which it could leverage returning to compliance with the treaty it signed in exchange for concessions.

New START never regulated the deployment of “non-strategic” nuclear weapons, ie those with a range less than 3,417 miles—the type of weapon Russia is at the highest risk of using in the context of its faltering war in Ukraine. Russia is believed to possess roughly 2,000 non-strategic weapons, including specialized anti-submarine, anti-ship, and air defense weapons, as well as land-based Iskander missiles, and (most numerous) air- and sea-launched land-attack cruise missiles that could hit targets across Europe. Meanwhile, the US maintains 230 B61 nuclear gravity bombs that can be dropped by short-range fighters, and which are shared with NATO allies.

Don’t let the term deceive you—any use of a nuclear weapon, even one with a small warhead and/or aimed at a battlefield target, is a norm-breaking strategic act with massive political repercussions. Russian military doctrine sees a potential role for limited use of nuclear weapons in attempting to persuade adversaries to back down (to “escalate to de-escalate”) or otherwise shape an adversary’s political decision-making.

However, it may create domestic pressure on Washington to leave the treaty in retaliation, at which point Moscow could spin such a development as reflecting the US’s aggressive stance.

The US’s satellite and signals intelligence capabilities, known as “National Technical Means,” are likely sufficient to monitor the activity of Russia’s nuclear forces, although Washington would still prefer to restore the mutual transparency afforded by treaty inspections. However, the utility of new if the Russian leader is ready to abandon compliance on dubious grounds is open to question.

Realistically, any short-term expensive expansion of Russia’s nuclear forces will be significantly constrained by negative economic growth and resources diverted to its war through Ukraine, which has voraciously consumed a large share of Russia’s more modern armored vehicles, artillery ammunition, and cruise and conventional ballistic missiles. In fact, many Russian cruise missiles equipped to deliver nuclear warheads have been repurposed with conventional warheads for use against Ukraine.

Difficulties importing microelectronic components due to Western sanctions have also negatively affected Russia’s development and deployment of new weapon systems like the Okhotnik stealth dronethe Su-57 stealth fighterand the T-14 tank.

On the other hand, Russian development of exotic new nuclear-delivery systems including inter-continental range nuclear drone torpedoesthe RS-28 Sarmat ICBMa nuclear-powered cruise missileand hypersonic missiles predate the war.

A reinvigorated nuclear arms race might see the US accelerate or expand the procurement of forthcoming new ones B-21 Raider stealth bombers, Columbia-class submarinesAGM-181 LRSO cruise missiles and Sentinel ICBMs. Theoretically, the US might also seek to reintroduce nuclear capability to various air- and submarine-launched cruise missiles and new hypersonic weapons. Such investments could come at the expense of conventional military capabilities, however.

Broadly, a renewed nuclear arms race could increase the potential destructiveness of a nuclear war while resulting in trillions of dollars being redirected by multiple countries away from combating climate changepreparing for pandemics, famine prevention, disaster response and other pressing needs—a tragedy for everybody on the planet.

However, an effective treaty requires genuine commitment from both participants. And most likely any future arms control treaties will have to move beyond the two-party Cold War format due to concerns over the expanding nuclear arsenal of Chinaand the increasingly unhelpful distinctions between strategic and “tactical” nuclear weapons.

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