By Lindsay Potter
President Putin announced in his national address on February 20 that he is suspending Russian participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The treaty was signed in 2010 and given a five year extension in 2021. It binds Russia and the U.S., who together boast over 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, to limit their arsenals and permit up to 18 inspections a year to verify compliance. New START allows up to 1,550 nuclear warheads and 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and nuclear-equipped bombers – an arsenal large enough to cause massive human suffering and environmental apocalypse which begs the usefulness of any treaty that does not require elimination of all nuclear weapons. Set to expire in 2026, with no new negotiations underway, both the U.S. and Russia argue the other is not in compliance. The Kremlin points to U.S. provocation as cause for its decision to withdraw from the Treaty – accusing the U.S. of perpetrating a war against Russia by escalating the conflict in Ukraine in order to weaken Russia in a strategic defeat. In the eyes of Moscow, this changes the posture of the two nations and is tantamount to a U.S. treaty violation, as it attempts to undermine Russian national security. Furthermore, Putin accused the West of efforts to attack Russian strategic air bases and asserted the U.S. is skirting limitations on the number of deployed nuclear warheads capped by the Treaty. Russia refused an attempt to restart inspections in November and has since been out of compliance.
The U.S. has its own deep history of abandoning arms agreements, because it finds the other party to be offensive to national security interests. After the U.S. armed Ukraine with billions of dollars in ammunition, rockets, tanks, and now possibly fighter jets, and as evidence mounts proving the U.S. orchestrated terrorist attack on the Nordstream pipeline, it would be reasonable for the Kremlin to consider the U.S. antagonistic. Putin said his decision was based partly on indication the U.S. may begin testing nuclear weapons once more, which violates New START, and Putin clearly asserted Russia would do the same only if the U.S. does so first.
Though the move is escalatory, Russian officials hedged the decision, reminding pundits that Putin merely suspended the treaty rather than withdrawing altogether. Russia says it will observe limitations on nuclear warheads and nuclear missile carriers as well as continuing to notify the U.S. of nuclear deployments to “prevent false alarms,” and maintain “strategic stability,” according to remarks by defense ministry official Major-General Yevgeny Ilyin. Risks to global security include the likelihood of less transparency on arsenals on both sides. However, Russian leaders and Biden asserted the decision does not signal an increased risk of a nuclear war.
Russia clearly outlined olive branches the U.S. could extend to bring Russia back to New START – such as earnest efforts at de-escalation in Ukraine and inclusion of British and French nuclear weapons in the Treaty. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “Everything will depend on the position of the West. … When there’s a willingness to take into account our concerns, then the situation will change.” The U.S. must show restraint in no longer being held accountable by the Treaty and remember that, in 2021, Biden, Putin, and other leaders of nuclear-armed nations signed onto a reiteration of Gorbachev and Reagan’s 1985 observation that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Headlines of nuclear threat flow constantly from U.S. media coupled with no demand the U.S. and NATO ratchet down their nuclear posture, alone in maintaining a first-use policy. As the faint peeping of reluctance to continue funding and arming Ukraine has pierced the media wall lately, this New START development may be used to rally the war cry and whip up renewed public enthusiasm, to foreshadow deepening U.S. and NATO involvement in Ukraine, perhaps beyond the veil of proxy.