On 21 February, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would suspend its participation in New START, the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between the world’s two nuclear superpowers: Russia and the United States.
This is a disappointing, unimaginative but unsurprising step from which nobody benefits.
And from which we all may lose. Including Russia.
The full and formal title of New START is the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. It was signed by Russia and the USA in Prague on 8 April 2010 (so it’s sometimes known as the Prague Treaty). It is called START as an acronym for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and New because it came after START I (an agreement that expired in 2009), START II (an agreement that never came into force) and START III (an agreement on which talks never began). With that lineage, it’s not surprising the negotiators opted against trying for START IV and went for New instead.
New START entered into force on 5 February 2011. The treaty obligates the two parties to each reduce their strategic nuclear weapons stockpiles as follows:
- Deployed ICBMs, SLBMs (i.e., submarine-launched ballistic missiles) and heavy bombers to 700 in total;
- Warheads on deployed ICBMs and SLBMs and warheads counted for deployed heavy bombers to 1550; and
- Deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers and heavy bombers to 800 (i.e., a combined total of 100 strategic missiles and bombers could be kept in reserve).
New START allowed time for the reductions in force numbers to be achieved and set a deadline for them of 5 February 2018. The reductions were achieved in time by both sides.
The crumbling architecture of arms control
One by one the pillars of nuclear arms control between Russia and the USA have been pulled down over the past two decades. The process started with the USA’s withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001. It continued with what the USA regarded as Russian non-compliance with the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty); the Obama administration raised the issue with Russia in 2013 and first publicised it in 2014. In 2018, the USA under the Trump administration announced it would withdraw from the INF Treaty and did so the following year.
That left only New START. It was extended in February 2021, a few days before it was due to expire, by agreement between the new Biden administration and Russia. Looking ahead at that time, things looked difficult and the two governments would have to work hard on developing a new treaty on strategic weapons, and faced a host of other arms control issues, but things also looked possible.
That was then. What of now?
Suspension not withdrawal
President Putin has not withdrawn Russia from the treaty, he has suspended Russia’s participation. In principle, any time, he can reactivate it.
This action does not mean Russia is planning to breach the treaty’s limits on missiles, bombers, warheads and bombs. Nor does it mean that the USA will. It does not directly add to the risk of nuclear weapons being used either deliberately or as a result of misunderstanding, miscommunication or technical accident.
But it is disappointing and negative for several reasons. It has created uncertainty, especially about Russia’s intentions. This is probably deliberate, but it could also be dangerous in today’s atmosphere of heated animosity. This uncertainty might make no difference to the already abominably poor relations and low levels of mutual trust between Russia and the USA but it will almost certainly make it harder to improve relations. In that sense, it makes existing difficulties worse.
It is also likely to increase the already significant difficulties of preserving the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the world’s main barrier against more states getting nuclear weapons. Confidence in this international agreement is already suffering among many of its non-nuclear parties because the nuclear weapon states who are parties to it (China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA) continue to be just that – nuclear weapon states – with little-to-no current sign of moving in a non-nuclear direction. The delayed NPT Review Conference in August 2022 came close to agreement but failed because of US-Russian disagreement. Though that failure is not a necessarily fatal blow to the NPT, it is a long way short of being good news and a reason for good cheer. It was one of the less headlined aspects that made 2022 a pretty awful year.
Unsurprising and unimaginative
It was really pretty predictable that President Putin would have something to announce about New START in his speech on 21 February, a two-hour “state of the nation” address, a few days before the first anniversary of Russia’s illegal and unjustified invasion of Ukraine. There had been a build-up.
New START gave Russia and the USA the right to 18 visits to each other’s weapons sites during the course of a year. Since the Covid-19 pandemic started those inspections have been called off. Part of the problem now is that Russia has claimed that the USA’s sanctions-based travel restrictions have made it hard for Russian inspectors to get to US sites; it has therefore refused to allow US inspectors to Russian sites. And last November Russia deferred sine die a meeting of the bilateral commission established under the treaty to handle such problems.
In other words, a quiet escalation was under way. Putin has now pushed it to a new level. He did it to make a point. One wonders simply if there was no other way in which he could make a point without doing who knows how much damage to the future prospects of nuclear arms control and non-proliferation.
In case my way of expressing myself is too calm and abstract, what Putin has done could (but might not) seriously damage the chances of controlling weapons that can literally destroy life on earth and the chances of preventing their development by more states than currently have them. The stakes here are not small.
On the one hand you could say that nothing much has changed. This step was relatively predictable. The Russian foreign ministry has confirmed that Russia does not intend to breach the treaty limits and that it will continue to notify the USA about any long-range missile launches. Very likely, the USA will respond calmly.
On the other hand, standing in a pool of gasoline with a matchbox in hand, or dancing on the edge of a precipice, or simply walking blindfold through a minefield – pick your metaphor – it might turn out all right.
NB: After this post was up for a few days, I corrected a mistake in the year when the US Trump administration announced it would withdraw from the INF Treaty.