Russia’s suspension of nuclear pact brings US into new era of arms control
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s suspension of the last major nuclear arms treaty with the U.S. has shifted both nations into a more volatile era of engagement on weapons of mass destruction.
The threat of a nuclear conflict still remains low, according to international security analysts, even with the war in Ukraine and the now-suspended New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).
But the latest nuclear saber-rattling from the Kremlin once again raised the alarm and spiked fears that tensions are spiraling out of control.
Alicia Sanders-Zakre, a policy and research coordinator with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said this was a “dangerous and reckless move by Putin when tensions are already at the highest level.”
“This is the latest in a series of reckless, irresponsible, dangerous nuclear rhetoric coming from Russia, including explicit nuclear threats that have really led to elevated levels of nuclear risks,” Sanders-Zakre said, calling for a “global condemnation of any threats to use nuclear weapons.”
In his address to the Russian Federal Assembly, Putin slammed Western allies and NATO, accusing them of seeking to defeat Russia and of “hypocrisy and cynicism” for supplying Ukraine with weapons to attack Russian forces.
“And now they want to inspect our defense facilities?” Putin asked. “In the conditions of today’s confrontation, it sounds like sheer nonsense.”
The U.S. has condemned the decision to suspend New START.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the move “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible” during a Tuesday briefing but added that the Biden administration remains open to dialogue.
“We remain ready to talk about strategic arms limitations at any time with Russia irrespective of anything else going on in the world or in our relationship,” Blinken said. “It matters that we continue to act responsibly in this area. It’s also something the rest of the world expects of us.”
The New START treaty, first signed in 2010 during the Obama administration, caps both nations at 1,550 nuclear warheads and 700 missiles and bombers while also allowing members of both nations to inspect nuclear sites and facilities to ensure compliance.
The treaty was extended in 2021 for another five years, meaning it will now expire in 2026 unless extended. Putin has suspended the treaty but has not fully withdrawn from it — an important distinction.
Treaty inspections were paused during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but a bilateral commission was scheduled for November to resume the regulatory activity.
Moscow unilaterally postponed the November meeting and never gave any indication the talks would be rescheduled.
Last month, the Biden administration accused Russia of violating the treaty’s accords for the first time.
During his Tuesday address, Putin argued that Russia has been locked out of inspecting some U.S. nuclear facilities.
Just hours after his speech, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it would respect the caps on the number of nuclear weapons included in the treaty, Russian state media outlet TASS reported, and would continue to exchange information regarding test launches of ballistic missiles.
Monica Montgomery, a policy analyst with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said she viewed Putin’s announcement as a formalization of recent developments to halt the nuclear pact.
Amid numerous setbacks in the war in Ukraine, Putin is using the fear of nuclear warfare in a bid to get the U.S. and NATO to back down from continued support, Montgomery assessed.
“It’s all about Putin trying to save face … and find a way to continue to advance in Ukraine,” Montgomery said. “Putin is taking one of the last things that is still out there that is in the mutual interest of both countries.”
With the pact now suspended, the U.S. will have to shift into a strategy of surveillance in order to keep up with the nuclear developments in Russia.
But those surveillance methods, often tracked via orbiting satellites, are not nearly as effective as in-person inspections, bilateral talks and cooperative engagement.
Matthew Schmidt, an associate professor of national security, international affairs and political science at the University of New Haven, said the U.S. may have to increase its vigilance.
“The response the U.S. is going to make is to use our technical capabilities to increase monitoring,” Schmidt predicted.
The war in Ukraine has already pushed the Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds from midnight, the closest it’s ever been to the point of Armageddon.
By suspending New START, Russia is also violating the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, according to the Arms Control Association.
The nonproliferation treaty is signed by 191 nation members, including five nuclear powers that commit to a good faith effort toward disarmament. It was enacted after the Cuban Missile Crisis and went into effect in 1970.
Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, blasted Russia for suspending New START and urged Moscow to return to a nuclear pact with the U.S.
“Putin’s ‘suspension’ of New START harms Russia’s own security interests,” Kimball said in a statement. “Absent full implementation of treaty provisions, Moscow gains less insight and information regarding the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal.”
Montgomery, from the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said the suspension also raises the risk of nuclear weapons being used for political and military ploys across the world, particularly from ascending nuclear powers like North Korea and Iran.
“Russia as a nuclear power and a member of the Non-Proliferation treaty is showing other countries that nuclear weapons can be used as a tool to carry out reckless military and political aims,” Montgomery said.
“Russia right now is setting an example that nuclear arms control is not a priority,” she continued, and “they would risk tearing down one of the last remaining pillars of the arms control [treaty] at the expense of carrying out the war of aggression in Ukraine.”
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